Wagoner’s “The Name”

My favorite section of Wagoner’s After the Point of No Return is the last one where he writes about old age and death in fourteen different poems, many of them quite funny like one called “A Cold Call” where the author is called by Holly “from the cemetery,” a common event for those of us receiving Social Security here in America.

I liked all of them, because, unfortunately, they reminded me of some of my own thoughts about aging and losing friends rapidly. In the end, though, my favorite was a slightly different one


When a man or a woman died, something of theirs,
some token—a beaded belt, a pair of moccasins,
a necklace—would be left beside the path
where a hunting party, returning, would see it
and know that name was dead now.
They would remember how to say it,
but not at the campfire, not in stories,
not whispered in the night to anyone else,
but only to themselves.
Then, after years, when the right one had been born,
they would hold that child above the earth
to the four directions and speak the name again.

that wasn’t comedic, but best reflected my own feelings about death and how I’d like to be remembered.

I’d suggest leaving my Canon EOS1 D MARK IV on the trail after I die, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t stay there long enough to let my friends know I’d finally caught up with Skye and would no longer be haunting these trails.

The poem strikes a nice balance between somber and sentimental. We all want to be remembered, and what better way than having “the right one” bearing our name into the future.

Though I preferred some of Wagoner’s early book, this is an enjoyable read.

Wagoner’s After the Point of No Return

I’ve been reading David Wagoner’s poetry almost as long as I’ve been reading poetry. He’s certainly the first contemporary poet I ever read. He taught a freshman English class I took at the University of Washington, and at the beginning of the class I went to the University Bookstore and bought his first two books of poetry. So, when his latest book, After the Point of No Return, came out there was never a doubt I would have to buy it, too. Old habits are hard to break, particularly since I’ve long identified with Wagoner’s poetry, especially those poems which center on the Pacific Northwest and are “nature” poetry. In fact, I sometimes think he’s not recognized enough for his nature poetry because he’s such a prolific poet who seems ready to turn almost any subject into a poem.

Personally, though, I almost invariably prefer the nature poems and the poems where he seems to focus on his own personal life to the clever but, for me, less moving poems like “Marksmanship” which cleverly describes a shooting range but leaves no lasting impression, and even leaves me wondering if he’s ever fired at such a range. I’ll have to admit that when you’re as familiar with someone’s poetry as I am with Wagoner’s it’s hard to find a poem that really moves you, especially on major themes. It’s easy to get a sense of deja vu. I couldn’t avoid that feeling for many of the poems, but luckily there are still poems that grabbed my attention.

“Meeting a Stranger,” though, isn’t a typical Wagoner poem; in fact, it reminds me more of a favorite Mark Strand Poem I’ve written about previously, “The Tunnel.”

You find a path. You follow it
It turns as faint as you are.
You see this stranger
walking toward you
from nowhere and frowning
as if you shouldn't be there
but should get out of the way.
You realize you've been talking
to yourself, even singing.
You've broken his silence
by breaking yours.
You lower your eyes.
You turn your face aside.
You smile. You offer him
your no-longer-bleeding,
more or less clean hand.
He shakes his head.
He keeps his distance.
He edges around you.
You try to tell him
you're lost. Nothing but breath
comes out of your mouth and his.

Perhaps I found this poem appealing because I’ve spent considerable time the last few weeks looking back over old photos and have often been pleasantly surprised by them, nearly as often as I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by how bad some I published on my blog seen in retrospect. It’s comforting to see ourselves as a single person, an integrated whole, but it’s hard to hold to that myth when we actually compare our past work and our past actions to our present attitudes and beliefs.

Perhaps even more to the point is that “After the Point of no Return” many of us naturally begin to question our goals in life. The path taken becomes more and more obscure as we travel on until there’s hardly any sense of direction left at all, just the mechanical, plodding step after step. Some of us find ourselves talking to ourselves, (personally, I still contend I’m just talking to my old companion, Skye who has left me a little behind).

