Further Down Memory Lane

Unless you keep practicing your meditation, the mind goes where it will. But that’s okay, too, because sometimes wanderings are more interesting than where you were originally headed, and certainly more interesting than the places the media would lead you.

If you follow this log, you will have noticed a nostalgic tendency the last few days. I didn’t start out that way, but has certainly gone that way. For me, at least, that somehow seems appropriate because that is what I have most loved about the internet since its early days. Jumping from link leads to some strange, but interesting, places like The Fruitlog – a British Eccentric or dle@pitas-zen,bukowski,fishing, hammering ants and staring at the sun-what else is there?…. You can’t expect much more from life.

Pulling out some of my oldest poetry books, I found one by Nelson Bentley, one of my favorite professors, the only one ever to give me the confidence to write my own poems. Perhaps because of this, I didnât appreciate his poems nearly as much as they deserved to be. I was doubly pleased, though, when I found a website devoted to his memory at Friends of Nelson

Re-reading Sea Lion Caves I was pleasantly surprised to find a poem about Cannon Beach, long my favorite place on the Oregon coast, long before it became the yuppie destination that it is today.

Cannon Beach

Who love these rocks have studied to endure.

The tall waves roar

And break their whitest on those basalt snags:

Foam mounts like wings

Out of a sound unchanged since Genesis.

The ocean heaves the weight of time ashore:
The rocks stand sheer.
White seafowl slowly skim immobile nests.
Fish blue with warts,
Eyes glazed by water, swim under the blue surface.

Where one black monolith makes immortal thrust
And waves smash most,
Light like a halo holds the primitive tip.
From cape to cape
That rigid word orders the surge of chaos.

Nelson Bentley from Sea Lion Caves

I doubt that I was ready for this poem when I read it in college, but today it seems to capture what I have most loved about the beach.

The roaring of the surf is the ultimate meditation, endlessly pulsing, the very sound of blood rushing through your veins, the blood of Gaia.

What better symbol of endurance than this "black monolith" that juts out into the water, the prow of our continent, withstanding the ravages of time .

David Wagoner

may not necessarily be my favorite poet, but I own eleven of his books of poetry, at least six more books than by any other poet.

Maybe I enjoy Wagoner’s poetry because he taught the first English class I ever took at the University of Washington or because he taught the first section of the year-long class I took on modern poetry my senior year.

Maybe it is simply because I was young and impressionable then and, no matter what he was teaching, he was as mesmerizing as Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker. Anyone who can write lines like:

God bless me? Me be one for the cloud-capped, holy-
For showbiz, smug, sharkskinny, hog-certain, flowery Chosen
Harping for glory? Thumbs-upping glissandos on pure-gold G-strings?

could certainly hold my attention no matter what he was saying.

He saw the world in ways I, having been trapped in institutions, of learning my whole life, had never seen at 18 and 21 years of age.

Today, though, his poems probably appeal to me because they capture feelings associated with our common experiences, particularly those connected with the Northwest outdoors, as in the following poem.


You take a final step and, look, suddenly

You’re there. You’ve arrived

At the one place all your drudgery was aimed for:

This common ground

Where you stretch out, pressing your cheek to sandstone.

What did you want

To be? You’ll remember soon. You feel like tinder

Under a burning glass,

A luminous point of change. The sky is pulsing

Against the cracked horizon,

Holding it firm till the arrival of stars

In time with your heartbeats.

Like wind etching rock, you’ve made a lasting impression

On the self you were

By having come all this way through all this welter

Under your own power

Though your traces on a map would make an unpromising

Meandering lifeline.

What have you learned so far? You’ll find out later,

Telling it haltingly

Like a dream, that lost traveller’s dream

Under the last bill

Where through the night you’ll take your time out of mind

To unburden yourself

Of elements along elementary paths

By the break of morning.

You’ve earned this worn-down, hard, incredible sight

Called Here and Now.

Now, what you make of it means everything,

Means starting over:

The life in your hands is neither here nor there

But getting there,

So you’re standing again and breathing, beginning another journey without regret

Forever, being your own unpeaceable kingdom,

The end of endings.

David Wagoner from In Broken Country

Hiking, my metaphor for life, is a spiritual experience that reflects my journey to discovering who I am and who I want to be.

Each hike is an individual journey, and at least for one day all that exists is my goal is to reach the ãend.ä There is no outside world to worry about.

Of course, more than once I’ve wondered why I am doing a particular hike and whether I am ever going to reach the end, particularly on an extended backpack. When I do reach my destination, though, I feel physically and spiritually like “tinder under a burning glass.” That passionate moment justifies all the pain it took to get there. For that moment, there is only “Here and Now.”

As I start back the trail, forgetting the pain and struggle, I begin to think of my return or of my next great hike. And with the help of Wagoner’s poem, I realize that “the life in your hands is neither here nor there but getting there.”

A Mystical Brotherhood

Mt. Hood from Twin Lakes Trail

When I first encountered W.B. Yeats in the 60’s I dismissed his early pastoral poetry as naive and focused entirely on his later poems like Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop or A Dialogue of Self and Soul. Upon rereading his poetry lately, though, I can certainly see the appeal of these early pre-Raphaelite poems.

Ah, how I long for the good old days, prior to September 11th, prior, even, to the 20th Century when Yeats was able to write:

OUT WORN heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.
Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;
And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.
W.B.Yeats from Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats

How delightful, indeed, to be able to escape the bonds of "wrong and right," not to have to worry about the morality or immorality of our country’s retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan, to find jo

You’ve Got Mail

I started reading Mark Strand’s poetry many years ago after I took one of his classes when he was a visiting professor at the University of Washington. Today his poetry is quite popular and several of his poems can be found on the web at sites like: A small collection of Mark Strand poems or Mark Strand (Bold Type Magazine)

I’m not sure I would have appreciated his poetry as much if I had taken his class as an undergraduate, but having just returned from Vietnam, I found his dark, surrealistic poems particularly moving.

When I started teaching poetry several years later, I always handed my students a copy of Eating Poetry as an introduction to my course to dispel any notions that poetry was merely sentimental verses written by lovesick romantics.

The ongoing anthrax letter scare reminded me of the following poem.

The Mailman

It is midnight.

He comes up the walk

and knocks at the door.

I rush to greet him.

He stands there weeping,

shaking a letter at me.

He tells me it contains

terrible personal news.

He falls to his knees.

"Forgive me! Forgive me!" he pleads.

I ask him inside.

He wipes his eyes.

His dark blue suit

is like an inkstain

on my crimson couch.

Helpless, nervous, small,

he curls up like a ball

and sleeps while I compose

more letters to myself

in the same vein:

"You shall live

by inflicting pain.

You shall forgive."

Mark Strand in Reasons for Moving

"The Mailman" is one of those foreboding poems that sits in the back of your mind until it is triggered by a certain event.

The poem’s ambiguity suggests the horror of having good news turn into bad news. We rush to the mailbox in hopes of hearing from loved ones or details of Apple’s long-awaited iPod. Imagine our horror, then, when we are greeted by the ever-friendly postman weeping loudly over the terrible news he is delivering.

In the past, the poem reminded me of the "Dear John" letter I received before shipping out to Vietnam, a little good news before sailing off to war.

Today, though, the poem seems to take on added significance in light of recent events. No matter how irrational the fear, today there is a moment of uncertainty when you receive a letter in an unknown handwriting and without a return address – even if does turn out to be an invitation to a baby shower.

Even the surprising ending of the poem where we discover that the protagonist is writing the messages to himself seems strangely appropriate: "You shall live by inflicting pain." On whom? "You shall forgive." Yourself? Your enemy?