Friday, July 27, 2012

Apparitions in the Woods

The other day, while walking back from picking raspberries at the farm across the bridge, I saw on the side of the road a small cluster of white berries (I never touch or eat what I can't identify). I hurried back home to get my camera, as though if I hesitated they might disappear, like ghosts in the woods, and then I would always wonder if they had been real, if I had really seen them, or did they simply appear, in that moment, out of the mysteries of creation....

"Mysteries, Yes"

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
   to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
   mouths of lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
   in allegiance with gravity
      while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
   never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
   scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
   who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
   "Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
   and bow their heads.

~ Mary Oliver, from Evidence


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Story of Someone's Life

This is my favorite old farmhouse. I always stop and take its picture as I travel west on the road that goes through Valentine, Nebraska. Standing on the edge of this lonely place, imagining the lives once lived there, it's easy, from a distance, to romanticize what I see, but I know life in such circumstances can often be very difficult. Seen in the middle of winter, it comes close to defining desolation. In my heart, this is what I see:

warm summer nights, with a multitude of crickets singing in the dark, reminding the childless couple inside that they are not alone. In the fall, jars are sealed and placed in the pantry: green beans, sweet corn, peas and pickles, to be opened when the root cellar is almost empty with summer still a long way off. On winter evenings, they read Emerson by lamplight as an aria from La Traviata sails around and around on the green felt of the aging Victrola. On certain nights, after the house has fallen quiet, she walks outside and watches as each star takes its place across the vast night sky. And every spring, when it feels like the wind might never stop blowing, it's then she looks out at the endless rolling hills and remembers the ocean.

What it looks like in winter and a song by Patsy:

And the road that leads you there:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Eighth Day

"Man is not an end, but a beginning. We are at the beginning of the second week. We are children of the eighth day."   ~ Thornton Wilder

Photograph by Harry Kerr
The title and quote is from a lesser-known book by Thornton Wilder, The Eighth Day.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Let's Hear From the Amen Corner

One of my favorite places to spend time indoors is the local hardware store. We're not talking a strip mall version of a hardware store or a Home Depot run amok called Lowe's. This is the real deal. It's been on the same corner of the same street for what seems like forever. I love walking down the cramped and worn linoleum-lined aisles, surrounded by all the things a person's life might truly need. It's where I go to buy lawn and garden equipment: hoes and hoses, shovels and rakes, seeds, onion sets, and my first wheelbarrow. It's where I bought Buddy's collars and leashes. There are a million wooden bins of nuts and bolts, screws and nails of any imaginable size or need. Upstairs is where I bought my first set of real living room furniture as a real live adult person. No more daybed, beanbag, boards and bricks. It's the place where people go in order to get things done. A place from which the human experience sets forth and lives are created!

Okay, okay. That last one may be a bit of hyperbole, but I really do like hardware stores - real hardware stores - and the real people you find there. Okaaay, I'll be quiet now, but you gotta promise to read this poem:

"Ode to Hardware Stores"

Where have all the hardware stores gone--dusty, sixty-watt
    warrens with wood floors, cracked linoleum,
poured concrete painted blood red? Where are Eppes, Terry Rosa,
    Yon's, Flint--low buildings on South Monroe,
Eighth Avenue, Gaines Street with their scent of paint thinner,
    pesticides, plastic hoses coiled like serpents
in a garden paradisal with screws in buckets or bins
    against a brick wall with hand-lettered signs
in ball-point pen--Carriage screws, two dozen for fifty cents--
    long vicious dry-wall screws, thick wood screws
like peasants digging potatoes in fields, thin elegant trim
    screws--New York dames at a backwoods hick
Sunday School picnic. O universal clevis pins, seven holes
    in the shank, like seven deadly sins.
Where are the men--Mr. Franks, Mr. Piggot, Tyrone, Hank,
    Ralph--sunburnt with stomachs and no asses,
men who knew the mythology of nails, Zeus's enthroned
    on an Olympus of weak coffee, bad haircuts,
and tin cans of galvanized casing nails, sinker nails, brads,
    20-penny common nails, duplex head nails, flooring nails
like railroad spikes, finish nails, fence staples, cotter pins,
    roofing nails--flat-headed as Floyd Crawford,
who lived next door to you for years but would never say hi
    or make eye contact. What a career in hardware
he could have had, his blue-black hair slicked back with
    brilliantine, rolling a toothpick between his teeth while sorting
screw eyes and carpet tacks. Where are the hardware stores,
    open Monday through Friday, Saturday till two?
No night hours here, like physicists their universe mathematical
    and pure in its way: dinner at six, Rawhide at eight,
lights out at ten, kiss in the dark, up at five for the subatomic world
    of toggle bolts, cap screws, hinch-pin clips, split-lock
washers. And the tools--saws, rakes, wrenches, rachets, drills,
    chisels,and hose heads, hose couplings, sandpaper
(garnet, production, wet or dry), hinges, wire nails, caulk, nuts, lag
    screws, pulleys, vise grips, hexbolts, fender washers,
all in a primordial stew of laconic talk about football, baseball,
    who'll start for the Dodgers, St. Louis, the Phillies,
the Cubs? Walk around the block today and see their ghosts:
    abandoned lots, graffitti'd windows, and tacked
to backroom walls, pinup calendars almost decorous
    in our porn-riddled galaxy of Walmarts, Seven-Elevens,
stripmalls like strip mines or carrion bird's curved beak
    gobbling farms, meadows, wildflowers, drowsy afternoons
of nothing to do but watch dust motes dance through a streak
    of sunlight in a darkened room. If there's a second coming,
I want angels called Lem, Nelson, Rodney, and Cletis gathered
    around a bin of nails, their silence like hosannahs,
hallelujahs, amens swelling from cinderblock cathedrals
    drowning our cries of Bigger, faster, more, more, more.

