Welcome

“The spirit of man is nomad, his blood Bedouin, and love is the aboriginal tracker on the spoor of his lost self; and so I come to live my life not by conscious plan or prearranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird.”
~
Sir Laurens van der Post

Welcome to Recovering Words. And the re-designed homepage! (For current subscribers to my Blog please note it is now on my home page! Below this Welcome! Also note that the recycling poetry quotes are there on the right!)

This is a site that celebrates the craft and healing art of poetry and offers details of upcoming poetry writing retreats and workshops. And includes my frequent blog on poetry!

Not just an art form, poetry can take a life in surprising directions. Very much as the way van der Post describes his bird in the epigraph above. That bird may be called many things by many people but for me it is the mystery at the heart of my life and at the heart of poetry. It’s what seems to see me more clearly than I do; seems to be what guides and writes my most lasting words.

Jane Hirschfield, the American poet captures this so clearly: The poet, pursuing a vessel to hold something known, finds what the poem may know that the poet as yet does not. A strange paradox in life and poetry.

Please enjoy my site, comment on the articles or contact me directly with any questions.

Richard Osler
2013

Learning To Drown Above Water – The Poetry of Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal

 

One great feature at the annual Palm Beach Poetry Festival held in Delray beach, Florida every January is the craft talks given by each participating poet.  The one delivered this year by American poet Tim Siebles was a stand out.  Two reasons. First, because he introduced me to the Filipino American poet Patrick Rosal. And second, because of the way he knows how to recite a poem from memory and pull it through his mouth with such heat it sets an ear on fire. Hard to do especially with a well-known poem like Theodore Roethke’s poem In a Dark Time. But he did.

Sometimes a famous poem is so familiar it loses its kick. Well Seibles made the music inside Roethke’s poem kick ass – especially the lines - Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire./My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,/ Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I? To read Roethke’s poem click here.

It was the metaphors in Rosal’s poem Kundiman on a Dance Floor called Guernica. that Seibles wanted to highlight for his craft talk  but I have no doubt the beat of the music inside that poem was what made it an irresistible choice for him. It will come as no surprise after reading this poem that Rosal has spent a lot of time in dance halls and music venues as a break dancer, a DJ and a hip-hop poet. This man is mad for music. (Kundiman is a traditional Filipino love song.)

Kundiman on a Dance Floor Called Guernica

Don’t push me ‘coz I’m close to the edge
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head uh huh huh huh huh
— Ed Fletcher (a.k.a. Duke Bootre)

This woman and I are watching the b-
boys contort cocksure

swagger into dance Down
to the very ligament their bodies

are wattage their names writ in whiskey
and smoke their legs scribbling

into the room’s boned twilight
a gospel according to Duke

These dancers are thunder’s bastards
And at the borders of their human maelstrom

a woman’s hips are winding their own
slow vortex between my hands

We twist time with our waists
Each sweat-slick bass note hangs

in the room like a heavy bruise
healing its way to another storm

I am losing my hands to her
I am learning to drown

above water
But make no mistake

We think we are not in love
And no one can hear us

We are moaning for each other’s air.

Patrick Rosal from My American Kundiman, Persea Books, Inc, 2006
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Eyes Open, Uncovered To The Bone – Part Two – A Poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

What a delight it has been to discover the poet Brigit PegeEyes Wide Openen Kelly, author of three collections of poems and winner of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1987. Her third collection The Orchard was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Circle Critics Award. Grateful thanks to the Russian/American poet Ilya Kaminsky for suggesting I read her poems.

I want to feature in this post, Kelly’s poem Blessed Is the Field from her 2004 collection The Orchard. Not only is it a wonderful example of a “seeing” uncovered to the bone as Linda Gregg says in her poem Each Thing Measured By the Same Sun but it also connects with a deep and intentional spirituality that comes out of that seeing. In this way it turns into a muscular praise poem very much in the yes/no manner of the poem Try To Praise The Mutilated World by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. (I have included Zagajewski’s poem at the end of the post.)

Kelly’s poem could be renamed: I Dare You To Bless This Mutilated World! Her poem is longish but worth the read – not just once but numerous times. Here it is:
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Eyes Open, Uncovered to the Bone – Part One – A Poem by Linda Gregg

Eyes Wide OpenConfession. I am afraid to go on-line these days for fear of falling down the rabbit hole of April – Poetry Month. And the blogs pouring forth their bounty of poems. Overwhelming. Yet, here I am adding to the cataract of poetry. My problem is that I have my own closer-to-home welter of words. Piles of poetry books scattered across floors and desks. Enough books and poems for ten thousand Poetry Months!

