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.

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

My favorite poem in the section of Traveling Light entitled “From Walt Whitman Bathing (1996)” is found in “Sequence: Landscapes” and is entitled “Mapmaking.” Like most of my favorite poems it uses nature as a metaphor for exploring human nature.


It's an old desire: a sketch of part of the earth
There in your hands. You touch it, saying, There.
So make your map:
If you have no crossroads, no confluence of streams
To set your starting point, you simply pretend
You know where you are
And begin outlining a landscape, using a compass
And your measured stride toward landmarks: thrusts of bedrock,
Trees or boulders, whatever
Seems likely to be around after you've gone.
You fix your eyes on them, one at a time,
And learn the hard way
How hard it is to fabricate broken country.
You go where your line takes you: uphill or down,
Over or straight through,
Between and past the casual, accidental
Substance of this world. Once there, you turn back
To confirm your bearings,
To reconcile what you saw with what you see,
Comparing foresight and hindsight. These are moments
When your opinion
Of yourself as cartographer may suffer.
Your traverse ought to return to its beginning,
To a known point, though you,
Slipshod, footsore by dusk, may find your hope
Falls short of perfection: remember no one
Really depends on you
To do away with uncertainty forever.
Your piece of paper may seem in years to come
An amusing footnote
For wandering minds, a record of out-of-the-way
Transfixions (better preserved by photographers)
Whose terrain is so far askew
It should be left to divert imaginations
Like yours that enjoy believing they've mapped out
Some share of the unknown.

Perhaps I’m fond of this poem because I taught map reading in the army for a number of years and realize just how difficult it is to accurately map any area. Or perhaps I like it because I’ve always been interested in semantics and “map making” was a metaphor S. I Hayakawa used in Language in Thought and Action, my favorite book from college.

Although it seems at first that Wagoner is merely referring to mapping an area, it becomes clear as the poem evolves that he is really referring to the difficulty of mapping “the unknown,” and all he has said about mapping the land applies to mapping the unknown.

All of us have the desire to know where we are, to look at our lives and say we are “there” or, better yet, “here.” To make that map, you first have to pretend that “You know where you are,” because you always need a starting point for your map. Of course, you also need a landmark that “Seems likely to be around after you've gone.” Maybe that’s why so many people base their life on an eternal God, one they think they can count on to be there when they try to find their way back.

Once you actually begin mapping your life, though, you realize just how hard it is to understand where you are going or where you’ve been because too often you have to go “where your line takes you.”

Often when you look back over your life you have no idea how you’ve gotten to wherever it is that you now stand. “Foresight and hindsight” offer us very different views of the “same” territory. A standard rule in hiking is that a mountain in the distance is always farther than it looks, and it will take you twice as long to get there as you think it will. Standing on the mountain looking back to where you’ve come from, you may very well question your ability to judge reality.

And if you’ve ever been brave enough to try to go cross country rather than retracing your steps on the trail you’ve just blazed, your opinion of your ability to draw accurate maps will very likely suffer. Even with an accurate map and a compass it’s difficult to find an exact spot on a map, and it’s even harder with a map you’ve drawn yourself.

Strange how much harder it seems to map life’s journey than to map those areas I hike regularly. This blog was meant to serve as a map of where I’ve been and where I want to go, and anyone foolish enough to have followed it for even a month or two will realize just how much I’ve wandered lost in the wilderness of my own soul, unable to find my way back to where I began, much less able to see where I’m likely to go in the future.

Perhaps Wagoner’s right and I shouldn’t be too hard on myself because “no one/Really depends on” me “To do away with uncertainty forever.” If my grandson Gavin were to actually read these entries some day, I would be happy enough if they proved to be an “amusing footnote” to him.

Hopefully some like soul who also enjoys trying to map out the unknown will be as diverted by my attempts as I have been diverted by his.

The Fire Within

Some of my favorite Wagoner poems can be found in the section of Traveling Light: entitled From Through the Forest: New and Selected Poems 1977-87 sections 1-3. My favorite poem is probably still “Getting There,” the first Wagoner poem I ever cited in this blog and, in my opinion, one of his greatest nature poems.

However, “My Fire” from section two is another remarkable poem that represents section two, which focuses on Wagoner’s early life and offers several touching portraits of his father and mother, particularly in the poem “Their Bodies.”

