The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.
But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality —
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.
For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down — they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.
NOTES: It was a mild and beautiful and extended autumn here in the Pacific Northwest, but the rains and winds have returned, knocking most of the remaining leaves off the trees over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Oak trees are not as plentiful here as they are back in the Midwest, where this poem was written some 35 years ago. But if there is an oak around, you can bet it will be hanging onto its leaves long after all the other trees have shed theirs.
“We’ll sell no wine before its time,” we’re told.
The fat and famous spokesman made it clear,
Each vintage has its period of gold.
(You must assess the pressing and the year.)
So, likewise, for each vintage comes a time
The point past which there’s no return at all.
Decay and oxidation work their crime,
And turn your sweetest nectar into gall.
So come, my dear, what are we waiting for?
Our cellar holds a few more bottles still.
Pick one and brush away the dust before
Time turns its contents back to must — time will.
Cast off our caution and our clothes and pour,
And drink with joy until we’ve had our fill.
Notes: The news lately has been filled with dreadful reports: mass shootings in Las Vegas, bombings in far-away lands, vile behavior by the powerful of Hollywood.
Because I know that mankind is fallen, I have no confidence in “human nature.” But my innate positive outlook this week has been shaken.
When the week began, I learned that the son of a friend and former colleague had been one of the wounded in the Las Vegas mass shooting. He had been a law enforcement officer for over 20 years and had never been shot, nor shot anyone in the line of duty.
And then he was shot in the neck and shoulder while he was attending a country music concert.
Thankfully, he survived and is on the mend today, and should be okay.
Then, the news about the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal broke. My Facebook feed has been filled not only lurid stories of the rich and famous, but heartbreaking firsthand accounts from women I know who have suffered in silence from heinous actions of abusers.
The sheer amount of #me too is overwhelming.
Evil is real and more common than we want to admit.
One particularly poignant series of posts has made me reassess my own hometown experience.
I’ve written glowingly about my childhood and my hometown and my education.
As I have processed the new information, I must admit that — depending on where you stood — my hometown could have been more Twin Peaks than Mayberry RFD.
There was stuff going on back there that I had no idea about.
So, in the face of horror and dread, I will resort to a place of solace and peace.
I will celebrate love, and marriage, and monogamy.
I will seek to find meaning and comfort in order and rhyme and meter.
When the society and the culture seems to be disintegrating, I will look to the good examples I have in my life and celebrate faithfulness and honor and love.
I really don’t know what else to do.
I’m old enough to remember when Orson Welles became a television pitchman for a sort-of-good American wine.
Welles had been the genius who panicked the nation in 1938 with his faux-documentary radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds.” In 1941, he directed and starred in “Citizen Kane,” considered to be among the best — if not the best film of all time.
By the late 1970s, Welles was making commercials. His Paul Masson spots are still classics.
“We will sell no wine before its time,” was a magnificent slogan.
When I came to his poem “Touch Me,” I had to pause. This poem seemed to be hitting some of same notes. Much deeper, but with little glimpses of the same melody.
The two poems are very different on the surface — mine is a sonnet, his is free verse. He makes different observations about nature.
But the season is the same — late summer. And there is something similar in the underlying emotion. Here’s his poem:
Touch Me –Stanley Kunitz
Summer is late, my heart. Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only, ++++++++++++++ and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
Late summer’s sun has baked the grass to brown.
The days grow shorter with each passing day,
Soon, autumn’s chill will make the leaves fall down.
All of this aching beauty will decay.
And yet I love the shadows’ slanting trace,
The once green grain gone golden in its rows,
And how I love the lines etched in your face.
It’s funny, as love ripens how it grows.
The number of our days we do not know.
No sleeper knows if he will ever wake.
So come, let’s join above, between, below.
My dear, let’s cause our fragile clay to quake.
Let us make love as if it’s our last go.
Let us embrace like dawn will never break.
NOTES: It’s not really late summer yet, but it feels like it. It has been hot and dry, giving us the sense of late August when July hasn’t even ended.
The seasons seen to come and go more quickly of late. Perhaps I’m paying closer attention. Perhaps I realize more summers now lie behind me than still ahead.
Something in the air caused me to pull this sonnet out of the vault today. I snapped the photo on my late afternoon walk.
Wafting comes the mower’s comforting hum,
Assuring all is just as it should be.
Our gates and fences all are rightly plumb,
We celebrate our capability.
New curbs and gutters sluice away wild rain,
Alarms and locks protect our doors from breach,
Our lives arranged to minimize our pain,
Designed to keep us safely out of reach.
But wreaking roots upheave the sidewalk path,
And worms devour our precious woolen thread,
The black and red mold creep into our bath,
Insomnia disturbs our peace in bed.
Despite our engineering and our math,
Our paradise is something less instead.
NOTES: Summertime has finally come to the Pacific Northwest. It seems fitting to haul out this sonnet from last year.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate material comforts and modern conveniences. Probably even more than most of my friends and colleagues.
I was born in the middle of the last century, and started out life on a farm that was primitive, even for that time.