 Today, in a two part post, I want to feature two poems from two books. In Part One, a poem by American poet Linda Gregg, whom I featured in my last blog. A line in a poem of hers has stayed with me for months  - Eyes open – uncovered to the bone. A marvellous line and reminder of what a poet’s job is but the line became especially activated in my imagination from a quote a friend sent me. Then, in a strange way, that line became even more insistent in my mind as I was reading a poem by American poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly whose poem Blessed Is the Field is featured in Part Two and is such an exquisite example of a seeing uncovered to the bone.

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Happiness in a Broken World – Two Poems

The German Wooden Matchbox Toy Which Became the Source of a Linda Gregg Poem

The German Wooden Matchbox Toy Which Became the Source of a Linda Gregg Poem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fertility of the poetic mind! As my good friend and poet Liz commented to me today it is so surprising and wonderful the places a poet can be taken by an image. I had Liz’s comment on my mind when I came across Linda Gregg’s poem: The Beckett Kit in a pile of e-mails from a workshop I took with her at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in January.

I have written about Gregg before mainly in relation to her former marriage to, and life-long friendship with, the American poet Jack Gilbert. But I had never registered this poem before. First off, the title is so arresting. And it helps condition the reader when the poem makes its surprising transition near its end.

And what a pleasure to discover how such a simple image of the match box toys could end up triggering a meditation on the fragility of happiness within a  world also filled with agony and horror.

As I re-read Gregg’s poem I was reminded of the poem Everything Is Going To Be All Right by the Irish poet, Derek Mahon. I need poems like his and Gregg’s to remind me to hold on even tighter to my joy and happiness in a broken world.

The Beckett Kit

I finally found a way of using the tree.
If the man is lying down with the sheep
while the dog stands, then the wooden tree
can also stand, in the back, next to the dog.

They show their widest parts
(the dog sideways, the tree frontal)
so that being next to each other
they function as a landscape.

I tried for nearly two months to use the tree.
I tried using it by putting the man,
standing, of course, very far from the sheep
but in more or less the same plane.
At one point I had the man almost off the table
and still couldn’t get the trees to work.
It was only just now I thought of a way.

I dropped the wooden sheep from a few inches
above the table so they wouldn’t bounce.
Some are on their backs but they serve
the same as the ones standing.
What I can’t get over is their coming right
inadvertently when I’d be content with any solution.

Ah, world, I love you with all my heart.
Outside the open window, down the street near the Hudson,
I can hear a policeman talking to another
through the car radio. It’s eleven stories down
so it must be pretty loud.
The sheep, the tree, the dog, and the man
are perfectly at peace. And my peace is at peace.
Time and earth lie down wonderfully together.

The blacks probably do rape the whites in jail
as Bill said in the coffee shop watching the game
between Oakland and Cincinnati. And no doubt
Karl was right that we should have volunteered
as victims under the bombing of Hanoi.

A guy said to Mishkin, “If you’ve seen all that,
how can you go on saying you’re happy?”

Linda Gregg from The New Yorker, May 5th, 1975

What a twist after the third to last stanza! Just after a moment of perfection – my peace is at peace - Gregg hits an opposite and bone-jarring note in the following stanza. She could have ended her poem in that moment of wonder but she opts to make that moment even more precious by the gritty reality that follows. Then the masterstroke of quoting from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Talk about coming at it slant. It is as if she is asking herself how she could have imagined her moment of happiness after all she has seen and heard. Then I, as the reader, to get to make my choice. I choose with Mishkin.

The following poem by Derek Mahon (1941 – ) is a long standing favorite of mine. At times when it doesn’t feel that anything is all right or going right for me or the world this poem is a necessary tonic! There will be dying, but there is no need to go into that.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Derek Mahon from Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 2000

The poems flow from the hand unbidden. Yes. And when I think of Gregg’s poem in particular how true that seems. I would be very surprised if she had any inkling where her poem was going to go when she began meditating on a silly little tableau of trees, sheep a dog and a farmer from a matchbox toy. But she did and I am happier and sadder for it.