Although “My Fire” is a powerful poem in and of itself, somewhat reminiscent of section 4 “The Return” of Roethke’s powerful poem “The Lost Son,” it is even more powerful when read in the context of the poems that Wagoner has written about his father in this section. In “My Father’s Garden” he says his father “was called a melter. He tried to keep his brain/ From melting in those tyger-mouthed mills” and in “My Father’s Football Game” he says his father would “smile then/ For the linemen, his team, the scoreless linemen getting even.” Wagoner presents an image of a powerful man who is willing to sacrifice himself to support his family.

It is in that light we must see “My Fire,” because symbolically the narrator is trying to emulate his father. Literally, of course, the narrator is merely tending the coal furnace, a job that has fallen to many a young man when coal furnaces were the main means of heating a house. In another sense, though, simply being given the chore of tending the furnace was a sign of becoming a man, for it was far too arduous and too dangerous to assign to a mere child.

My Fire

In the cave under our house
I tended the fire: a furnace
Where black fossils of ferns
And swamp-shaking dinosaurs
Would burn through the cold mornings
If I shook the dying and dead
Ashes down through the grate
And, with firetongs, hauled out clinkers
Like the vertebrae of monsters.

I made my magic there,
Not the bloody charms of hunters,
Not shamans or animals
Painted on damp walls,
But something from fire. My father
Tended huge rows of fires
And burned with them all day,
Sometimes all evening, all night
In a steelmill, brought fire home
On his face and his burnt skin
And slept, glowing dark red.

My fire made steam in coils
And pipes and radiators
Poured from the steel he made
Somewhere I'd only seen
Far off, the burning mountains
Where God kept His true flame
To Himself, melting and turning
Blood-colored ore to pigs
And men to something stranger.

My spirit would swell and sing
Inside those pipes, would knock
And rattle to be let out,
Would circle through walls and floors,
Turn back to water and fall
To the fire again, turn white,
Rise hissing in every room
Against the windows to grow
Fronds and bone-white flowers,
All ice in a frozen garden.

The first two stanzas presents a nearly mythic image, for the basement isn’t a merely a basement but instead a cave, a place where the boy made his “magic,” a magic comparable to the “bloody charms of hunters” or the “animals/Painted on damp walls.” Coal is commonly thought to be made from compressed plants and animals, but his emphasis on “fossils of ferns” and “swamp-shaking dinosaurs” gives his attempts to stoke the fires that provide warmth to the family a mythic quality.

Of course, boys’ attempts to emulate, and surpass, their fathers is probably as old as time itself. And that’s surely what the narrator is about here, though he also realizes that this fire is a far cry from the truly heroic fires his father feeds. The radiators that contain the steam produced by the furnace come from the “steel he made” in “the burning mountains/ Where God kept His true flame/ To himself.” And if the father himself isn’t seen as “God,” he is certainly much closer to God than the boy is.

Perhaps this admiration of the father is enhanced by the narrator’s realization that the steelmill fires are slowly but surely destroying his father, “turning/Blood-colored ore to pigs/ And men to something stranger.” This veiled reference to Odysseus and his men’s encounter with Circe does not seem entirely accidental.

Though the narrator realized that he did not measure up to his father, his “spirit” is trying to do precisely that. Like steam, it would rise up and “knock and rattle to be let out,” only to be restrained by the very radiators made from his father’s steel. Still, his spirit did not give up, for it would rise again and again as the steam water returned to the furnace, always attempting to rise again, growing “Fronds and bone-white flowers,/ All ice in a frozen garden” awaiting the time when it would truly flower on its own.

Thoreau and the Snapping Turtle

I was struck by Wagoner’s “Thoreau and the Snapping Turtle” because I had just finished my series of essays on Thoreau and was, like most readers, struck by Thoreau’s sensitivity and deep commitment to Nature. In fact, it’s hard to think of the “nature movement” in modern America without thinking of Thoreau. I must admit that my simple admiration for Thoreau derived from my high school years had been somewhat diminished by Thoreau’s egotism and self-righteousness at several points in Walden Pond. Thus, Wagoner’s poem added even more to a more mature, critical view of Thoreau.