How primitive? Well, we milked our own cow, raised our own chickens for eggs, butchered our own hogs, and raised our own vegetables in the garden.
For special occasions and Sunday dinners, Mother would grab one of the slower chickens, chop off her head, and fry her up.
When we sold our farm to the Amish, they took one look at the house, and commenced on an immediate upgrading and remodeling project.
As for me, I was delighted in my new home in a Missouri farm town of 12 thousand souls. For the first time in my life I had my own room, central heat, and indoor plumbing.
I could take a bath in something that wasn’t a galvanized wash tub in the middle of the kitchen floor. In freshly drawn water that hadn’t been previously used by other members of the family.
I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I didn’t even notice that we didn’t have air conditioning, even when the Missouri summer visited its triple digit heat and humidity upon us.
So, I am thankful for many things. I am so thankful I can enjoy sardines from Norway and wine from France.
I am grateful for antibiotics, and the miracles of modern medicine. I missed the polio epidemic, but just barely. Had I been just a couple of years older, I could have suffered withered limbs or worse, like the older brothers and sisters of some of my friends who were not so fortunate.
All of my ancestors as far back as I can research were dirt farmers. I am grateful for a professional job in a meaningful enterprise. (Inside work. No heavy lifting.)
Many years ago, when I moved out to Seattle, we settled in the suburbs because — even then — the city was too expensive. We made a serendipitous choice, because our little suburb has become a highly desirable place for Microsoft employees coming here to live from all over the world.
I choose to walk the old familiar ways,
To wend ways where I’ve put my foot before,
To gaze anew on views seen other days,
Which, though familiar, never seem to bore.
The changing light and seasons have their ways
Of making old things new: The light-laced hoar,
The first-flush, green-glow, bursting-forth spring days,
The growing tinge of gold we can’t ignore.
Each day, my dear, I choose afresh our trail,
The one we blazed so many years ago,
Eschewing other routes that might avail,
And hewing to the well-worn way we know.
Forsaking novelty need be no jail
With your face bathed in sunset’s golden glow.
NOTES: Thirty-two years of marriage and never a dull moment.
The old hometown is aging, as am I,
The once wide streets grow narrow with the years,
As night descends, you all but hear a sigh,
For what once was has gone, and twilight nears.
Now friends and kinsmen number fewer, too,
And memories fade like the painted sign
Proclaiming that the city “Welcomes You!”
Strange how one’s soul and place so intertwine.
Life used to bustle round our stately square
‘Til commerce shifted to the edge of town.
The grand facades are now much worse for wear,
Some landmarks have been torn completely down.
The business of my life took me elsewhere,
Cracks grew in walkways of both man and town.
NOTES: I must ask forgiveness for reposting this poem so soon. But one of the photos sent to me from my old friend and schoolmate has made it necessary to repeat myself.
Quick explanation: During my junior year of high school, our school hosted a foreign exchange student from Japan. Susumu jumped into the life of a Missouri farm town with both feet. Among other activities, he participated in music competitions and he landed a role in our semi-annual school musical. Ironically, that year we were producing “South Pacific,” which took place against the backdrop of the U.S. war against Japan.
Susumu was a real sport, even when his role as Lieutenant Cable involved him talking about “Japs.”
Susumu took some photos during his year in my hometown, and he shared them with me recently. The photographs are full of beauty and nostalgia for me.
The shot above is an image I’ve been seeking for a long time.
I actually had something quite like it in mind when I wrote this poem.
The shot is of the southeast corner of our town square. The large, 4-story brick building that dominates the scene is the original Farmers Savings Bank.
The east side of our square was clearly the “serious” side of the square. If you could just see a bit more to the left in the photo, you would see the other bank in town, Wood & Huston, which anchored the northeast corner of the square.
The Farmers Savings Bank was a landmark. I still remember walking in there for the first time in the mid-60s with my dad to open my first savings account. I had landed a job detasseling corn with DeKalb, and needed to sock my money away in a safe place.
My memory of the bank was dark wood, glass and really fancy tile or stone floors. I could be completely wrong. But that is the impression the place left on me.
It definitely gave me the experience that banks at one time strived for: Substantial, important, unshakeable, solid, eternal.
I also have another memory of that building. I’m not sure if this is a real memory or if I imagined it. The memory goes like this: I’m with a couple of my buddies, and somehow we gain access to the hallways of the offices that occupy the stories above the bank.
We explore and when we get to the top floor, we open a door and, behold — inside is a Masonic Temple, with its colorful and elaborate falderal. A exotic stage set for a play with curtains and colorful, elaborate props. A sense of mystery and danger.
We don’t stay long.
Sadly, sometime after I departed my hometown for college, the bank was torn down to make way for a more modern, low-slung and efficient building. I’m sure that was the fashionable thing for banks to do in that era.
I always hated what that demolition did to the look of the square. The old bank building had been a solid landmark one could count on. Solid. Now it was gone.
Most bank buildings I walk into these days (and only when I must), seem more like low-rent office buildings. Nothing impressive or awe-inspiring about them. Designed with the corporate stock price firmly in mind. Designed to encourage you to skip coming inside and avail yourself of the ATM outside instead.