Perhaps meeting yourself heading in the opposite direction, working at cross purposes to yourself, is the ultimate recognition you really don’t know where you’re going, not a fact everyone will readily admit. Most of us, and particularly poets. fear when “nothing but breath/comes out of your mouth and his.” We all want to tell our “truths” and have others listen.

Wagoner’s “Being Taken for a Ride”

Considering he’s 83, it’s not surprising that a sense of “getting older” has crept into Wagoner’s recent poetry. I suspect even the title of this volume, A Map of the Nightrefers to the end of life. I’ve got aways to go before I reach his age, if I ever do, but I am already sensing that people treat me differently than they used to.

Of course, the idea of “being taken for a ride” could apply to any of us at any time during our life. It would be especially surprising if grandkids couldn’t identify with much of this poem:

Being Taken for a Ride

They don’t mean any harm. They’re helping you
get in, all the way in. They’re making sure
your legs are adjusted, your belt snapped,
with no loose ends sticking out to be caught
when the door slams shut. And then they slam it
and latch it. You see someone you don’t know
already in the driver’s seat, impatient with you,
gunning the engine. The others are in the back,
and you all move forward now into the street,
going somewhere. The driver holds the wheel
too loosely with the fingers of one hand,
one elbow out in the wind, his shaded eyes
not on the road, but on other drivers
or himself in the mirror. You hate to say anything
critical. After all, it isn’t your car,
not even, really, your idea
to be doing this, but everything is going
much too fast and happening too fast,
and that strange music on the radio
is too loud. After all, there are limits.
Driving a car is a privilege. You can remember
driving your father’s car inside the garage
at night with the lights off and no key
to turn the ignition on and no license
of your own yet. But even back then,
you had a feeling for the road ahead
ahead of time, of the You you were going to be.
Yet here you are, right now, afraid
to speak your mind, buckled and locked
in a passenger seat and being taken somewhere.

If you’ve ever had to struggle to get a child to sit still long enough to get those new-fangled seat belts snapped, then the beginning of this poem might seem familiar. No wonder someone older would resent such treatment — who wants to be treated like a kid?

It’s hard for those of us used to doing the driving to sit in the passenger’s seat while someone else controls our destiny. Reminds me of the times when I was teaching a kid to drive and trying desperately not sound like Bob Newhart’s “Driving Instructor.” Shouldn’t anyone know that rap music is not appropriate when you’re driving down a crowded freeway full of other aggressive drivers.

It’s funny how old folks always seem to refer to childhood, isn’t it, since they’re even farther from it than we are? One of the biggest differences from being young and being old, as Wagoner points out, is that when you’re young you can also look forward to better times. What can you hope for when you’ve nearly reached the end if the road?

Wagoner’s “The Heart of the Forest”

I’ve been reading David Wagoner for an awful long time, ever since I was in his class my freshman year in college. Though I haven’t purchased all 18 of his books of poetry, I’ve certainly purchased most of them. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed in any of the purchases, but the more I’ve read, the less I’ve been surprised by what I’ve read, something I definitely look for in poetry.

Though he’s originally from Indiana, I consider him the premier Northwest Poetry, particularly when it comes to nature poetry. Naturally I had to buy A Map of the Night, his latest, on my last visit to the UW Bookstore. My favorite poems, once again, are those describing places I’m familiar with, place like


You pretend to look for wildflowers, but what you’re doing
is trying to find traces of where your feet
lost their sense of direction in the woods.

You can name the trees and what’s staying alive
under them, but you’re afraid this may be a time
when you find the ghost-pale, skinned corpses of beavers

or the green antlers still on the skulls of elk,
or the leaflike, feather-light wings of owls suspended
upside down on spikes among living branches,

so you rehearse remembering the place
where one of your clumsy feet once found itself
secure, where it lifted you and moved you,

where you breathed again and saw, in the near-darkness
of the forest floor, a fir tree fallen and broken
into nurse logs, out of whose rotten, moss-covered sides,

among small spillways of lilies of the valley,
dozens of other selves were growing, rooted
all the way through into another forest

where nothing comes to an end, where nothing is lost,
and lying down with one ear to the ground,
you listened to its heart and yours still beating.