~ Barbara Hamby

The photograph is mine.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Between the Strawberry Patch and the Field

While out on a walk with Buddy a few evenings ago, we came across a patch of wild strawberries growing right next to the road. When I saw those little red berries, I thought of the summer afternoons when Mother would send my sister, Jane, and me, off to the backfield to pick strawberries. We would walk down the cow path through the woods to where the patch was growing beneath the trees, next to the pasture. Not many came back with us. I'm sure Mother had no expectations that they would. We were simply being given something to do when the days were long and our attention spans short. We would eat until we were full or the berries were gone and then go exploring. It was a good way to spend a summer day. And so, remembering that, Buddy and I sat down together in the grass between the strawberry patch and the field, ate wild strawberries, and listened to the river below us.

A person's life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, or love, or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened.  ~ Albert Camus 

Painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Friday, July 13, 2012

Tales from a Construction Zone

My memories of fourth grade are few and far between, mostly because I blocked them out. It was the first time I'd run up against a teacher who seemed to have spent her life being angry and feeling short-changed, maybe even taking the not-so-occasional nip or two. I didn't know that at the time, of course, I just thought she got mad easily. I tried not to rile her feathers, but even the occasional errant question could send her into a tailspin. However, those times are not what stick out; a few others hold that position. Some will be talked about, some won't. Of those that will, one includes a single brown glove, another involves (speaking of sticking out) missing teeth.

It was a cold winter morning, Mom was at our cafe, so Dad became the in-charge person to make sure we all got out the door on time and appropriately dressed. As always, I was the cow's tail. Just before heading out I couldn't find my gloves, and so, Dad, in his infinite wisdom, arrived at what he saw as the perfect solution, and which I saw as the most horrific. Brown work gloves. Just what a budding adolescent wants to wear, especially when she has a crush on a boy with black hair and sad brown eyes.

He put them on my hands under a bit of duress, and out the door I went. En route to the bus, now waiting at the end of the driveway, I managed to get them off my hands and stuffed into my coat pockets before I could be seen. I wasn't at the stage where I might humorously pass them off as an edgy fashion statement. Blending in was essential.

At some point in the day, I went to the lockers in the back of the classroom to retrieve something or other and walked away without checking my back trail. Next thing I knew, Teacher was waving that darn brown glove around the room and asking to whom it belonged. Nobody said a word. It belonged to no one. I sat mute. Guilt descended. How did I go home with only one glove?  Scarred, that's how I went home. I'm still talking about it.

The other incident involves he of the black hair and sad brown eyes. Billy was his name. It was spring, we were outside having recess, when the bell rang telling us it was time to go in. I went one way, he went the other, resulting in a head-on collision. He got a gash on his head (created by my teeth), which required a few stitches, and I got one of my front teeth knocked out, the other to follow a few months later due to the damage done. This was not all horrible news, however. Life has its funny little ways.

