Odds, Ends, and the Annual Carolina Pilgrimage

With just half a bag packed, I’m behind in my preparations for the annual trek to North Carolina’s portion of the Blueridge Mountains. Picking my dates each year to coincide with peak fall colors is a challenge, but I usually get it at least partially correct. Perhaps not this year: I’ve heard fall arrived a little early. Apparently the trees scoff at the Gregorian Calendar.

Books I’m taking: I’m really enjoying the selected works of James Wright, so it’s coming with me. Other than an obligatory poem or two (most likely from a Norton Anthology), I only knew Wright peripherally. I recall his “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” from college, with it’s pastoral imagery and surprise ending (read here). I’ve always wondered how many undergrad English papers have discussed that poem’s last line.

I’ll also bring a book of essays by D.T. Suzuki, and maybe Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” Favorite line: “To the Zen student, a weed is a treasure.” Before I leave Tucson I’ll make sure to pull all those “treasures” in my backyard.

I’m bringing the latest manuscript for Unusual Sorrows, which I hope to edit while I’m there. Editing’s an odd art form, something you should only do when you’re about half inside your left brain. I’ve been known to ruin entire poems when I’m not in the correct mindset, and I’ve learned to go carefully but swing the scythe hard when there’s a problem. But actually admitting there’s a problem . . . is in itself a problem.

So there it is. I’ll head south to see Carl Sandburg’s place and let him know you all said hello. Over at the Asheville cemetery I’ll sit with Thomas Wolfe and agree with him that he’s right: you really can’t go home again. I might even leave a penny on William Sydney Porter’s headstone. He’s best known as O. Henry. And if I’m brave enough, I’ll float the frigid French Broad River and have a little lunch close to Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville (a favorite place).

But mainly I’ll rest. The last few years have been a little rough personally; it’s high time I lay low for a bit. And who knows, I might just write something worth sharing. And I might not. November’s coming, and Robert Lee Brewer’s poem-a-day challenge looms large. Perhaps I’ll try to imagine the prompts Robert’s devising for the chapbook contest and get a head start. That’s generally called “cheating,” and that brings to mind a Billy Collins’ poem to share before signing off:

 The Trouble with Poetry

The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night–
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky–

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.

And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.

And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti–
to be perfectly honest for a moment–

the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.


All the Endless Possibilities

Some news first: my next collection, Unusual Sorrows, has been shelved until 2015. The delay allows me to fine tune at my own speed, but comes primarily because Rattle, one of the top journals in the country, accepted one of the poems for their June, 2015 edition. Rattle has published the likes of Billy Collins, Sharon Olds and Phillip Levine, so I’m more than thrilled to wait. Watch for updates either here or on my Facebook poetry page.

Over the weekend I attended a wedding at the Temper Center for the Arts, a beautifully curious building on the lake there. The couple was, of course, elegant and beautiful, the reception joyous and full of hope. But that’s the essential crux, for me, of weddings: that no matter what I think of this world, nothing redeems me more than a good old-fashioned hitching. Amid the tears, drinks, dance and laughter, I come to see that there is, in fact, an honest amount possibility in this world, even if it does sometimes feels fleeting.

The groom was the son of a high school friend, a man I’ve known since we were both 14. I’d lived with his family part of my senior year, and became a sort of honorary family member in the process (maybe even a mascot, but that’s a digression). Over the years, as my schedule permitted, I took part in other family weddings and events, and I was even an usher in my friend’s wedding over 30 years ago. Statistics be damned, he and his lovely bride are still happily married, and were only bested in “the longest marriage” dance by a couple who are still swinging after 58 years.

But mostly what I noticed is this: I probably ought to scrub away the few clouds of cynicism that seem to enjoy hovering above me. It could be just one of the pitfalls of middle age, that notion that I should trust statistics over simple possibilities. But when I was the groom’s age I thought 180 degrees differently: “Screw the statistics,” I’d have said, “life’s too nebulous to worry about.” I didn’t think well enough to add “for now,” a fairly heinous mistake, given hindsight.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not beyond redemption, and I love the idea of what’s possible. Given my own experiences, marriage is a clean page waiting either to be elegantly written upon or torn to shreds. And of course I always choose the elegant, the possible. Having watched my friend and his wife from time to time over many years, this young groom and his beautiful bride are well on their way to winning, 58 years hence, “the longest marriage” dance. Of course that’s a possibility. There are others as well, yet who among us is too caustic to consider anything other than the good that possibility provides?