 

The Sound You Make When You Die – Poets on Poetry

Grant Snider Does It Again!

Grant Snider Does It Again!

Big thanks to Barry Dempster, poet and editor, who posted this cartoon on Facebook today. Another remarkable cartoon rendering of poetry by cartoonist Grant Snider! In 2013 his cartoon Day Jobs of the Poets also zoomed around the net! ( I have included this cartoon at the end of the post.) And this guy, last time I looked, was training to be a dentist!!! Maybe I could ask him to tattoo some of his poems on my teeth!

His cartoon got me thinking of poems on poetry since his cartoon is “After Mark Strand”. (If anyone knows the Strand poem he is referring to please let me know.) I have included some “poems-on-poetry” favorites and one of mine which is a shameless take-off on Billy Collins much anthologized poem:

INTRODUCTION TO POETRY

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
And feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins from The Apple that Astonished Paris, University of Arkansas Press, 1996

I used Collins’ poem while leading poetry writing workshops at a high school a few years ago. Here is my “After Collins” version:

Put a Poem in a Classroom

And you might as well shake salt
on a leech or a slug. Chop the head
off a snake and show off the skin
in a case — talk about how beautiful it is;
or go to the house of a hunter
to see a lion, stuffed, on its haunches –
shot, before it could move or spring;
or park the Porsche in a warm garage,
jack it up, keep the tires off the floor;
or love a frog and never kiss it.

And for an x-rated version here is a stunner by the celebrated Canadian poet, the late Gwendolyn  MacEwan. For a definition of poetry this one takes the cake and any other metaphor (better than this one I hope) you can make up!

You Can Study It If You Want

One of these days after my thousandth poetry reading

I’m going to answer the Question right.

The question is Why Do You Write.

Every time I hear The Question I get this
purple blur in front of my eyes, and
I fear I will fall down frothing at the mouth
and spewing forth saliva and
mixed metaphors.

You can study it if you want, I’m just the one who gets to do it; or,

Don’t ask me I just work here.

You know the answer and still I have to say it:

Poetry has nothing to do with poetry.
Poetry is how the air goes green before thunder
is the sound you make when you come, and
why you live and how you bleed, and

The sound you make or don’t make when you die.

Gwendolyn MacEwan from Afterworlds, McClelland & Stewart, 1987

Thanks to American poet Dorianne Laux I have spent many hours reading American poet Ruth Stone who only achieved well deserved notice for her poetry in her eighties! Her answer to What is a poem? is this:

What Is a Poem

Such slight changes in air pressure,
tongue and palate,
and the difference in teeth.
Transparent words.
Why do I want to say ochre,
or what is green-yellow?
The sisters of those leaves on the ground
still lisp in the branches.
Why do I want to imitate them?

Having come this far
with a handful of alphabet,
I am forced
with these few blocks,
to invent the universe.

Ruth Stone (1915 – 2011) from What Loves Comes To, Copper Canyon Press, 2011

When I think of al the science on the elements formed by the death and collision of stars (the creation of iron, lead, gold and the like) I now will add, thanks to Stone, perhaps the most precious and heavy element of them all – words! Words that can describe a universe back to itself.

Snider Redux

Snider Redux

Poetry of Remembrance – Rwanda, April 6th, 1994

Photo: Sue Horton Faces of the Dead "On the Line" in the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Rwanda

Photo: Sue Horton
Faces of the Dead “On the Line” in the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Rwanda

 

Dedication

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Warsaw, 1945

Czeslaw Milosz, from The Collected Poems: 1931-1987, The Ecco Press, 1988

Twenty years ago today a presidential plane was shot down over Kigali, Rwanda. Thc death of the Hutu president of Rwanda in that crash set off a catastrophic chain of events that we now know as the 100 Days – the genoicide that engulfed Rwanda and left more than 800,000 dead in blood bath that defies description. 

Is there a poetry that can begin to approach or describe such a horror? The Nobel Prize Laureate Czeslaw Milosz in his celebrated poem Dedication included above, says a bold yes in this widely quoted verse from his poem:

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

The idea that a poem can make a constructive difference in the world or as Milosz says: save nations or people is a source of continued debate. But for me it is the only way to try and make sense of the madness of war and atrocity. To name it and in naming it to honour the victims and engage our own humanity in a revolt against the inhumanity that continues in many parts of the world including, so tragically, in Africa. If a poem can awake in a person an intimate revulsion against injustice and inhumanity I say that is enough.