I doubt I would have appreciated this poem as much ten or twenty years ago as I do now, though I’ve been awed by nurse logs since the very first time I’ve seen them, and certainly since I first discovered them in the Olympic Rainforest. It’s hard to imagine anything more alive than a Rainforest, or a better symbol of future generations building on the foundations of previous generations than a nurse log.

At this stage in my life, knowing life doesn’t last forever, and not too worried about that, I can only hope that “nothing comes to an end, where nothing is lost” and that I have somehow managed to help build a better world for my children, grandchildren, and future generations.

Of couse, since my favorite charities in the last 40 years have been The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, etc., it should be obvious that I believe the future of the human race depends on the future of Nature.

Like Wagoner (not to mention Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman,and Roethke) Nature is “where one of your clumsy feet once found itself/ secure, where it lifted you and moved you.”

The Final Lesson of All

I’ve finished David Wagoner’s The House of Song, and, though it’s not my favorite of his many books I own, it contains a number of very good poems that illustrate various phases of his career.

I originally thought I would end my discussion of the book by quoting one of the many native American-inspired poems that seem to dominate the second half of this volume because there were several that I liked.

Instead, I decided that this was my favorite and showed Wagoner’s ironic sense of humor quite well. I suspect it’s not entirely irrelevant that the poem is about a “professor of comparative literature,? not a poetry teacher:


The professor of comparative literature
is lying in the hallway this afternoon
Between the stairwell and a locked glass-case,
Not quite blocking the entrance to the mail room.
Though his hair is still combed neatly, his houndstooth
Appears to have grown too small for his upper torso,
And his dark slacks have shortened above his ankles,
Exposing inappropriate blue socks
With brown suede shoes. A stack of bound term papers
Lies next to him in their original order.

A quiet, attentive group of graduate students
And faculty has gathered loosely around him
While a campus policeman kneels and turns him over.
Behind the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses
His eyes are firmly closed. His mouth is a slit.
His large square face has brightened
To the inexpressive ruddiness of greasepaint.

He wears a mask of mucus from nose to chin.
The policeman covers it with plastic film,
But before he's mouth-to-mouth, the professor's lips
Sink inward with the raw irregular snore
Of Cheyne-Stokes respiration, a farewell rattle.

His dignity has seldom been so apparent:
His Power to cause reflection, to persuade,
To influence and enrich the lives of others,
To deepen their understanding, to arouse
An empathetic tremor in his listeners
Who begin discussing the mordant implications
Of his presentation the likely interconnections
With other disciplines, and his shades of meaning.

But now the collapsible gurney is lifting him
Out of context, is rolling him out the door
And down the walkway into the ambulance
And driving him beyond their frames of reference.

I’m sure those of us who spend most of our lives talking about literature take our ideas much too seriously, sure we are teaching vital life lessons — though that might not be what most students think we‘re teaching.

At least I’ve been spared the indignity of dying in the classroom fallen under the weight of an armful of ungraded research papers. At the end, no one will be able to make fun of me because of my pocket protector full of red, blue, and green pens. No, now days while I’m out walking I can seldom even find a pen to scribble my web site’s address or even my name.

I’m glad when I finally fall it will be under my own weight, not under the weight of academic expectations.

I’m even happier that now I can live my life beyond everyone students’ frame of reference, free to be just me.

Strange Partners, Indeed

Those of you who visit here very regularly have surely noticed I’m not very sentimental, particularly about over-commercialized holidays and seldom post holiday-appropriate entries.

Still, it’s hard to forget Valentine’s Day, particularly since I’ve volunteered to read Valentine cards for students at Gavin’s kindergarten.