It’s the newlywed’s friendship that struck me most. They are, quite clearly, good friends, which ups the possibilities of great goodness. I’ve used this analogy before, and it’s appropriate to use it here as well: I was reminded of Jimmy Stewart in the old civil war movie, Shenandoah. At some point, Douglas McClure (as Sam) comes to Stewart to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and Stewart’s character (a crusty old Virginia farmer) asks simply, “Do you like her Sam?” Whereupon Sam replies, “Why sir, I love her.” Stewart pauses, whittling at wood, then so elegantly says, “Sorry Sam, but that’s not good enough. You gotta like her first…”

This bride and groom clearly like one another. They’re close, intimate friends. Come to think of it, so are the groom’s parents, my friend and his wife. If that’s not a decent sign that the possibilities are endless, then there simply isn’t one. I should add another well-worn cliche, given these newlyweds’ obvious closeness: the sky is most surely the limit.

Now there; did you see that? A bit of cynicism just lifted away, like a Saturn V aimed at the moon. After all, why shouldn’t that be just as possible?



Imagination on 9/11


I have coffee, the sun is not high yet but is gleaming against the yellow buds of a few weeds in the backyard. I’ve counted the mourning doves on the back wall, surprised that there are seven, all with heads tucked into backs. The desert temperatures are still in the 90s in the afternoon, but mornings are in the 60s now. Fall is on its way. The sky is a cloudless, powder blue.

There’s nothing more lonely, I think, than an empty blue sky.

It seems to me we’re not encouraged to imagine anymore. I was born in 1959 and remember our first television set. We had three channels. There was no such thing as cable. Silver antennas, like fork tines bent in various directions, sprouted upon roofs everywhere. And on December 7th the networks didn’t play movie reels of Pearl Harbor. Quietly, we used our imaginations, which was good enough.

13 years ago, four airliners took off in the east and headed west. Once securely hijacked, all four turned east toward their assigned targets. Today, as I do every morning, I turn on cable news to ensure the world’s still reasonably intact before turning the television off completely. To my surprise, every cable news channel is playing their pat “remember when” broadcasts, as they do each year now, to commemorate the 9/11 tragedies. One is airing its entire daily broadcast from 9/11/2001.

Are we no longer capable of imagination? I don’t need these broadcasts to remind me of where I was or what I saw. I don’t require prompting. Neither did my grandparents each year on December 7th. My imagination is distinct enough, wide and clear. Just like the sun, higher now over the Sonoran Desert.

12/7, 9/11, simple dates. A line of Japanese poetry rests at the peripheral edge of my memory. The poet, Takamura Kotaro, was a sculptor as well, and wanted to write poetry in a natural vernacular versus the precision, beauty and form expected of Japanese poetry at the beginning of the 20th century. Kotaro carved at the 100-plus lines he’d written, getting the poem down to just nine and calling it “The Journey.” For me, his opening couplet defines precisely why imagination ought to be important. There is no future, it tells us, and implies many other things. But to receive the poet’s implied message, one requires a sense of imagination.

I’m sipping the last of my coffee on the porch now. Watching the empty blue sky, I hope for monsoon clouds and rain. No road leads the way, Kotaro writes in “The Journey.” The road follows behind. After tossing half a cup of coffee across the yard, five of the doves remain. This day, like yesterday, is about to begin.



All Things Must Pass

1292298931417.1He took an electrician’s correspondence course through the mail, thinking that qualified him to help build a custom home we had built for us years ago. Unbelievably, that seemed to satisfy the contractor. Some weeks later I held the ladder while he installed a large chandelier at the foyer of the split level home, meaning the ceiling was 15 feet above us.

I heard a large electrical pop, and my father crashed down and landed on his back. Lying there, still clutching the screwdriver, he opened his eyes and whispered “don’t tell your mother.”

