Floyd Skloot’s Approaching Winter

I recently started reading Life Purpose Boot Camp a book that describes a process for creating a meaningful life, which, I’ll admit, seems a little foolish at this stage of life, but, anyhow, it begins by having you list “meaning opportunities.”  One of mine was reading poetry and responding to it, although it’s clear from recent blog entries that I have not been doing much of that. Coincidently, Leslie and I are spending some time at her daughter’s house and it is raining, so I have some extra time to read and reflect.

Despite the lack of blog entries, I have been reading poetry steadily throughout the years; I just haven’t been motivated enough or have been too busy to respond to what I’ve read. Of course,I also have several books that I started reading and haven’t finished for different reasons, and I’m not going to discuss  a book I haven’t finished.  That would be hypocritical since in the past I would penalize students heavily for taking credit for a book they hadn’t finished. I’ve resolved to finish up books I’ve started — at least those that seem worth finishing — and write something about them.

A book that I finished awhile ago was Floyd Skloot’s Approaching Winter. I doubt I would have appreciated this book when I was a college undergrad, but I can certainly relate to many of the poems now that I am well into my own Winter. The older  I get the more I feel compelled to work out, even though I seldom worked out in the past beyond playing basketball two or three times a week and hiking whenever I got a chance.  Since we moved to Tacoma some fifteen years ago, I have been a member of the local YMCA (at least until the Covid 19 epidemic, and have faithfully used a rowing machine for most of that time. Few things will make you a better observer than repeating the same stroke for fifteen minutes, unless, of course, it’s going nowhere on a treadmill, which I steadily refuse to do.

At the Fitness Center 

 Framed by a picture window,
 two old men climbing stairs to nowhere
 watch the river flow.
       As though gliding on air
 them, a woman with violet hair,
            wires dangling from her ears,
                      keeps her eyes shut tight
 and sings out of tune while she strides
            on the elliptical machine
                                 next to mine.
 A husband and wife jog in place
            on treadmills side-by-side,
                                 keeping pace
 with each other and trying to plan
 the next two
            nights’ dinners though they can
                      barely speak. A teen
 with his cap on backwards cycles through
                      a mountain pass
            as his girlfriend screams
 and kickboxes behind shaded glass.

One of the ways I used to get ready to hike in the mountains during the summer was using the stair-stepper referred to in the opening lines. It’s hard work, much harder than climbing in the mountains, precisely because you aren’t going anywhere. If you’re an old man, and I am, it’s hard not be distracted by younger people working out; it’s impossible not to notice violet hair or strange tattoos in odd places.  

I, like most people, used to think gyms were full of jocks or fitness fanatics, not your average citizen. That view has definitely changed over the last fifteen years.  When I go to the weight room, which is, admittedly, in the middle of the work-day, there are lots of women, and lots of older people simply trying to retain some of the strength that aging robs them of.  There’s even husbands and wives, though more often than not it’s actually just Leslie and I.  Of course, there is always the young hotshot who shows up in the middle of the day to to reveal just how out of shape you really are, and, less occasionally, he’ll show up with his hot girlfriend to show you something else you have lost through old age.  

Many of the poems in this collection are early memories, but, in retrospect, the author realizes that the world he saw as a child wasn’t the “real” world.  Despite the fact that my daughter accuses me of being “the least nostalgic person in the universe,” I’ve been going over old photos and old records trying to get rid of everything that no one else could possibly want. In doing so, I have discovered, like Skloot does, that what I thought was the truth for most of my life has actually been mis-remembered.

Near the end of the collection, he turns to even more unpleasant realities, like those in “Today.”


 Johnny is John now, and Billy is Bill.
 Though I haven’t seen them in fifty years
 it feels like we’re boys together still.
 When his voice breaks, John’s boyhood face appears
 across the miles, and when Bill speaks of storms
 we survived on our barrier island home
 I forget and call him Billy, which makes
 John gasp because it hurts so much to laugh.
 The cancer has come back. He says it takes
 all his strength some mornings just to take half
 a breath, but then there might be a whole day
 when he can almost forget, like today.

Because my father’s job required us to move regularly, I really don’t have any childhood friends. Jim Wiese, who now lives in Vermont, is my longest friend; I don’t think he would’ve become a life-long friend if I had called him “Jimmy” in Junior High where I first met him. Still, the poem rings true even for me.  Jim and I can almost pick up a conversation we’ve had a year ago and go from there.  We may not be boys, but we’re still kids not seniors.  Thankfully, Jim and I haven’t had to talk about cancer lately, but that’s not true when I meet with a group of teachers that I started teaching with.  When I get together with that group, all too often someone brings a newspaper clipping with the funeral notice of a friend.  You don’t reach 79 without becoming aware of death as a constant possibility unless you have Alzheimer’s, a fate worse than death from my perspective.  Still, any day when you can still laugh is a good day.