You see, I had slightly - only slightly, I tell you - protruding teeth, with just a bit of a gap. I inherited these fine choppers from my father. I was no Bucky Beaver (aren't kids fun?) and so did not suffer the slings and arrows some kids were subjected to, but this may be the part where the term 'blocked out' comes from. Yes, I suppose the burden of proof does fall on me, so, here I am, fourth grade, pre-collision:

As you can see, good news. A bit of serendipity allowed me to have decent teeth, eventually, and without the fun of becoming Metal Mouth, which wasn't even a remote possibility at that point in our lives as a dental fund was not part of the family budget. As a matter of fact, it might well have precipitated my first visit ever to a dentist. More ensued. Many more.

And, the good news just kept rolling in. Billy called me that evening and asked how I was doing!  I'm certain his parents were involved in this great unfoldment. No matter, it was Billy on the other end of the line.

Life goes on, things change. Now, I wear brown work gloves proudly and with great satisfaction. My teeth have occasionally garnered compliments - especially gratifying when they come from a dentist. You can read more about Billy and our meeting again, in subsequent years, here:

What precipitated all this talk of fourth grade?  This great little poem I read a couple of days ago by a poet I was completely unfamiliar with. Yes, I do end sentences sometimes with prepositions, despite having been taught better.

"Handwriting Analysis"

On the first day of fourth grade, Mrs. Hunter
collected our penmanship samples to save

until June; by then, she said, we'd write
in the handwriting we would have all our lives.

Though she probably read that in a book
on child development, I was so excited

I could hardly stand it. In nine months
my adult self would be born, she would

send me a letter; in the way she swooped,
careened, and crossed her t's, I could

read everything I would need to know.
We were writing ourselves into the future.

We came closer each time we turned
the silver gears in the sharpener near the door,

the wood shavings tumbling inside,
smelling as if a house were being built.

~ Katrina Vandenberg, from The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, Milkweed Editions 2012

The top image is of a pencil sharpener, an artifact from an ancient culture, photographed in situ, which I found attached to a windowsill on the porch after my arrival here. It still contains the shavings Otis created, back when pencils were being used.

Monday, July 9, 2012

In the Eye of the Beholder

Over the past few years, I've been accumulating images that have jumped out at me for any number of reasons. I thought perhaps they would help to illustrate future posts, and then I realized they are a post. They each deserve their own place, but I gathered them together today as another way to pay homage to them and their creators. I'm hoping you'll forgive this self-indulgence and perhaps even be drawn to one or more of these images yourself. Like the illustration above, by N.C. Wyeth. I like the movement reflected in the water and the variations on the color turquoise in the sky. Then, there's the painting below by Willem de Kooning. I was drawn in by the sensuousness of the colors and the shapes:

This woman, who is standing so quietly yet firmly on this earth, is the picture of resilience. It's a photograph taken by Eudora Welty, who, before she became a Pulitzer Prize winning author, told her stories with a camera:

I am drawn again and again to this painting by Peder Severin Kroyer, the Danish painter I've mentioned previously. The soft blue, the child in wooden shoes, the clothing hung from the bow of the boat, the sand and the sea ... It's a beautiful composition and use of color:

Here's E. B. White, in a Jill Krementz photo taken in his writing cabin in Maine. He and other writers have expressed this need for a spartan space in order to minimize distractions and give the words a little more room.

I don't know if it's the mode of transportation, the mood it evokes, or some other even more ephemeral thing, but I absolutely love this painting by Herman Herzog:

Patterns and fabric, anything floral or geometric and the lines that form, catch my eye.  Like in this kitchen photograph by Camille Soulayrol ...

and in these images by Iain McKell ...

I'm always intrigued by images of people who seem to be living on the periphery of life, like the man above and, John Berryman, below, in an image from Life Magazine. His mind went spiraling out and never found its way back. Back to what, might be a legitimate question ...  But not today. Today, there's sunlight on the grass, a baby rabbit munching on some clover, and a family of cardinals on the feeder, offering each other safflower hearts.

"Above Everything"

I wished for death often
but now that I am at its door
I have changed my mind about the world.
It should go on; it is beautiful,
even as a dream, filled with water and seed,
plants and animals, others like myself,
ships and buildings and messages
filling the air  --  a beauty,
if ever I have seen one.
In the next world, should I remember
this one, I will praise it
above everything.

