Tom Crawford – R.I.P. – 1939-May 2018

American poet Tom Crawford and his dog Walt

How to Draw a Better Bird

Resist eloquence. Get mad.
If your bird is the snowy Clark’s Grebe,
if that’s your bird, the one out there
sitting on its eggs in a floating nest – stunning bird,
serene bird – if that’s all you see, then it’s no good.
You might just as well take your iPhone out,
take a picture for Audubon. That’s not a better bird.
Better you try to draw the bird almost gone,
banging its wings against your heart.
Scare us. Make it real, like an eraser big as a house.
What you feel knowing the bird’s clutch
will never hatch. End of a colony.
Gone bird.
Our lives, once a wetland,
drained, is the bird you want to draw.

Tom Crawford from Such a Waste of Stars, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017

Six years ago I featured the American poet Tom Crawford in a blog post and then, again, two years ago. In the mean time we had a few email exchanges. And now, when I wish I could email him again it’s too late. Thanks to friends of his who knew Tom and I had connected I heard he had died in late May. Damn.

Tom was a fine poet and today we would likely label him as a fine eco-poet for his love of birds expressed in so many of his poems and his alarm over how so many are disappearing. Eco-poet or just a plain old poet, Tom to my mind deserved a much wider audience. As evidence: the poem above. What a beautifully written call to be a poet of feeling, of heart. Sure, the poem is an instruction to a painter but heck, it could just as aptly an instruction to a poet. A huge wake up. Go beyond mere description:


Better you try to [write] the bird almost gone,

banging its wings against your heart.
Scare us. Make it real, like an eraser big as a house.
What you feel knowing the bird’s clutch
will never hatch. End of a colony.
Gone bird.
Our lives once a wetland,
drained, is the bird you want to [write].

This is the kind of poem I want to write! Oh my. This could be Tom past the grave telling me how to scare myself and others: write about the orca, J35, who carried her dead calf on her nose for weeks before letting it go. No live birth in the pod for three years. Gone whale. How do I write as if I am the whale? It is my life? That’s the genius move Tom keeps making in his poems. He brings it all inside. Not the bird singing out there, but now, the bird here inside my chest!

I went back to my 2012 blog post and saw his comment:

I’ve never entirely adjusted to my obscurity as an American poet, if only because I still feel the need to share with the tribe. Never easy, that. I have a new book in the making, birds again, this collection entitled, Caging the Robin. I’d be happy to send you a poem or two from
it if you’d like. Nothing so portable in the arts as poetry.

Did he mean he was obscure because all poets are obscure or obscure even with the obscurity of poetry?! I don’t know. But I do know a poet worth sharing far and wide when I see him or her. Tom is such a one for me. Here is how I introduced him back in 2012:

The meditative West, the meditative east. Tom Crawford brings these two worlds so naturally together on the page. Born in 1939 in Michigan, and well-travelled to places like California, Oregon, China and Korea where he put down temporary roots, Crawford now calls Santa Fe home. But a deeper sense of home, of place, travels with Crawford beyond any known geographical addresses.

Perhaps Crawford’s rootedness in spite of his peripatetic history comes from the practice of Wu Wei, which he describes in his fifth poetry collection titled Wu Wei as: To let one’s mind alone. This is wu wei since wu means not or non and wei means action – doing, straining or busyness. In its Buddhist subtext, doing nothing is doing everything.

The author of six [eight when he died] poetry books, Crawford crafts a stillness from wu wei, between words, a stillness found in the mists of the pacific northwest, a stillness found inside a temple, its quiet bell, and even a surprising quiet inside a busy train on the way to Chengdu.

The poem below seems perfect as a sort-of death bed poem! A poem to celebrate Tom’s passing. A way of honouring him the way Tom honoured a dead loon in this poem:

Companion to a Loon

So you died, caught, I’ll bet
in that gill net out there
held up by those big orange balls
stretched halfway across Tulalip Bay.
The Indian fisherman had to haul you up
then disentangle you
like so much stringy, green kelp.
It’s unnatural that you should drown
that way, a perfect invention to water.
I’m sure I watched you the day before
yesterday, working the quiet shallows
around the boat dock
straight out from my little cabin.
Listen bird, I’m past making death sad.
The tide has no time for wakes
or tragedies. We’re either coming in
or going out. It’s like that,
the soul for a while boxed up
in feathers or this frail
human body of mine.
I’m just taking a little time out
from my walk because, well,
your drowned body is here
at my feet, even in death,
moving, unruffled.

Tom Crawford from wu wei, Milkweed Editions, 2006

How the change of a few words can make in this poem a farewell to Tom:

Listen [Tom], I’m past making death sad.
The tide has no time for wakes
or tragedies. We’re either coming in
or going out. It’s like that,
the soul for a while boxed up
in feathers or this frail
human body of mine [and yours].
I’m just taking a little time out
from my [writing time] because well
[your vibrant spirit is here,
in your words, on my desk] even
[after your] death.

And then there’s this next poem: such a celebration of Tom’s aliveness. That’s what I want to remember: his aliveness and how alive he made the world around him; so alive he reminds me to be that alive no matter that my death, one day, for sure is coming! To be so alive that in Charles Bukowski’s words:

we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as
ours.

I think Tom Crawford did make death work that hard. For sure! And no matter the grief he felt around him he chose happiness, again and again, as he avers in his poem below. And in his honour, in spite of my sadness from his death, I will chose, right now, happiness, as I hear my dear sweetheart return from town and my dog whining his delight in her return.

I’M TALKING TO MYSELF

and here’s what I say:
God’s not into sadness. He says it’s a waste of time.
So, the grief I feel almost every day,
what Buddda says we’ve got coming to us,
should not be all that drives these—
what shall I call them?—earned poems.
I don’t know if this proves it but I just came off the beach
with my dog, Walt, The whole way out and back
in a cool rain he ran from scent to luxurious scent,
poking his nose into washed-up seaweed,
rolling in what was left of a dead seagull, rotten fish,
pissing on those things worthy of it
and almost everything was.
I’m trying to learn from my little dog
that there is nothing that is not God, is not here
for our happiness. Me, all the time I’m sunk down
in my wet jacket, unforgiving of a botched love
while he pesters me with a soggy stick, tells me
to throw it, please throw it.

Tom Crawford from wu wei, ibid

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