To honour this heart-breaking anniversary I feature four poems written in response to the Rwandan genocide: a poem by me after a visit to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali in 2006 and another after a visit to the Rugerero Survivors Village in Rwanda in 2008; one by the accomplished American Poet Jane Hirschfield in 1994 in response to a news report at that time; and a poem by Derek Burleson who taught  in Rwanda from 1991 to 1993.

I offer these poems as Milosz does his. Will this offering dispel the ghosts and spectres of those atrocities? Will they appease the Rwandan dead as Milosz hopes his poem will appease the Polish dead of the Second World War? I cannot answer this. I just can hope these poems will help us remember and never forget what happened during that madness in Rwanda that began twenty years ago today; that perhaps they will encourage us not just to notice on-going horrors such as in Syria, Sudan and the Central African Republic, but to act, to make a difference. In a note included with Hirschfiel’s poem in an on-line site she says we noticed what was happening in Rwanda but we didn’t act! Perhaps poems like these might help.

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Migrations

Wild Geese

Wild Geese

Mid-March. The wild geese are back in the field in front of our house. They remind me of something I wrote back in November when they were heading the other way! Here it is:

This morning a flock of more than 150 wild geese flew overhead, the cacophony of their calls a perfected music. And later, I saw Trumpeter swans lazing on Quamichan Lake, near Duncan, British Columbia, sight and sound gone liquid. And the goslings, surely big enough now to be called young swans, floated with their necks cursive to the nib of beak asleep in each planet of back feathers, not yet, pure white.

And then, of a sudden, the adult swans’ woken-wings drummed the lake awake and something, sound, air’s absence, lifted them, lifted them, flying. And I, rooted to the spot, to this home by a lake, felt the absence of my own returnings, rhythms a season forgot to leave in my blood. But then, why this restlessness? Am I somehow still the exile, wanderer, wanting like these birds, the salmon, to make my way home? And what is, where is that home place if not where I live now?

Migrations, exile, leaving home, never coming back. These thoughts that fly in my mind on the wings and calls of migrating birds find unexpected company in a book. In a conversation contained in a language of railtracks, arrivals and departures. In a conversation between octogenarian John Berger – poet, artist, essayist and polymath (born in England but now living in France) –and Canadian novelist and poet Anne Michaels in their collaboration Railtracks published in 2012 by Counterpoint Press. Come close in. Overhear them:

JB – Ambushed by history, by the stench of dislocation, by every smell that does not belong to you, there is always one memory, one face that remains.

The man who has left his wife and his children, his old mother and his old father, does not yearn in his night for abstractions. He longs for the Sunday afternoon with his wife in their bed, for one word more than any other in his mother tongue. Both his politics and his despair are for a specific desire. And every migrant works for or against this reunion.

AM – A human migrant may never understand the language in which he dies.

When an animal migrates, the return in part of its journey. One could say an animal migrates for the sake of its return.

There is a man, perhaps he is your father too, born in the earliest years of this [20th] century, who no longer remembers his family, or how he earned his living, or where he lives… but still he remembers the moment he stepped from the train – via the great port cities of Gdansk, Le Havre, and Montreal – and entered the vastness of Union Station [Toronto].

Now with memories of how we leave and arrive — the sounds and smells– and the where –train station, airport, a driveway – listen to Canadian poet Stephanie Bolster as she remembers:

Train Windows

The first train came to me
like an unstoppable force.
I stood aside at Fredericton Junction
and let the speed and flare approach.
Wind flailed my hair, the gathered dark

dispersed. I found my room
of pull-out bed and pull-up blind.
A solitude so rare, uncracked, I
couldn’t sleep. Morning: I tugged

the shade and empty ponds appeared.
We were that close to something;
the surface still rippled.
We were late for Montreal, New York,

for the years that would come, were gone,
were here. Years of blurred views through
windows. The engine approached,
I was alone, I held my breath

and didn’t let it out. And haven’t.

Stephanie Bolster (1969 – ) from Pavillions, McClelland & Stewart, 2002

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Lane and Berry Redux – Two More Poems

Here are two more poems by Patrick Lane and Wendell Berry. Nothing scientific about the choices of poems. Just that these are poems I keep coming back to. Can’t let go.

