As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that it’s possible to fit some reading into even the busiest days. For too long I learned how to read in doctor’s waiting rooms, but even now that I’m feeling relatively healthy I take a poetry book with me when I know I’m going to have to wait, as I did today when I took the RAV4 into Les Schwab’s to have the snow tires mounted.
I finally started reading Gerald Stern’s This Time, a book I’ve had on my Amazon wish list since I first mentioned it on June 9, 2003 and recently purchased. If I’d read the first poem in the book
I didn't start taking myself seriously as a poet
until the white began to appear in my cheek.
All before was amusement and affection-
now, like a hare, like a hare, like a hare,
I watch the turtle lift one horrible leg
over the last remaining stile and head
for home, practically roaring with virtue.
Everything, suddenly everything is up there in the mind,
all the beauty of the race gone
and my life merely an allegory.
before, I would probably have gotten too it much sooner. Heck, this sounds like my life, not the part about taking myself seriously as a poet because I still don’t do that, but the final lines when “suddenly everything is up there in the mind” and I head "for home, practically roaring with virtue.” Now that I’ve retired I finally have time to be the student of life that I always wanted to be but was too busy living to remember.
Many of Stern’s poems have dark overtones to them, but they usually contain an exquisite awareness that in the end redeems that darkness, even one like this:
BOB SUMMERS: THE FINAL POEM
There are two men I know who wander around all winter as I do,
half listening and half falling over rocks and curbs.
One is a bicyclist who pedals all day on
an old balloon-tire bike through Upper Black Eddy;
the other is a bridge-walker who wears a long army
overcoat with "P.O.W." still faintly printed across the back.
There was a third who walked down the streets of Philadelphia,
touching base at the Chess Club and Frank's and the Greek's
like a farmer, or beggar, doing the daily round.
If you saw just the back of his head
and his hands waving you would know he was leading you
through one of his darker arguments;
if you followed him further
you would be dragged to a place where every connection was smashed
and the brain had trouble sorting out its own riches.
I last saw him concentrating with all his power
on the problem of simple existence,
trying to match words with places
and blurred thoughts with things,
reducing everyone who knew him or came near him
to a state of either pity or shame
because of his strangeness and clumsiness.
I remember the rope he carried
and the knot of terror he fingered as he daydreamed,
the knot of release, hanging slack like a crown
over the back of his neck,
always ready to guide him through his weakness,
ready to give him back his health and wisdom.
I’m hoping that not too many people actually hear me talking to myself while I’m out walking, or at least think that I’m talking to Skye, not writing poetry in my head, listening to voices from the past or to my other self, the one who knows what I’m really trying to say when I can’t figure it out on my own.
Luckily, I can’t wave my hands in the air because I’m too busy holding Skye back, trying to make sure he doesn’t finally manage to leave me behind.
Most of the time I even steer away from the “problem of simple existence” and focus on less important ideas, knowing that it’s unlikely I’m ever going to manage to solve that one.
I suppose this poem really isn’t in the Christmas mood, but it did remind me to go home and finally write that check to the Salvation Army that I’ve been putting off because of more important things, like writing entries on my web site that no one’s going to read because they’ve all gone home for Christmas.