The Real Things We Live By

Considering how few specific poems I liked in Traveling Through the Dark, it’s amazing how many I liked in Allegiances. In fact, this is a very different book than Traveling Through the Dark. If Stafford was looking for a particular place in his previous volume, he has now found it, and this volume is populated by the common people who live there. It’s not that there isn’t a sense of place here, there definitely is. However, there seems to be a shift in focus from finding a place to describing the people who live in a place.

Stafford is a remarkable poet who makes unremarkable people, the ones who live right next door, ones with names like “Bess,” the lady down the street who works at the library, seem remarkable. In fact, “common” might well be the most repeated word in this book of poems, for it is the common man, or Everyman, if you prefer, who Stafford seems most concerned with here:


It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by.

Far to the north, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always lurked–
elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders:-we
encounter them in dread and wonder,

But once we have tasted far streams, touched the gold,
found some limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.

Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, sturdy for common things.

I like a lot of poems in this short book, but “Allegiances” may well be my favorite because it best captures the essence of the book as a whole.

Stafford appeals to the common man in all of us. This poem is written for those of us who love “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where each of us becomes our own Jimmy Stewart bumbling through life, beloved, despite (or is it because of ?) our all-too-human mistakes, while John Wayne, triumphant, rides off into the sunset alone.

Of course, I doubt it is as easy as it first seems to be a “common one.” To do so, you have to give up dreams of traveling to faraway places or dreams of performing heroic deeds like those in Lord of the Rings, no Miniver Cheevy’s here. Hardest of all, you have to find the “real things,” and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean the latest iMac, iPod, or newest version of GoLive.

However, if we are grounded like this, if we can love the “earth and where we are,” we will be able to withstand insanity when it sweeps the land, whether it be cries for revenge or the belief that we can destroy the forces of evil and be TRULY SECURE if only we are willing to spend enough of our Social Security surplus on the military.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the poems in this book is that so many are not about remarkable people; they are about the lives you and I have lived, except seen with greater wisdom and insight than most of us bring to bear on our daily lives.

The following poem reminds me of my own father, the one who trusted me enough with the family car that he never mentioned a “curfew.” Do you think he could possibly not have known that I dragged that car?

Father’s Voice

"No need to get home early;
the car can see in the dark."
He wanted me to be rich
the only way we could,
easy with what we had.

And always that was his gift,
given for me ever since,
easy gift, a wind
that keeps on blowing for flowers
or birds wherever I look.

World, I am your slow guest,
one of the common things
that move in the sun and have
close, reliable friends
in the earth, in the air, in the rock.

Though we were never rich, can anyone be richer than a 16 year-old teenager with a pretty girl sitting next to him driving the family car with ten dollars in his pocket from his paper route, more than enough for a movie and a meal at the drive-in? I’ve never been that rich since. Nor do I expect I ever will be.

Maybe I’ve misspoken, maybe my father, like the father in the poem, taught me how to be rich and easy with what I have. Sometimes I still feel that rich when I’m up high on Mt Hood while others are down below chasing the mighty dollar bill. As long as I have the earth under my feet and the sky above me, I’m certainly as rich as I need to be.

And this book reminds me just how rich I am. Stafford’s celebration of life reminds me why I spend so much time reading poetry. His vision helps transform ordinary lives into extra-ordinary lives, making us happy just to be alive.

“Allegiances” from Another Viewpoint

To whom do we owe our allegiances, our loyalty and devotion?

Because of the word “heroes” in the first line, this poem reminds me of an assignment I once gave to a class. Who is your hero? Simple, even sophomoric, but it was for a sophomore lit class after all. It was also a trick question.

Most of the kids named sports figures, rock stars, or Hollywood leading men and women. I learned more about Michael Jordan than I ever cared to know. A few more thoughtful students–those who probably had me figured out more than I knew, wrote about their fathers and mothers or, joy of joy, a favorite teacher.

When we discussed the topic, I let fly my arrows. Had they named heroes or celebrities? Is a hero always well known? Is a celebrity a hero? What does a hero do? Doesn’t a hero take care of those around him? What has Michael Jordan ever done for you?

I probably convinced very few of the 16 year olds that the common ones among us can be heroes or more specifically worthy of allegiance by our altruism, courage, determination, endurance and support of the common things. It’s “time for us common ones to locate ourselves by the real things we live by,” time for us to stand up, locate our convictions, “get real” as the TV psychologist says. That is how to earn the allegiances of those around us.

But we search for others to pay our allegiances to in all manner of other places. In any direction we search for others to make us shiver, the elves, goblins, trolls, spiders, encountered in dread and wonder. The search changes us and not because we found what we were looking for. I like the line “a season changes” and we come home safe, quiet, grateful.” Anyone who have traveled to a foreign land–and I don’t think the South of France is foreign enough, I’m choosing China–knows the feeling of such a return. We can come home from the journey more respectful of ourselves.

The last stanza troubles me a little. There is no “suppose” about it, an insane wind does often hold the hills, we are surrounded by beliefs that are strange to us–pencil in Taliban here. But we ordinary beings, the non celebrities among us, the moms and dads and teachers who love and work hard for the kids “can’–have the ability to–“cling to the earth and love where we are, sturdy for common things.” Are not those “sturdy for common things” most worthy of our allegiance?

If someone wrote on my epitaph “sturdy for common things” I would rest peacefully.

Diane McCormick

The More Things Change

Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959

… we die of cold, and not of darkness.

The American hero must triumph over
The forces of darkness.
He has flown through the very light of heaven
And come down in the slow dusk
Of Spain.

Franco stands in a shining circle of police.
His arms open in welcome.
He promises all dark things
Will be hunted down.

State police yawn in the prisons.
Antonio Machado follows the moon
Down a road of white dust,
To a cave of silent children
Under the Pyrenees.
Wine darkens in stone jars in villages.
Wine sleeps in the mouths of old men, it is a dark red color.

Smiles glitter in Madrid.
Eisenhower has touched hands with Franco, embracing
In a glare of photographers.
Clean new bombers from America muffle their engines
And glide down now.
Their wings shine in the searchlights
Of bare fields,
In Spain.

James Wright from Above the River

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