Though I wouldn’t suggest this book to a high school student, I suspect that most of my regular readers are a little older than that and might find Skloot’s work as interesting as I did.

Myrna Stone’s The Art of Loss

By all rights I really shouldn’t like Myrna Stone’s The Art of Loss nearly as much as I do.  In fact, if I had happened  to read this online review before buying it:

“The poet’s capacious vocabulary, sensitivity to the etymological implications of her word choices, ear for phonemic subtleties and hunger for verbal precision, apparent everywhere, give her unique access to the overlap of world and word that we are so often told is merely linguistic illusion. But for Stone, like Keats, the truth is proved ‘upon the pulse,’ and her truths, in their syntactical rhythms and syllabic music, are proven through a rhetoric of pulsations.”— B. H. Fairchild, from his Introduction to How Else to Love the World

I probably would not have bought the book which would have been too bad because I really liked  several of the poems, like this one: 


Taller and older than the rest of us, she arrived twice held
back, her past present in her eyes the way
the early-Winter light was

that December-—brutal, brilliantly clear, clarifying everything
and nothing. And we called her nothing
as real as her name, nothing

as benign as Rosie or Rose, nothing we could resist repeating
in covert whispers as we passed her desk
in the last row at the back

of the room, as though we understood even then that she-
with her waist, with her breasts and hips—
thought of herself as anything

but a child, as the sum of all we could and couldn’t imagine
her to be, as though we knew as well as she
how negligible, how transient

she was, that as she moved among us through the parochial
halls of St. Denis, dressed day after day
in the same washed—out

blouse while the boys openly mimicked her every motion
she was someone merely passing through
who would not be passed over.

I’m pretty sure this poem resonates with me because of an incident that happened when I was in the 5th or 6th grade in Concord, California.  A truant officer escorted a boy into our class who had to be at least three to four or five years older than anyone in our class. He was tall, muscular and had beard stubble.  I’m sure the whole class was dumbfounded by his appearance.  At recess, everyone avoided him, and even the boys gathered and gossiped instead of playing dodge ball.  Luckily for the boy, he wasn’t subjected to the embarrassment of being in that class for long as he left after a week or so.  

It wasn’t until later that I realized, or was told, that he must have been one of the gypsy boys who traveled around the country with his parents picking fruit. Perhaps it wasn’t even until our family spent weekends picking walnuts that I realized this.  Gypsy children often worked in the fields next to their parents and seldom attended school unless rounded up by truant officers.  When they did go to school, it was often only for short periods of time because once the fruit crops were picked they left for the next crop.  No wonder the boy was behind in his schooling.  

The fact that I acted no differently than the rest of the class was particularly embarrassing in retrospect because all too often I was the outsider since my father was constantly transferred as he got promoted.  Naturally an introvert, we often moved about the time I started to make friends at a new school.  In fact, when I entered the fourth grade in a previous school I got into several fights because it was cool to pick on the new kid, and the only person I allowed to pick on me was my big brother who was four years older than me and who I eventually learned it was unwise to challenge unless driven to the point of despair.

Unfortunately, having taught high school for thirty years, I observed this phenomena all too regularly.  I’d like to think that adults are wiser and  more considerate of others than teenagers, but, unfortunately, current events would seem to suggest otherwise.  Tribalism seems genetically ingrained and is too often culturally reinforced even by religions that seem to theologically promote the love of our fellow mankind.  

In fact, the title poem, “The Art of Loss,” depicts Botticelli devastated by the burning at the stake of Savonarola, Botticelli’s inspiration,  for heresy. I was a little surprised that Stone’s poetry, like Pastan’s, contained several poems that referenced famous artists since I seldom encounter that in the poetry I read.  

Not surprisingly, “Love” often causes the greatest loss of all, but it’s not just romantic love that leads to loss.  Stone’s “Camera Obscura” depicts how even the best-intended love can limit people, causing them to miss out on some of life’s greatest opportunities.  

I’ll have to admit that several of the poems are too formal and too literary for my taste.  That said, though I’m not ready to pronounce this great poetry, like all great literary works it leads us to empathize with others by seeing the world from a different point of view than we are used to.  Our world definitely needs more of that right now.  