~ David Ignatow

Additional images and information on Camille:

More on Iain McKell:

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Trains, Track and a Western Sky

Man, do I miss the sound of a train in the distance. As a child, I imagined all the places it would take me and loved nothing more than to run down the road and watch it go by.  I had that schedule memorized. Now, with so many tracks removed, the romance of riding the rails is just a fairytale I still read to myself every now and then. Which might explain why this darn Rosanne Cash song has been running through my head the last few days. I said  'might.'  Here, you take it for awhile -------

BTW: a big thank you to Tom:  for letting me use his photograph. Trains, track and a western sky. What's not to love?  Here's Rosanne:

Friday, July 6, 2012

Redefining the Ineffable

Ah, yes, that's much better, sweet summer rain, enough to make the gardens happy and puddles in the road. My lettuce thanks you, my lilies thank you - both those who have arrived and those who are still getting ready - and I thank you. It's always so much nicer when the water comes from the sky instead of a garden hose.

Even as I write this, the sky is getting dark again, very dark, and thunder is rumbling, so I'd better type fast. I thought I'd keep it light and follow my last posting with a man's eye view of running away with a fantasy. Here's George, to tell you about his. He's just a couple years older than I, born in St. Louis in '51, and the barista has caught his eye.

"The Ineffable"

I'm sitting here reading my paper,
feeling warm and satisfied, basically content
with my life and all I have achieved.
Then I go up for a refill and suddenly realize
how much happier I could be with the barista.
Late thirties, hennaed hair, an ankh
or something tattooed on her ankle,
a little silver ring in her nostril.
There's some mystery surrounding why she's here,
pouring coffee and toasting bagels at her age.
But there's a lot of torsion when she walks,
which is interesting. I can sense right away
how it would all work out between us.

We'd get a loft in the artsy part of town,
and I can see how we'd look shopping together
at our favorite organic market
on a snowy winter Saturday,
snowflakes in our hair,
our arms full of leeks and shitake mushrooms.
We would do tai chi in the park.
She'd be one of the few people
who actually "get" my poetry
which I'd read to her in bed.
And I can see us making love, by candlelight,
Struggling to find words for the ineffable.
We never dreamed it could be like this.

And it would all be great, for many months,
until one day, unable to help myself,
I'd say something about that nostril ring.
Like, do you really need to wear that tonight
at Sarah and Mike's house, Sara and Mike being
pediatricians who intimidate me slightly
with their patrician cool, and serious money.
And she would give me a look,
a certain lifting of the eyebrows
I can see she's capable of, and right there
that would be the end of the ineffable.

~George Bilgere

As I was typing away, the rain arrived in sheets, the wind shook things up a bit, and George came to his senses, the ones that keep him here on solid ground. What a nice place to be.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How to Spend a Hot Summer Day

Yesterday morning, while the temperature was moving steadily upwards, I spent some time with Ted Kooser on the back roads of Nebraska (So This is Nebraska), feeling the wind move through my fingers, hands gliding over the wheat. A while later, I rode along with Debra Allbery in the back of a pickup on the way to her first job, picking Produce with other kids and old men in berry-stained shirts. It brought back some nice summer memories. I used to love riding in the back of a pickup. I've even been thinking about getting one.

In the afternoon, I sat with Donald Hall as he recalled how his beloved wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, once stood at the sink of their Summer Kitchen with a glass of wine, listening for the bobolink and crushing garlic in the late sunshine. His loss deserves my time.

Next thing I knew, it was evening and a storm was rolling in. I'd been hanging out at Ginsberg's pad, A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley. I'm sure I'll return to hear more about how he found a perfectly good coffeepot in the vines by the porch and, even more important, where he hid his stash. Right now, there's fresh potato salad cooling in the frig, Buddy's staying cool in his man cave, and what I really want to hear about is Alice Persons' crush on the UPS man. Here's the scoop:

"Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man"

you bring me all the things I order
are never in a bad mood
always have a jaunty wave as you drive away
look good in your brown shorts
we have an ideal uncomplicated relationship
you're like a cute boyfriend with great legs
who always brings the perfect present
(why, it's just what I've always wanted!)
and then is considerate enough to go away
oh, UPS Man, let's hop in your clean brown truck and elope!
ditch your job, I'll ditch mine
let's hit the road for Brownsville
and tempt each other
with all the luscious brown foods --
roast beef, dark chocolate,
brownies, Guinness, homemade pumpernickel, molasses cookies
I'll make you my mama's bourbon pecan pie
we'll give all the packages to kind looking strangers
live in a cozy wood cabin
with a brown dog or two
and a black and brown tabby
I'm serious, UPS Man. Let's do it.
Where do I sign?

~ Alice N. Persons

Painting by Danish artist Peder Severin Kroyer (1851-1909). Thank you, Grethe,, for introducing that wonderful school of painters to me.