Carruth’s “Letter to Denise”

I had several poems to choose from that I liked in the last third of the book, but I finally decided on this one, probably because I was surprised, but not really surprised once I remember some of Levertov’s poems, that she and Hayden were apparently close friends, though they lived a continent away from each other.

This poem, though, probably explains why I generally am fond of both of these poets:

Letter to Denise

Remember when you put on that wig
From the grab bag and then looked
In the mirror and laughed, and we laughed together?
It was a transformation, glamorous flowing tresses.
Who knows if you might not have liked to wear
That wig permanently, but of course you
Wouldn’t. Remember when you told me how
You meditated, looking at a stone until
You knew the soul of the stone? Inwardly I
Scoffed, being the backwoods pragmatic Yankee
That I was, yet I knew what you meant. I
Called it love. No magic was needed. And we
Loved each other too, not in the way of
Romance but in the way of two poets loving
A stone, and the world that the stone signified.
Remember when we had that argument over
Pee and piss in your poem about the bear?
“Bears don’t pee, they piss,” I said. But you were
Adamant. “My bears pee.” And that was that.
Then you moved away, across the continent,
And sometimes for a year I didn’t see you.
We phoned and wrote, we kept in touch: And then
You moved again, much farther away, I don’t
Know where. No word from you now at all. But
I am faithful, my dear-Denise. And I still
Love the stone, and, yes, I know its soul.

Although Carruth certainly has a grittier tone to his poems than Levertov does, “piss” versus “pee,” the two share a view toward nature and its relationship to the “soul,” one that I obviously share.

Whether called “love” of nature or “meditation” on nature, both seem to produce the same feeling of oneness. Awareness is, as far as I can tell, the heart of meditation. To me one of the greatest benefits of meditation has been a greater awareness on my walks. The more you pay attention to a place the more you tend to love it, and the more you love it, the more you tend to pay attention.

I felt particularly comfortable reading Toward the Distant Islands, though his poetry, as evidenced by this one, lacked the kind of lyrical intensity that draws me to great poetry.

Carruth’s “Marshall Washer”

Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands contains a number of Frost-like character poems that are developed over several pages, and I must admit that I’m generally not enamored of the form, first because I’ve already read enough of them, and, probably, more importantly they generally describe people I don’t recognize, like Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith.”

Thus, I was a little surprised when I found myself falling in love with a poem called “Marshall Washer” about an old-fashioned dairy farmer who is the narrator’s neighbor. The poem consists of six sections, but I was convinced when I read this one:


As for friendship,
what can I say where words historically fail?
It is something else, something more difficult. Not
western affability, at any rate, that tells
in ten minutes the accommodation of its wife’s-well,
you know. Yankees are independent, meaning
individual and strong-minded but also private;
in fact private first of all. Marshall and
worked ten years together, and more than once
hardship. I remember the late January
when his main gave out and we carried water,
hundreds and thousands of gallons, to the heifers
the upper barn (the one that burned next summer),
then worked inside the well to clear the line
in temperatures that rose to ten below
noonday. We knew such times. Yet never
did Marshall say the thought that was closest to him.
Privacy is what this is; not reticence, not
minding one’s own business, but a positive sense
of the secret inner man, the sacred identity.
A man is his totem, the animal of his mind.
Yet I was angered sometimes. How could friendship
share a base so small of mutual substance?
Unconsciously I had taken friendship’s measure
from artists elsewhere who had been close to me,
people living for the minutest public dissection
of emotion and belief. But more warmth was,
and is, in Marshall’s quiet “hello” than in all
those others and their wordiest protestations,
more warmth and far less vanity.

Of course, I probably liked this poem so much because it reminded me so much of important people in my life, perhaps even myself. Actually, it’s hard not to see quite a bit of my own father in this description, a second-generation Scotsman who seldom had a word of praise but still managed to somehow let you know when he was proud of you.

I suspect dad was the real reason I loved John Wayne’s The Quiet Man so much. Except for occasional bursts of temper, you seldom knew how he felt about you or others except through his actions, the personal sacrifices he made so that his family could have more than he ever did as a child.

Even as a boss, he had a genuine affection for those employees he had worked with, and surpassed, for years. Though he wasn’t shy about chewing someone out when they screwed up, he managed to find ways to keep people employed who probably should have been let go while still managing to run the most efficient plant on the West Coast. Their shared experiences, especially hardships, seemed to give them a bond that was never mentioned but always felt. They never needed words, except perhaps at retirement parties where praise was usually combined with humor to reveal their true feelings for each other

Hayden Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands

I’ve finally finished my extended look at Taoism, and since the extended forecast calls for rain and more rain, which means very little birding, I’m looking forward to catching up on the stack of poetry books that I have gathered in anticipation of winter reading.

I’m going to begin with Hayden Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands, a book I ordered after Dave Bonta suggested it on his site and Mike had suggested earlier. One of the greatest advantages of blogging turns out to be the suggestions that regular readers make on books or poets I might like.

It seems slightly ironic, though, that the first poem in the book is entitled “The Buddhist Painter Prepares to Paint” and I liked the poem, written in 1959, quite a lot, even though I don’t think I knew a single thing about Buddhism when it was written. There were so many poems that I liked that I had hard time deciding which to discuss, though in the end it came down to a poem about one of my favorite birds, one that I hardly ever see but one that’s linked to fond memories:


Summer wilderness, a blue light
twinkling in trees and water, but even
wilderness is deprived now. “What’s that?
What is that sound?” Then it came to me,
this insane song, wavering music
like the cry of the genie inside the lamp,
it came from inside the long wilderness
of my life, a loon’s song, and there he was
swimming on the pond, guarding
his mate’s nest by the shore,
diving and staying under
unbelievable minutes and coming up
where no one was looking. My friend
told how once in his boyhood
he had seen a loon swimming beneath his boat,
a shape dark and powerful
down in that silent mysterious world, and how
it had ejected a plume of white excrement
curving behind. “It was beautiful,”
he said.

The loon
broke the stillness over the water
again and again,
broke the wilderness
with his song, truly
a vestige, the laugh that transcends
first all mirth
and then all sorrow
and finally all knowledge, dying
into the gentlest quavering timeless
woe. It seemed
the real and only sanity to me.

The first time I ever heard a loon’s cry was on the first backpacking trip my children went on after my divorce. We woke to the loon’s haunting cry early in the morning, and truthfully I had no idea what it was for many years. When I finally heard it again for the first time in On Golden Pond, I knew immediately that was the same sound I had heard many years before. I didn’t hear it again until my son and I drove to Alaska to see my brother many years later.

Small wonder, then, that I, too, identify that delightful, frightening, haunting sound with Wilderness. It is such a strange, distinctive sound that one could well imagine that is “truly a vestige” of a past that is quickly receding as civilization heads into the future, with only a few of us who believe it was the “the real and only sanity.”