Although this isn’t my favorite David Wagoner poem, in some ways it seems to illustrate his genius more clearly than any other single poem as it combines his sharp insight into human nature with his deep sensitivity for nature:

Thoreau and the Snapping Turtle

[It] looked not merely repulsive, but to some extent terrible even as a crocodile... a very ugly and spiteful face.
-Thoreau, Journal, May 17, 1854

As his boat glided across a flooded meadow,
He saw beneath him under lily pads,
Brown as dead leaves in mud, a yard-long
Snapping turtle staring up through the water
At him, its shell as jagged as old bark.

He plunged his arm in after it to the shoulder,
Stretching and missing, but groping till he caught it
By the last ridge of its tail. Then he held on,
Hauled it over the gunwale, and flopped it writhing
Into the boat. It began gasping for air

Through a huge gray mouth, then suddenly
Heaved its hunchback upward, slammed the thwart
As quick as a spring trap and, thrusting its neck
Forward a foot at a lunge, snapped its beaked jaws
So violently, he only petted it once,

Then flinched away. And all the way to the landing
It hissed and struck, thumping the seat
Under him hard and loud as a stake-driver.
It was so heavy, he had to drag it home,
All thirty pounds of it, wrong side up by the tail.

His neighbors agreed it walked like an elephant,
lilting this way and that, its head held high,
A scarf of ragged skin at its throat. It would sag
Slowly to rest then, out of its element,
Unable to bear its weight in this new world.

Each time he turned it over, it tried to recover
By catching at the floor with its claws, by straining
The arch of its neck, by springing convulsively,
Tail coiling snakelike. But finally it slumped
On its spiky back like an exhausted dragon.
He said he'd seen a cutoff snapper's head
That would still bite at anything held near it
As if the whole of its life were mechanical,
That a heart cut out of one had gone on beating
By itself like clockwork till the following morning.

And the next week he wrote: It is worth the while
To ask ourselves... Is our life innocent
Enough? Do we live inhumanely, toward man
Or beast, in thought or act? To be successful
And serene we must be at one with the universe.

The least conscious and needless injury
Inflicted on any creature is
To its extent a suicide. What peace-
Or life-can a murderer have?... White maple keys
Have begun to fall and float downstream like wings.

There are myriads of shad-flies fluttering
Over the dark still water under the hill.

The startling contrast between Wagoner’s objective description of the turtle’s capture and resulting demise and Thoreau’s idealistic entries in his journal the next week makes us re-examine not only Thoreau’s commitment to nature but also our own. Wagoner’s description is so matter-of-fact that we see the situation clearly, as if seen through the lens of the television camera. It’s only near the end of the description in lines like “as if the whole of its life were mechanical” and “That a heart cut out of one had gone on beating” that we begin to see how different Wagoner’s view of the episode is from Thoreau’s view. But Wagoner’s careful selection of lines from Thoreau’s journal makes it crystal clear that Wagoner sees through Thoreau’s hypocrisy, or at least Thoreau’s blindness to his own prejudices.

Lines like “Is our life innocent enough?” and “the least conscious and needless injury inflicted on any animal is to its extent a suicide” make it perfectly clear that in Thoreau’s mind the turtle was somehow exempt from these rules, though how he could have felt that way is hard to imagine.

In some ways, this poem reminds me of Carolyn Kizer’s “ The Ungrateful Garden” where the mother rejects the bat because it has lice. Or, more politically relevant, it follows the recent argument of several Republican legislators that it was perfectly acceptable to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because is “wasn’t even beautiful.”

When we are only capable of seeing the world from man’s viewpoint, we are apt to miss the miracle of life itself.

Every Secret is as Near as …

Traveling Light unlike Wagoner’s last collection of poems includes selections from his earlier volume of poetry called Who Will be the Sun? Sometimes I think having lived in the Northwest so long that I, like the Northwest Indians, also see nature in everything. Ravens, Salmon, and Killer Whale have grown sacred to me, too. My favorite poem in this section, though, comes not from an Indian legend I was familiar with, but one I had never heard before:

Old Man, Old Man

Young men, not knowing what to remember,
Come to this hiding place of the moons and years,
To this Old Man. Old Man, they say, where should we go?
Where did you find what you remember? Was it perched in a tree?
Did it hover deep in the white water? Was it covered over
With dead stalks in the grass? Will we taste it
If our mouths have long lain empty?
Will we feel it between our eyes if we face the wind
All night, and turn the color of earth?
If we lie down in the rain, can we remember sunlight?

