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

THE NAME

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

THE HEART OF THE FOREST

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.”