Unusual Sorrows, as Told by the Author

Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake — Wallace Stevens

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 6.56.25 PMWhat do I do? That’s not a metaphysical question, although I do require that debate from time to time. In this case, I’m wondering about the ongoing dilemma I’m having with regard to my next poetry collection, currently titled Unusual Sorrows.

Many of the poems in the collection were written during a stressful period in my life, that pair of years when my father and brother were battling the illnesses that finally took them, just 10 months apart. But another rather large number of the poems came about not within that stress, but without it, and so the collection seems to me a little lopsided and confusing. Loss and disappearance, final days and happy days, all co-mingling in strange ways. Frankly, I’m not sure what to do.

Maybe the title is what makes the collection feel lopsided. I call it Unusual Sorrows in a sort of tongue-in-cheek manner, primarily because I’m certain there’s nothing at all unusual about sorrow, other than the fact that we each process that emotion in our own unique ways. Inside our little “feeling vacuums,” it’s a powerful place. Powerful enough, says me, to start to feel a little unusual.

But of course it’s not, of course sorrow is not at all unique.

Add to that the fact that, since my father passed in July, 2014, most poems I’ve written are related to meeting and marrying a wonderful woman. How is it, then, a number of uplifting poems might wind up in a collection of poetry whose title includes the word “sorrows”? I don’t know. Maybe a title change is in order.

For now, let me simply share one of the poems from the collection. I call this “Re-Inventing the Beer Can Lamp,” a poem that first appeared in Grey Sparrow Journal in the summer of 2013. I like this poem, and I like that it gets to my point regarding the sorrow dilemma.


Re-Inventing the Beer-Can Lamp

For Carl

There was nothing more beautiful
than the lamp you built
when we were boys, two cans
stacked and glued, wires shimmied
through them, how you sanded
the pinewood base, routed
each edge like fine furniture,
and burnt your letters, C and D,
on its underside. But best was when
we covered it with a pair of red
bandanas, and our boyhood room
became a submarine,
the rest of the world mere fishes.



Over the River and Through the Bosque


A Duck’s Head Cloud. Maybe.

I’ve fallen in love. With a bird.

To be more precise, I’ve fallen in love with a migratory waterfowl, the Sandhill Crane, after my wife and I visited the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge this Thanksgiving. The Bosque, as it’s more widely known (the word translates as “woods”in Spanish), is a series of now-manmade marshes that butt up against the Rio Grande River as it passes through central New Mexico, and is the stomping grounds for tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl during winter.

That’s right, bird fans: tens of thousands. A cursorial check of today’s bird counts on the Bosque, as provided by the Friends of the Bosque del Apache NWR, includes: 3,899 cranes, 9,269 ducks, 13,401 light geese, 245 water and shore birds and 210 Canada Geese. And if that’s not enough to overwhelm you, today there are, apparently, 60 raptors sailing somewhere overhead in the refuge: kestrels, hawks of all sorts, and eagles. On our tour, an American Bald Eagle posted himself upon the top branch of a dead tree in the center of one of the marshes. Delightful? Certainly. Ready-made amateur photographer’s dream come true? Absolutely.

In short (from a non-birder who nevertheless adores them), there were birds out the wazoo. But it was the cranes that lifted me, and the Sandhill Cranes specifically. Gray bodies, crimson pates, long necks and beaks. They stood about as tall as a yardstick, and when they flew into a nearby marsh–in groups known as “echelons”–their skinny legs dangled behind them in some secret form of untapped symmetry. They squawked right up to touchdown, and continued squawking among themselves, hopping up and down in what was surely their mating dances.

As I watched the cranes, I had that sense of collectiveness that I only rarely feel, the idea that our world is comprised of millions of causes and effects, where cause begets effect and new effect becomes new cause, until everything begins to relate to everything else in either large or small ways. I felt a sense of gratefulness as well, especially for those who recognized the need to recreate the Rio Grande’s wetlands during the depression. Dams and diversions there had weakened the river’s ability to support the birds, and numerous of the species who count on wintering there, including the Sandhill Cranes, would have suffered without us taking the time to fix the problem.

We returned to Tucson Sunday evening, but just west of Hatch, New Mexico, where we ate at Sparky’s and purchased our obligatory numbers of world-famous chiles, Deborah and I noticed a cloud formation that looked suspiciously like a duck’s head. Maybe it doesn’t, and maybe it does. Or maybe, after we had the privilege of watching so many beautiful beasts carrying on in their ancient migratory ways, we were just a little more in tune with the earth. And thereby, with ourselves.

I’ve so far failed in every attempt I’ve made to write one poem about the Sandhill Cranes. I suppose I should leave that to poets who do well with nature, like my friend Scott Edward Anderson (whose excellent collection, Fallow Field, I reviewed here several months ago).

Knowing me, I’ll keep trying. And, knowing me, I’ll enjoy each and every failed attempt. In the meantime, it’s probably time to consider when we’ll visit to the Bosque del Apache again.



The Passage of Time

2015 has been an amazing year, perhaps because I had a few successes with poems getting published.

IMG_6205Or perhaps it’s because I met an extraordinary woman and set about to convince her that damn near each and every one of my 175 pounds was worth her time, and once she was convinced I merged my household into hers and we toasted to our future, and whatever it holds, and to the fact that her house was now our home, to include the two dogs, three cats, a Zojurishi rice maker, a Fender Stratocaster, three drills, a chainsaw, and a set of strangely satisfying shot glasses adorned with the faces of former-Soviet premiers, then sat back smiling with her as we watched our friends and family members scratch their heads, sometimes militantly, as they tried to reconcile the speed with which we were moving, especially once we announced that we intended to marry, which we did, on July 24, my mother’s birthday (may she rest in peace).