He answers, I have become the best and worst I dreamed.
When I move my feet, the ground moves under them.
When I lie down, I fit the earth too well.
Stones long underwater will burst in the fire, but stones
Long in the sun and under the dry night
Will ring when you strike them. Or break in two.
There were always many places to beg for answers:
Now the places themselves have come in close to be told.
I have called even my voice in close to whisper with it:
Every secret is as near as your fingers.
If your heart stutters with pain and hope,
Bend forward over it like a man at a small campfire.

Perhaps I like this so much because as I’m becoming an “old man,” or maybe that’s because I’m an old man, I feel like I’ve discovered truths I wasn’t aware of when I was younger and “wiser.” I must admit, of course, that it’s never really clear in the poem whether this is actually an old man or, rather, some natural force in the “hiding place of the moons and years,” like the “man-in-the-moon.”

Like most young men, these young men feel like they will find “truth” “out there.” They are on a quest to find truth. As if it could be found in “the sky” (perched in a tree), in the “water” or on the earth (dead stalks of grass). Can they find it if they face the elements alone? If you deprive yourself of sunlight, “lying down in the rain,” can you remember sunlight?

I particularly like the line, “I have become the best and worst I dreamed” because that often seems true. Both our dreams and our nightmares come true, perhaps because they lie so close to our heart. Perhaps it takes “becoming” to truly discover truth; the truth is what we have become.

The ultimate truth, though, is that the important truths aren’t “out there,” or at least you can’t find them out there. You can only find them when something within you responds to what is out there. If your heart “stutters with pain and hope,” you know you are sensing something true, but that’s not enough. You also have to tinder that flame, protect it from being blown out, pay heed to it until it is able to survive by itself.

Every Good Boy Does Fine

Part 3 of David Wagoner’s “Traveling Light :From Collected Poems, 1956-1976” focuses on various aspects of creativity. While I found more poems I liked here than I anticipated (I’m not too fond of artists discussing creativity), my favorite poem was still one entitled “Every Good Boy Does Fine, ” a poem I encountered years ago in an anthology for high school students. It has everything I admire in a poem: simplicity, vivid images, and rich symbols:

Every Good Boy Does Fine

I practiced my cornet in a cold garage
Where I could blast it till the oil in drums
Boomed back; tossed free throws till I couldn't move my thumbs;
Sprinted through tires, tackling a headless dummy.

In my first contest, playing a wobbly solo,
I blew up in the coda, alone on stage,
And twisting like my hand-tied necktie, saw the judge
Letting my silence dwindle down his scale.

At my first basketball game, gangling away from home
A hundred miles by bus to a dressing room,
Under the showering voice of the coach, I stood in a towel,
Having forgotten shoes, socks, uniform.

In my first football game, the first play under the lights
I intercepted a pass. For seventy yards, I ran
Through music and squeals, surging, lifting my cleats,
Only to be brought down by the safety man.

I took my second chances with less care, but in dreams
I saw the bald judge slumped in the front row,
The coach and team at the doorway, the safety man
Galloping loud at my heels. They watch me now.

You who have always homed your way through passages,
Sat safe on the bench while some came naked to court,
Slipped out of arms to win in the long run,
Consider this poem a failure, sprawling flat on a page.

The delightful irony of this poem title may be what makes it so memorable. This poem rings true to my experiences and even more so to the experiences of my children, probably because their childhood seems so much more vivid to me than my own. First attempts, and often many after that, meet with failure. I can remember my own stage fright when I had a part in my grade school play, a part based on my classroom performance, by the way, not on any desire to expose myself to public ridicule. While outgoing and boisterous in class with people I know, I have always been extremely shy around strangers. I decided from that day on that I never wanted to be on stage again, even though I was convinced to volunteer again in high school. Gradually public speaking became easier, but I have never really felt comfortable in front of an audience.

Luckily I’ve never had the bad experience of forgetting my gym clothes, but you’re not as “preoccupied,” or absent minded, as I am without being unprepared for many an event. I still remember a long hike where I forgot my boots and had to wear sandals on my trek up the mountain. Despite my dreams, I never made my high school football team, but the first time I played in the army I got an elbow to the chin that left me without hearing for a day and a half and stunned enough that I had to leave the game. Still, I was out on the field game after game giving it my best shot, even if I was 40 pounds too light to play on the line. I’ve never regretted it.