Though this poem isn’t my favorite in the second half of Wagoner’s House of Songs, it seemed strangely appropriate to the holiday as I sat in the doctor’s office today waiting to get some medicine to cure the mild case of bronchitis I contracted from last week’s cold. and it does give some indication of Wagoner’s diversity, something you might not have noticed since I tend to favor his nature poems:


In the seaside restaurant, they're cracking crabs:
He's in his thirties, she's eighteen at most.
She's still in her receptionist's uniform
With a scarf over the name-tag. The candle
Burning between them is guttering
Lavender driblets, and both are chewing
Pieces of firm white flesh, while their busy fingers
Are cracking claws and dipping more in butter.
She says she's known all along
It would end like this, with him going back to his wife.
Just like her mother's boyfriend. He says he's sorry
But she has to understand. She has to be
A matter-of-fact adult, and there's no reason
They shouldn't enjoy themselves on their last evening.
They should both be happy they recognized the fact
Of life in time to get up and go on being
Responsible. She'll see an affair
Can be just as beautiful as love
If you stop in time, and now she's going to stop
Crying and take her doggy bag
And blackberry cobbler and walk on out of here
As if she'd enjoyed herself. They both stand up
And slowly go down the aisle toward the cashier
To earn their way outside into the night
Where I follow them (having paid the price
Of my appetite this evening) and watch them
To the end of the parking lot and separate cars,
Not kissing good-bye or waving, not even looking.
Meanwhile, beyond the buttress of driftwood logs
Where the owners have arranged to keep the sea
And the sand from coming too far ashore, the crabs
Are facing each other in the rippling shallows
At low tide, performing mirror dances
the tips of the inedible parts of their claws,
Some maybe not quite sure
Whether they're mating or fighting
they face strange partners almost as insane
With longing as they are. They go on dancing
There in the cold salt.

Wagoner’s The House of Song

David Wagoner has a new book of poetry out already, so I thought I’d better finish The House of Song, copyright 2002, that I bought right after it appeared on my local bookstore’s shelf. Wagoner is so prolific that I sometimes doubt I’ll ever finish his latest book before the next one comes out.

I still think Wagoner is a vastly underrated nature poets, and I’ve even gone so far as to refuse to buy collections of “nature? poetry that don’t include at least one of his poems. I also suspect, and have probably said it here before, that if he weren’t so prolific and didn’t write on such wide-ranging topics that his nature poetry would receive more of the attention it deserves.

Despite the fact that he’s probably my favorite contemporary poet, even I’ll admit I could easily do without a great many of the poems in this book. I’ve finally accepted this as the price I have to pay for the poems that I do love because if he didn’t write so prolifically I’d have to wait years for the poems I do love because I so seldom get to read “poetry? magazines.

I’m surprisingly fond of the poems about his young daughters in this collection, but my favorite poems are still the “nature? poems. It‘s a close call between “My Father and the Hydrostatic Paradox,? where a father discovers just how hard it is to stop the flow of water, “For a Mockingbird,? where the narrator frees a mockingbird he buys in Mexican market, and this one:


The door of this farmhouse
Has fallen out of its frame
Flat on the sunken porch
From threshold to first step,

And the gutters and downspouts
Are giving away their share
of a cloudburst. The shake roof
Is down on two cornerstones.

One side of the wire fence
Was a garden once; the other,
A pasture full of brambles
And burrs, now come to call

The garden theirs, and roses
Have crawled over and under
The fence to cultivate
The weeds with another wildness.

The man who gave up here
Dug fifty-six postholes
And filled them with quarter-splits
Of unseasoned cottonwood,

Then strung them with two strands
Of No. 2 barbed wire
To hold the lightest touches
Of snow and meadowlarks,

To bear with the full and empty
Talons of saw-whet owls,
And left them there to whistle
In the wind from the North Pole.

But glistening and glinting
Green in the hard rain,
Six of those posts have sprouted
Branches and put out leaves.

The poem is so simple, so realistic, so zen-like that some readers might not think it’s poetry at all. It’s so photo-realistic that you could almost imagine the same ideas being conveyed in a series of slides. But they couldn’t, of course, unless someone had thought ahead fare enough to take slides before the farm had been abandoned.

No, this is the kind of juxtaposition of images that lends itself perfectly to poetry, as in a good haiku. There’s no need for philosophizing or moralizing because the last image reveals itself in the context of the poem.

Perhaps it helps if you’ve already read Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur? or held similar thoughts, but it’s not really necessary if you allow the images to rub against each other and reveal themselves.