I’ve long cherished Berry’s poem Marriage and its scope in trying to capture the complexities of that strange and wonderful institution. The poem has flashes of intimacy with the writer but not nearly as directly as Lane’s poem, Balsam Root, does. Lane’s poem is  not about marriage, far from it, but captures the raw intimacy of the narrator’s  memory of making love to a young woman in the B.C. landscape Lane knows so well.

Here is Berry’s poem:

Marriage

How hard it is for me, who lives
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you. I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

Wendell Berry from Collected Poems - 1957 to 1982, Northpoint Press, 1984

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Although this poem is short on specifics and concrete images the first lines of the poem decked me when I first read it and it still rocks me years later:

How hard it is for me, who lives
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.

The poet Stephen Dunn, in his book of essays on poetry Walking on Water, considers this a fine and successful poem. I do, too. But for me the salt image is what gives this poem its power, sustains the more abstract language that follows.

And having been married three times I have lived the truth of his last lines. And I can add that even though my first two marriages collapsed I can look back and see the healing in my spirit that has come because of those marriages. I know in my bones these truths:

I break from you. I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

Here is Lane’s very different poem:

Balsam Root

I don’t remember her name, think now
it might have been some kind of flower,
brown like balsam root before it breaks
into that yellow spring is, a single heave
that turns a desert into bloom. Like that,
brown, when she came to me up-country,
her small breasts high and white
so that I saw them not a part of her
and thought they’d burn in such harsh light.
I had gone into those hills
to live away from things, a bed alone
under ponderosa pine, the stars
as they were before the cities put them out.
She came walking barefoot on the shale,
some man’s daughter, fierce in her choice.
When I washed her in the flume after love,
She touched the blood as it mixed
With the cold come down from snow
and tasted herself. It was a time
when a man gone into hiding
could think a girl turned into a woman
wouldn’t know to take that much.
This is me, she said.
She said it like young balsam root
before it breaks to colour. She said it
like yellow would say when it dreams
itself yellow, before it is a flower,
all root and flesh in the dry earth.

Patrick Lane from The Collected Poems, Harbour Publishing, 2011

Patrick Lane

Patrick Lane

Lane’s poem haunts me in a very different way than Berry’s. It is image rich, few abstractions or big thoughts. The raw intimacy of it gut-punches me. This is me, she said./ She said it like young balsam root/before it breaks to colour. The narrator in Lane’s poem may not remember the woman’s name but he remembers something dearer, the essence of her that has remained. Fierce in her choice. This shocking comng of age. This sudden flowering and deflowering. Dare I say that Lane makes of this encounter something approaching holy. At least it feels that way for me.

Two very different poems. Very different poets. But men who both share a fierce attachment to the geographies that have made them. And as such it is such a pleasure  to profile them. Thee two outstanding literary figures exemplify lives lived to the full! But lived to the full so differently!

Berry was born in 1934 in Kentucky in Henry County where his families on both sides had farmed for at least six generations. He bought his own farm in 1965 where he still lives with his wife Tanya whom he married in 1957. While his attachment to his literal ground in Kentucky is central to his life and writing he also managed two long stints teaching English at the University of Kentucky and has been an activist in many areas. He has been a leading critic of environmental and economic policy and practice for many years. And his  literary output has been prodigious — more than forty books of poetry, essays, short stories and novels.

Lane, born in 1939 in the interior of British Columbia has had a much more disrupted life than Berry. Even though his emotional and writing life is still so firmly wedded to the place of his growing up in the interior of B.C. he also has a wanderer’s heart. For periods after his first marriage and then again after his second Lane spent time in South America and in towns and cities across Canada. It was only after he met his current wife, the poet Lorna Crozier that his peripatetic ways slowed way down.

For the past many years he has been rooted to the home he and Lorna have made in the Saanich peninsula on Vancouver Island near Sidney. But as important have been the unshakeable roots he has put down in his relationship with Lorna. That relationship has become its own place in his writing. The other place that has had a huge influence on his life and writing has been his forty year struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol that he has been in full recovery from since 2000.

There is a confessional intimacy and intensity in Lane’s writing not so evident in Berry’s poems. Although in his novels, through the lens of his characters, Berry does create intimate three dimensional portraits of his characters his own direct life is not so evident. Where Lane’s life comes into gritty and dramatic focus is in his riveting memoir - There Is A Season. Written during his first year of recovery it is an unflinching look at a life in all of its light and darkness.It is that book that triggered me to get to know his work through his poems and the man through his many writing retreats he has given on a regular basis for years.