The above is commonly referred to as a run-on sentence, and that’s how amazing 2015 has been.

But I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m calm enough now to let someone in, fully, a strong woman who accepts the entire thing and all its foibles, a person who gladly quadruples as best friend, confidante, advisor, and co-conspiratorial merry prankster, an ultra-kind and loving human being who believes in me just as much as I believe in her, someone who will gladly follow my dumb ass up to the roof during a full lunar eclipse–most likely out of curiosity alone–and isn’t too surprised when she sees that I’ve pre-positioned a bottle of wine beside a couple of blankets. Someone who was bold enough to dare me, early on, to “be intentional,” which I certainly was.

That’s a run-on sentence as well.

Or maybe it’s because these days, in those moments when I’m alone and listening to the birds squabble from the overhead lines, instead of enjoying the solitude I used to love I find myself waking her to suggest she join me, and then gladly and happily leaving her alone when she kindly informs me she needs a little more sleep.

None of us knows, not really, what it is we’re doing here. We think in terms of purpose, and from that we shoot off into 10,000 different directions. I now know my purpose, and for the first time in my life I’m enjoying the passage of time.

With my wife.

And that’s all that matters.



Begin Again

Dateline mid-town Tucson, written whilst watching the finches feed.

It gets confusing when I lapse between posts, and in the past I’ve managed to blame my laziness on the myriad life challenges that have confronted me. The issue with that excuse is, of course, we’re all confronted with issues. By design, the pace of American life tends to border on busy, if not frenetic, so please excuse all attempts at blaming lapses on the simple exercise of taking in air and then exhaling it. As an excuse, it’s a tad on the weak side.

I don’t like admitting that my life’s pace has distanced me from writing. In honesty, it feels like a small form of cowardice. On the other hand, there’s a great beauty in the admitting, and perhaps greater still in the return. What I’ll do, I think, is regroup, or as Wendell Berry writes in his beautiful poem, “Be Still in Haste,” I’m going to make the intentional attempt to “begin again.”

What better way is there to begin again by simply sharing Mr. Berry’s poem here. Internal footnote: if you don’t see another post from me for months, it wasn’t because I failed in this ideal; it’ll simply be because I required old Wendell’s advising once again. The idea that I can begin again each time I catch life getting in the way is worth paying attention to. My life has been, of late, hugely exciting. It’s time to start getting that excitement into words. For now, though, I’ll take a good breath and simply share Wendell Berry’s poem.

Be Still in Haste

How quietly I
begin again

from this moment
looking at the
clock, I start over

so much time has
passed, and is equaled
by whatever
split-second is present

from this
moment this moment
is the first


On Doves and a Lake in Canada

Fishing Whitefish Lake04152013_0000Rick and Cindy are names I’ve given a pair of doves who grace my patio each morning. I actually don’t know which is Rick and which is Cindy, and I can’t even decide if it’s actually the same two birds each day, though it’s fun imagining so.

They’re usually within a few feet of one another until they stroll around in search of the seed I drop. At times, as they groom themselves, one leans over to offer the other help, as if there’s some kind of silent requests passing between them. At other times one stalks angrily behind the other. I imagine that’s Rick, trying to justify his “birdliness.” For all I know it’s Cindy simply having a bad feather day.

But what I love most about them is the chant, five low notes in the key of B. The last three notes are the same and work as elipses that imply something new’s about to be told. The dirge is slow and repetative, and, for the record, one of the two sings a little flat: almost in A-sharp. I assume that’s Rick.

They sing the first hour or two after the sun has rolled up and over the Rincons, praising the morning. Sitting on my patio sipping a second cup of coffee and watching them, I wonder what this particular day might offer me. But this daily ritual nearly always returns my mind to my grandfather’s home on Whitefish Lake, just north and east of Lake Superior, in Ontario.

We would rise early enough that the sun was just a tease of light beginning to wash away the stars. My job was to fill the rusty red gas tank and attach it to the greasy Evinrude motor in the boat, and Grandpa’s job was to make sure I did that. June, Grandpa’s wife, would stroll out in a thick robe just as we were about to leave to offer us a basketful of sandwiches. Fishing requires a certain amount of peanut butter and a stained thermos of coffee.

I would sit up front, on a bench, while grandpa determined we had everything we needed prior to pulling the lanyard that would fire up the Evinrude. It took him some time to get arranged—especially when he quietly inspected the tackle box—which gave me the chance to sit still and listen to the morning. In hindsight, I know now that my grandfather was listening to the morning as well.

What strikes me is how much we can miss during our days, how oblivious it’s possible to become. The sheer volume of songbirds in the air at Whitefish Lake was nearly overwhelming, and yet a few minutes earlier I hadn’t heard a thing. I was too busy to notice.

I think my grandfather recognized the importance of these few minutes of quiet before the boat motor was fired up. I think he liked his quiet time, listening to the world around him—small sounds of water sloshing, numerous birds crying and singing, the muffled laugh of a child waking somewhere above the dock in one of his cabins—I think he needed just a tiny moment to adjust himself.

I think my grandfather taught me to pay attention to these two mourning doves before I head out into another traffic-snarled morning. He loved the grounding that nature gave him, and all the sounds that propagated off the wide lake.

He was a simple man and couldn’t have articulated that notion very well. Still, as we motored away from the dock, I was as certain as a boy could be that my grandfather was somehow closer to the Milky Way than me, and that his two desires, just then, were to bring home fresh Pickerel and to teach me the lost art of listening.

On better days we managed to do both. And on worse days? We bragged about the ones that got away . . .