Thomas Brush’s Open Heart

Long, long ago Lael, Logan, Leslie and I were visiting Pt. Townsend, and Lael and Logan wanted to go into a bookstore.  I went in but had to leave immediately because they sold used paperbacks, and I’m deathly allergic to book mold.  I waited outside, but Lael came outside and told me that the store had a fabulous poetry section. Sorely tempted, I rushed inside and grabbed a handful of books by local poets without browsing them very closely. I’m addicted to poetry books, and its hard to find good poetry books in the big-box stores — much less ones featuring local poets.  I’ll  admit I buy most of my poetry books from Amazon because it’s one of the few places I can find them, and more-often-than-not I buy the Kindle edition because I’ve run out of storage space and  need to throw an old book away every time I buy a new book.  

I bought Thomas Brush’s Open Heart because he’s a Seattle poet and several of his poems focused on places I was fond of.  It turned out those aren’t the only thing we have in common.  He is almost exactly the same age as I am and taught high school English (not sure how long, though).  I can’t tell if he went to Vietnam or if he just knows its effects because his brother was there, but we have certainly both been affected by it, though maybe not quite in the same way. 

We also share a love of place, a love of the Puget Sound and of the “the single mountain that holds/Puget Sound in place” as shown in 


Thank God for the rain,
For the green home of moss and mud
And for the old wooden hull of the steam ferry
San Mateo that still floats
From Tacoma to Tahlequah,
And for all the rusting steel decks and rotting
Dugouts and the single mountain that holds
Puget Sound in place, and for the salmon that rise
Like the lost language of the Salish and for the clean
Hands of the rivers and the wet and swollen stones
That balance the earth beneath us.
And thank the damp breath
Of the leaves, and the sweet torrent
Of twigs stirring the black bark, and the branches
That twist and swell in the writhing
Trail of air, and the long, secret whistle of geese
That crosses that falling sky, and the sobbing music
Of the tides, and for what I can take
From this sinking island and call it

I may not always thank God for the rain, but I’ve never wanted to live in a place that isn’t as green as the Pacific Northwest, and you can’t have that without all the rain we get. Until I looked up Maury Island and Tahlequah I didn’t realize that this poem is about the ferry terminal that is just a few blocks away from our home in Tacoma. I love to walk the area around the Tacoma side of the ferry route and would love to ride the ferry again once Covid-19 subsides.  The view of Mt. Rainier from that ferry terminal has graced my site several times, and I’m sure you would get an even better view from the ferry. Only a Puget Sounder would recognize the importance of Mt. Rainier and recognize that Puget Sound is often referred to by its Indian Name, the Salish Sea.  There are many poems like this that I can relate to.

Unfortunately, there’s a side of Brush that I can’t relate to no matter how hard I try, one that is suggested by the blurbs on the back of book that praise the “the sweat and mud of the ordinary,” and “the cracked music of everyday life,” comparing him to Richard Hugo and Raymond Carver.  The main similarity I see is a focus on drinking, a symbol of the despair that threatens to overwhelm all of us, but also a sort of tribute to those hard-drinking men who tackle the world directly and manage to transcend it.  To me, Brush seems closer to Charles Bukowski who argued that “Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn. I guess I’ve lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now.”

“Dream Wars” appears early in the book and most clearly suggests these associations, but there are several references in other poems, one that struck particularly close to home was “Cannon Beach,” where he says his brother “spent the hoarded days of rest drunk/ and in bed with a girl…”  I spent my R&R in Bangkok in a drunken haze trying to forget everything I’d seen in the previous six months. As a result, I only have a vague memory of what I actually saw there and might not have any memory of it if I hadn’t snapped shots of sites I visited.


This morning mist rose from the valley,
The last hot day
Of July, strings the color of tarnished silver hanging
In the birch trees, wispy sheets floating like thoughts
I once had of something memorable, something
As transparent and important as that brief hour.

There’s a stray
Cat, adrift in a pool of sunlight, and I envy
Him, King—Of-Sooner-
Or-Later, but not
now, winding my way
Through the smokeless air, so blue
It could be a lake turned upside down.

On the sidewalk
A rope of little kids holding hands swims by,
Led by a woman wearing a tee shirt emblazoned
With a baby hippo, and I begin
The morning ritual, sipping bourbon
Beneath Christmas lights framing the back
Bar, seeing the mirror as another body
Of water as holy as any, knowing how
I got here and why

Two stools down
A man holds his beer in one fist, bleeding
From some dream war
All of us recognize and know
We can’t win but we keep trying
One drink at a time.