Wendell Berry and Patrick Lane — How Darkness Comes Into The World — Part Two

Patrick LaneIn Part One of this post I discussed the striking similarities between two, in some aspects, very different poems by Wendell Berry ( A Poem On Hope) and Patrick Lane (Cougar). In Part Two I wanted to feature the full-length version of Berry’s poem and the recent convocation address by Lane that, in some ways, grew out of his poem Cougar, written many years ago.

Berry has been the more high-profile of the two men through his writing and well-publicized activism ranging from protesting the Vietnam War to a sit in a few years ago protesting the coal mining practices in Kentucky. And although both men have taught at universities, Lane unlike Berry, had no  formal university education. But like Lane he has won many honours for his writing which has been prolific, more than forty books – poetry, novels, short stories and essays. Lane has published more than 25 books – poetry,a  novel and a memoir.

Lane has come late to his public activism outside of what he expresses more privately and intimately in his poetry. But his November  2013 convocation address presented at the University of Victoria in British Columbia makes up for lost time. Here it is:

It is sixty-five years ago, you’re ten years old and sitting on an old, half-blind, grey horse. All you have is a saddle blanket and a rope for reins as you watch a pack of dogs rage at the foot of a Ponderosa pine. High up on a branch a cougar lies supine, one paw lazily swatting at the air. He knows the dogs will tire. They will slink away and then the cougar will climb down and go on with its life in the Blue Bush country south of Kamloops. It is a hot summer day. There is the smell of pine needles and Oregon grape and dust. It seems to you that the sun carves the dust from the face of the broken rocks, carves and lifts it into the air where it mixes with the sun. Just beyond you are three men on horses.

The men have saddles and boots and rifles and their horses shy at the clamour of the dogs. The man with the Winchester rifle is the one who owns the dog pack and he is the one who has led you out of the valley, following the dogs through the hills to the big tree where the cougar is trapped. You watch as the man with the rifle climbs down from the saddle and sets his boots among the slippery pine needles. When the man is sure of his footing he lifts the rifle, takes aim, and then…and then you shrink inside a cowl of silence as the cougar falls.

As you watch, the men raise their rifles and shoot them at the sun. You will not understand their triumph, their exultance. Not then. You are too young. It will take years for you to understand. But one day you will step up to a podium in an auditorium at a University on an island far to the west and you will talk about what those men did. You know now they shot at the sun because they wanted to bring a darkness into the world. Knowing that has changed you forever.

Today I look back at their generation. Most of them are dead. They were born into the First Great War of the last century. Most of their fathers did not come home from the slaughter. Most of their mothers were left lost and lonely. Their youth was wasted through the years of the Great Depression when they wandered the country in search of work, a bed or blanket, a friendly hand, a woman’s touch, a child’s quick cry. And then came the Second World War and more were lost. Millions upon millions of men, women, and children died in that old world. But we sometimes forget that untold numbers of creatures died with them: the sparrow and the rabbit, the salmon and the whale, the beetle and the butterfly, the deer and the wolf. And trees died too, the fir and spruce, the cedar and hemlock. Whole forests were sacrificed to the wars.

Those men bequeathed to me a devastated world. When my generation came of age in the mid-century we were ready for change. And we tried to make it happen, but the ones who wanted change were few. In the end we did what the generations before us did. We began to eat the world. We devoured the oceans and we devoured the land. We drank the lakes and the seas and we ate the mountains and plains. We ate and ate until there was almost nothing left for you or for your children to come.

The cougar that died that day back in 1949 was a question spoken into my life and I have tried to answer that question with my teaching, my poems, and my stories. Ten years after they killed the cougar I came of age. I had no education beyond high school, but I had a deep desire to become an artist, a poet. The death of the cougar stayed with me through the years of my young manhood. Then, one moonlit night in 1963, I stepped out of my little trailer perched on the side of a mountain above the North Thompson River. Below me was the saw mill where I worked as a first-aid man. Down a short path a little creek purled through the trees just beyond my door. I went there under the moon and kneeling in the moss cupped water in my hands for a drink. As I looked up I saw a cougar leaning over his paws in the thin shadows. He was six feet away, drinking from the same pool. I stared at the cougar and found myself alive in the eyes of the great cat. The cougar those men had killed when I was a boy came back to me. It was then I swore I would spend my life bearing witness to the past and the years to come.