When my kids were growing up, I only had a few rules about participating in different activities: if you started something you had to finish it; if you played you had to do your best; and, you could always quit at the end of the season if you wanted to, it was your choice, not mine. As a result, they both seem to have grown up more confident than I ever was and are both willing to risk many things I never would.

All of us are probably haunted by our failures, but the real failures are those who are afraid to take the chances to do what they really want to do. There’s no reason to play football, or participate in one particular activity, but it’s a mistake not to play football or participate in a play simply because you’re afraid you will fail. Failure is less destructive than not giving life a chance.

Needless to say, I don’t consider this poem a failure.

Their Pockets Empty

Section Two of Traveling Light covers some of the best of Wagoner’s non-nature poems written between 1956 and 1976. It’s easy to see why Wagoner doesn’t want to be limited to being a “nature poet,” as there are some fine poems here, though it was much easier for me to settle on a poem because there weren’t nearly as many competing for my favor.

While “The Labors of Thor” and the delightful “This is a Wonderful Poem” caught my attention first, “Bums at Breakfast” was equally fine, and seemed more representative of this section, which focused on the down-and-out, or, at least, the down-and-out in all of us. “Bums at Breakfast” suggests a possible reason why Wagoner, like his fellow poets Richard Hugo and Richard Wright, identifies so strongly with the common man:

Bums at Breakfast

Daily, the bums sat down to eat in our kitchen.
They seemed to be whatever the day was like:
If it was hot or cold, they were hot or cold;
If it was wet, they came in dripping wet.
One left his snowy shoes on the back porch
But his socks stuck to the clean linoleum,
And one, when my mother led him to the sink,
Wrung out his hat instead of washing his hands.

My father said they'd made a mark on the house,
A hobo's sign on the sidewalk, pointing the way.
I hunted everywhere, but never found it.
It must have said, "It's only good in the morning-
When the husband's out." My father knew by heart
Lectures on Thrift and Doggedness,
But he was always either working or sleeping.
My mother didn't know any advice.

They ate their food politely, with old hands,
Not looking around, and spoke in short, plain answers.
Sometimes they said what they'd been doing lately
Or told us what was wrong; but listening hard,
I broke their language into secret codes:
Their east meant west, their job meant walking and walking,
Their money meant danger, home meant running and hiding,
Their father and mother were different kinds of weather.

Dumbly, I watched them leave by the back door,
Their pockets empty as a ten-year-old's;
Yet they looked twice as rich, being full of breakfast.
I carried mine like a lump all the way to school.
When I was growing hungry, where would they be?
None ever came twice. Never to lunch or dinner.
They were always starting fresh in the fresh morning.
I dreamed of days that stopped at the beginning.

Luckily, I was too young to experience The Depression, but my mother used to tell me how her mother always left food at the back door for those out of work. When times we’re as hard as that, there was no shame in not holding a job, simply joy when you were lucky enough to have full-time work. And apparently a feeling that you had an obligation, at least among the mothers, to help others in need. Seems like that’s what it used to mean to be a “Christian.”

Perhaps I like this poem so much because it reminds me of my own mother’s concern for others less fortunate than herself and of her life-long commitment to organizations like The Salvation Army. She would never have thought of holding a garage sale to earn money or even taking a tax break for donations. She’s also the one that passed on tales of the Depression and emphasized the need to help others. Though my father shared many of the same beliefs, he, like Waggoner’s father, emphasized thrift, the value of work, and the need to take pride in your work more than the need to help others, though he used to find ways of keeping men working that others would have fired long before.

I suppose I’m less generous than either of my parents were when it comes to giving handouts to “bums,” though I probably devoted more of my life to trying to help people, both as a caseworker and as a teacher. I’ve always respected people for who they are and seldom looked down on others who were less fortunate than I was. I’m not really a Christian but do believe that we are all “God’s children” and equally deserving.

Maybe if I’d been there when my grandmother fed the bums I would have wondered how they spent their day and dreamed of hitting the road, too. Maybe I, too, would have become a Jack Kerouc. As it turns out, though, my family moved so often when I was young that all I wanted to do was settle down in one place and make some life-long friends. You can only stand so many “fresh starts” before you realize you need to stick with something long enough to make a go of it.