I can easily identify with the ideas expressed in the first two stanzas. At my age, I’m more apt than not to let “memorable” thoughts slip by without writing them down or taking action on them, and I have always been too busy to just sit and enjoy the sun, to just enjoy the moment. 

Brush loses me, though, in the last two stanzas.  I can’t even imagine a “morning ritual, sipping bourbon” in a bar lit by Christmas lights.  It’s hard to imagine anything more depressing.  Perhaps it is the contrast of sitting in a dimly lit bar sipping bourbon with the kids holding hands being led by a woman with a baby hippo that Brush is trying to suggest, but “ seeing the mirror as another body/Of water as holy as any” would seem to suggest otherwise. If sipping bourbon is a ritual, perhaps it’s time to seek another religion.

The last stanza is even harder for me to accept. It could be a striking image of someone who has been totally defeated, but to suggest we are still trying to win the war “one drink at a time” strikes me as just plain absurd.  The world you see through the bottom of a glass is never the real world; it’s always a twisted, distorted world, one that may confirm your view of the world but can never show you the way out.  

I’m certainly not denying that the world Brush is depicting isn’t real; it is, no doubt about it. Nor am I denying that there are a considerable number of writers (Hemingway comes to mind) who celebrate tough, hard-drinking heroes.  Bukowski is an extremely popular poet,  more popular than several poets I admire much more.  If you admire Bukowski’s poetry,  you might like Open Heart, but, no matter how hard I tried to like it, it just doesn’t appeal to me.

A Last Look at Carnival Evening

I’m going to spend one more day, though I could easily spend a week more, trying to convince you that Carnival Evening is definitely worth your time, a perfect companion during the Covid-19 lockdown. I’ve chosen  two poems which represent two themes in Pastan’s work.  

Several of her poems focus on famous paintings, which I might have found frustrating before the invention of the internet since I would have to run to the library and spend at least an hour finding the painting.  That’s not a problem now, though, and being able to look at the artwork while reading the poem elucidates both.  

I’ll have to admit that I didn’t know who Vermeer was before I read the poem, but I did recognize a couple of his most famous paintings, just not this one, when I looked him up online.  I was a little surprised to find how many references there were to this painting, particularly this one.

Woman Holding a Balance
Vermeer, 1664

The picture within
the picture is The Last
Judgement, subdued
as wallpaper in the background.
And though the woman
holding the scales
is said to be weighing
not a pearl or a coin
but the heft of a single soul,
this hardly matters.
It is really the mystery
of the ordinary
we’re looking at—the way
Vermeer has sanctified
the same light that enters
our own grimed windows
each morning, touching
a cheek, the fold
of a dress, a jewelry box
with perfect justice.

When Vermeer put an illustration of The Last Judgement in the background of his painting he seems to be suggesting a tie between that and the scale, by referring to it as “wallpaper” Pastan notes the painting while at the same time suggesting it is far less important than the “sanctified” light at the heart of the painting and her poem. Even the “weighing” of a human soul to determine its eternal fate “hardly matters”  compared to this holy light. More importantly, for the reader, this is “the same light that enters/our own grimed windows/each morning…”  Most of us are too preoccupied to notice the light; it takes the artist,  the poet, or the photographer to remind us of this daily blessing in hopes that we, too, will see it as holy, sanctified.

Pastan’s interest in art isn’t limited to paintings, she also focuses on her art in poems about Emily Dickinson, new poets, marginalized poets, and the nature of books in general.  My favorite of these types of poems is this one, which made me think that it might have been Emily Dickinson’s version of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

postcard from cape cod

just now I saw
one yellow
across buzzard’s bay
how brave I thought
or foolish
like sending
a poem
across months
of silence
and on such

There is a nowness to the poem that transcends the years it took to reach my eyes. I can almost see the butterfly.  I know many people think of poetry as a foolish waste of time, but I have never thought of it as taking courage to write poetry. Perhaps it takes courage to send it to out there for fear of appearing foolish.  I like this poem because it is delicate, barely two sentences long and, yet, quite beautiful. 

Pastan’s poetry reminds me not only of the Chinese and Japanese poets I’ve come to love but even more of Emily Dickinson.  It’s not just the immediacy and simplicity of her poems that is reminiscent of Dickinson. There is a sadness, a shyness, a sense of isolation that pervades her poems which she transforms into wisdom.  

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