I stand here looking out over this assembly and ask myself what I can offer you who are taking from my generation’s hands a troubled world. I am an elder now. There are times many of us old ones feel a deep regret, a profound sorrow, but our sorrow does not have to be yours. You are young and it is soon to be your time. A month ago I sat on a river estuary in the Great Bear Rain Forest north of here as a mother grizzly nursed her cubs. As the little ones suckled, the milk spilled down her chest and belly. As I watched her I thought of this day and I thought of you who not so long ago nursed at your own mother’s breast. There in the last intact rain forest on earth, the bear cubs became emblems of hope to me.

Out there are men and women only a few years older than you who are trying to remedy a broken world. I know and respect their passion. You too can change things. Just remember there are people who will try to stop you and when they do you will have to fight for your lives and the lives of the children to come.

Today you are graduating with the degrees you have worked so hard to attain. They will affect your lives forever. You are also one of the wild creatures of the earth. I want you for one moment to imagine you are a ten-year-old on a half-blind, grey horse. You are watching a cougar fall from the high limb of a Ponderosa Pine into a moil of raging dogs. The ones who have done this, the ones who have brought you here, are shooting at the sun. They are trying to bring a darkness into the world.

It’s your story now.
How do you want it to end?

Now, here is the full-length version of Berry’s poem:

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

 

A Poem on Hope

It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old
For hope must not depend on feeling good
And there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
Of the future, which surely will surprise us,
…And hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
Any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.

 

Because we have not made our lives to fit
Our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
The streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
Then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
Of what it is that no other place is, and by
Your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
Place that you belong to though it is not yours,
For it was from the beginning and will be to the end

Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
Your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor,
Who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
And the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike
Fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
In the trees in the silence of the fisherman
And the heron, and the trees that keep the land
They stand upon as we too must keep it, or die. (Where he starts agin on Moyers)

This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
Or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work. (where he cuts again on Moyers)
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
And how to be here with them. By this knowledge
Make the sense you need to make. By it stand
In the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
Has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
Before they had heard a radio. Speak
Publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.

Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
From the pages of books and from your own heart. (Where he starts again on Moyers)
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
To the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
By which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
Underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
Freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
And the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
Which is the light of imagination. By it you see
The likeness of people in other places to yourself
In your place. It lights invariably the need for care
Toward other people, other creatures, in other places
As you would ask them for care toward your place and you.

No place at last is better than the world. The world
Is no better than its places. Its places at last
Are no better than their people while their people

Continue in them. When the people make
Dark the light within them, the world darkens.

Wendell Berry from Leavings, Counterpoint Press, 2011

Wendell Berry and Patrick Lane – How Darkness Comes Into the World – Part One

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

In an introduction to a poetry reading a few years ago Wendell Berry was described as a human treasure. This teacher, farmer and prolific writer of  more than forty books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction is all that and more. Truly, he is one of the world’s  “elders”, one of our “wise ones”. All the more reason to pay close attention to his calls for a dramatic change to our ruthless, and continuing, exploitation of this earth and its creatures. His generous vision for a healed world is no more evident than in his recent televised conversation (click here to see or read it) with the celebrated American interviewer Bill Moyers.

While Berry’s  essays on topics such as the economy, the environment and literature have garnered him a wide following, what I cherish most is his poems , short- stories and  novels. Some of the poems and all of the novels and short-stories are based on the fictional Kentucky town of Port William and its surrounding region.  He brings this community so vividly to life through the interlocking stories of his characters that they feel part of my extended family. And it makes much more real his anguish at the loss of such farming-based communities all over the world but especially in America.

My favorite of his books? The short-story collection Fidelity was the first of his books I read. It encouraged me to buy all his books but Fidelity remains a favorite because of its story A Jonquil for Mary Penn.  His poems console and inspire me, especially those on family and marriage. But the poem of his I value most after countless readings is his widely-known poem, The Peace of Wild Things. In this poem he reminds me, as I slightly change the words of American poet Mary Oliver: [to cherish our] one wild and precious [world]!

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world and I am free.

Wendell Berry from Collected Poems 1957-1982, North Point Press, 1984

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