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:

Symposium

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:

BY THE SEA, BY THE SEA

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:

WAITING OUT A STORM ON A DESERTED FARM

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.

Wagoner’s New Poems

Although I was disappointed to find that there were only eighteen new poems in Traveling Light, after all I already owned all the other poems, I was happy to find several that I liked. Some like “At the Summit” reminded me of old themes as the poem seemed an update to “Getting There,” but others introduced new themes, particularly the poems addressed to children.

I particularly liked “A Letter Home,” a poem that successfully combines older themes of memories of parents with his new themes of being a parent


A Letter Home

In a bad year, my father went away
A hundred miles to take the only job
He could find. Two nights a week he would sit down
In his boardinghouse after a hard shift
In the open hearth and write a duty letter.
He hated telephones, being hard of hearing
And hard of speaking and just as hard of spending
Now that he had to save our car and our house
And feed us from long distance. He knew words
Of all kinds, knew them cold in Latin
And Greek, from crossword puzzles and cryptograms,
But hardly any of them would come from his mouth
Or find their way onto paper. He wrote my mother
Short plain sentences about the weather
And, folded inside each single page, for me,
In colored pencils, a tracing of a cartoon
From the funny papers: Popeye or Barney Google
Or Mutt and Jeff or the Katzenjammer Kids.
The voice-balloons hanging over their heads
Said, "Hope to see you soon" or "Hello, David."
And those would be his words for months on end.

I thank him now for his labor, his devotion
To duty and his doggedness. I was five,
And he was thirty-five. I have two daughters
As young as I was then (though I'm twice as old
As my father was). If I had to leave them
In a bad year, I'd want them to be good
To their mother and to love her as much as I did.
I'd miss them, and I'd want them to be happy
With or without me and to remember me.
If I could manage, I'd even write them love
In a letter home with traces of me inside.

The long first stanza, brings back images of the strong, silent man who was the narrator’s father, a good man who, though seemingly incapable of verbally expressing his affection for his son, nevertheless showed it through his “devotion to duty” as the family breadwinner and his doggedness in finding work hundreds of miles away from home. And though the narrator may not have realized it as a boy, the mature poet realizes the father attempted to express his love in the simple cartoons that accompanied his mother’s letters.

Now that the narrator is seventy and has children the same age as he was then, he realizes what a sacrifice his father made in leaving behind the woman and child he loved to work hundreds of miles away from home.

But there are overtones in this poem that go beyond his memories of his father. There is a realization that he, like his father, may be forcefully separated from his children. If so, he would want his children to love their mother as much as he loved his mother when his father was away. Just as importantly, he would want his children to be happy while still realizing that he loved them. “If I could manage,” to me at least, suggests something more drastic than a physical separation, and makes the lines “I’d even write them love/ In a letter home with traces of me inside” even more poignant.

I’m always surprised that David Wagoner isn’t more popular than he is. It seems to me that his poems are particularly accessible and that his themes are the themes of everyman. If I were able to write poetry, I imagine I would write poetry like Wagoner. His views on nature and on the nature of man are so similar to my own that I often feel like Wagoner has simply put my thoughts into words.

Perhaps that also explains why Wagoner has not attained greater fame. Many readers, particularly young readers, are looking for writers who have a totally unique outlook on life. Writers like Sexton or Plath, and to a certain extent even Roethke, seem very different than us because of the problems they faced. The Beats through their rejection of Western culture bring a Buddhist perspective to nature that is lacking in Wagoner’s poems, though there are probably more similarities than differences between Wagoner’s and Gary Snyder’s attitude toward nature.

Wagoner is certainly a “confessional” poet in the sense that his poems are told from the perspective of his own life and often include biographical details, but unlike the more sensational confessional poets, Wagoner doesn’t seem have much “to confess.” He seems to have lived a fairly normal, and in some ways, more outwardly “successful” life than most of us.

Still, if I had to recommend one poet to friends who are unfamiliar with poetry, I would heartily recommend David Wagoner, and Traveling Light would be an excellent place to begin.