He loved to tell us that his first job, when he was six-years old, was shuttling dirty money for a bookie in an old cigar box. And though his mother was a good Catholic, she condoned the work. It helped feed the family.

He delivered newspapers before he could read. One of his clients was the town judge, who would take my father on his knee and read the news to him after he’d delivered the paper.

He joined the Air Force in 1956 and was assigned to Air Defense Command. In 1967 he was sent to Pleiku Airbase, South Vietnam, where he spent a year with the 1st Air Commandos (Special Operations). He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal there, and was selected as an evaluator for a Pacific Air Forces stan/eval team. Those of you with an Air Force background know the prestige related with that position. All told, he had an astounding seven devices on his Vietnam Service Medal.

In later life he became a safety compliance officer and risk manager for the state of Arizona. Governor Bruce Babbitt requested he develop safety legislation for carnival rides. Later, he was hired by K&K Insurance Group to provide Risk Management assessments for large-scale sporting venues like the Super Bowl, the Preakness Stakes, and his own personal favorite, the Kentucky Derby. He became one of America’s foremost authorities on safety issues related to the largest roller coasters in the country, such as Goliath, at Magic Mountain.

When you met him he wanted to learn everything he could about you. If you were a plumber, or a mechanic, or a stock broker, he was fascinated with all aspects of your work and life. Most times, people felt compelled to tell him their life’s stories.

He was a man of constant curiosity.

Last night, at just about 9 pm, my father passed away. This morning, aside from the insistence of songbirds, my step-mother and I (as well as the brothers and sisters melded from their marriage) will begin the task of planning a celebration of his life. We may not get it exactly right, given the magnitude of the man, but I don’t doubt he’ll be satisfied with whatever we come up with. I’ll propose a toast at some point, and we’ll all clink our glasses toward that end.

But just now, this morning after, all I have is this raw sense of sorrow that began minutes after he left us. George Harrison reminds us that all things must pass. Yet I’m pressed between the notion that he’s with us and not with us at all, like a thin sweet scent that wafts past your nostrils that you know but can’t quite place. He’s shrinking already, and I am trying desperately to learn how to miss him.



James Nation Fenwick

Life tends to conspire against you, I’m learning, when you’re in your 50s. At precisely that moment in your life when you’re finally supposed to be wise, and only a little wrinkly still, strange things begin to happen. In my case, that strange thing has been family illness and loss.

My father has a rare neurological disease called Multiple System Atrophy (MSA). The best description I’ve seen of the disease asks you to imagine having Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Parkinson’s, all at once. Today, after several year’s of decline, he entered a Hospice facility in the Phoenix area. For those of you who know about Hospice, their goal will be to keep him comfortable. He doesn’t have much time left, but what time he’s had has been awfully damn good.

What he does have, however, is the famously strange Fenwick sense of humor. About a week ago I climbed into bed with him and patted his chest to comfort him. He stayed still, staring at me and breathing with difficulty. He was calm, but had had a bad night and we wanted him to rest. Calm, in his case, was a good thing. Laying there with him, I told old stories, another Fenwick habit, and he seemed to find comfort in the telling. When I’d exhausted those, the two of us kept quiet. Aside from the gentle thump of my hand against his chest, there was no other noise.

I said, finally, “Dad, you know it’s okay to go, right?”

He stared at me, inspecting my face. We kept quiet for a while longer, until I whispered, “No really, it’s okay.” With a slow and deliberate force, my father took in a mighty, raspy breath, and suddenly I was afraid. What if he’d decided I was right, that he’d come to the conclusion that taking one last breath before passing was a fair idea prior to waltzing out of this world and into whichever comes next.

I opened my eyes wide, frightened. “No!” I said. “I didn’t mean now!”

And my father, the man from whom I gained this strange and wonderful sense of humor, my familial pride, and even my looks, let loose a grin and a small laugh. That Fenwick humor, that element of “gotcha,” was perfect, or at least as perfectly Fenwick-like as ever. It shone with a burst, and faded just as fast. To me it was beautiful. I’d say he thought so as well. He laughed, after all.

We can’t know the future, and I don’t ask for prayers. It would be kind, though, if you could think of him for a moment. He’s a fine man, someone I believe most of you might have enjoyed getting to know, if you don’t already.