Putting Fall to Bed

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Two Roads Diverge in the Blue Ridge Mountains

November, 2014. Somewhere in the Sonoran Desert.

I returned from North Carolina on Tucson’s last 90-degree day. The next morning I drove out to nose around in the Tanque Verde and Agua Caliente Washes, watching for the numerous Javelina, coyotes, and various other beasts that traipse through these empty rivers, these natural desert interstates for animals. It was warm early, but the forecast called for changes.

My trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains was helpful. I’m still processing my father’s passing in July, and can’t quite write much about it yet. My experience in these things is that meaningful poetry related to his life won’t emerge until early next year. For now I’m left to think of him a lot, and to plunk about on my guitar in poor attempts to dedicate a song to him. He loved the guitar; it’s likely I received my first one from him, when I was eight-years old, just so he could have a guitar player in the house. I’m grateful to him for that.

This year, like all the others, is coming to its end, and friends in the east and north have already reported first snows. Despite the fact that winter begins, on paper, over a month from now, across this great country the trees have given their collective nod of approval: winter may now commence. Winter gladly complies to such orders.

So let’s put fall to bed with a poem. Most of us know this one, and many of us may have even (had to) put it to memory at some point in our lives. Robert Frost’s lines here have been shared often enough that his “I took the one less traveled by” has become a little bit of a cliche. Still, it’s a beautiful poem with a universal message of choice, given to us by one of America’s most precious poets.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Sunrise Near the French Broad River

This Morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains

This Morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains

There are, as I count them, at least eight different ways to snicker over a river officially known as the “French Broad,” the shallow-but-steady body of water that runs just a little over 200 miles through North Carolina and down into Tennessee. The river gains here in Asheville, North Carolina, where the Swananoa River and numerous named creeks empty into it, where I like to sit on its bank and silently cheer it on as it continues south to Tennessee. Watching it, I wonder if there’s any metaphor we understand better than a silent river passing by.

I’m in North Carolina again. Here in Asheville the night air is cold now, and in the day I wear sweaters and watch the Pisgah Forest go dormant, acre by acre, in preparation for the inevitabilities of winter. In the higher elevations, the Blue Ridge Mountains have already turned and the trees have gone from stunning to stark. In Asheville, tourists (like me) clamor for the chance to catch the sun as it rises over the ridge lines and casts its first light on the red and yellow treetops. If I lost you with the river metaphor, surely you can see that autumn, as a metaphor, is nearly as strong. And even if you’re not well versed in the concept of metaphor, why else are hundreds of us converging along the Blue Ridge Parkway this morning, prior to sunrise, stopping at east-facing pullouts to witness what is, after all, just another sunrise? If you are well versed, consider the sunrise metaphor as well.

We humans, I think, hungrily feast on the thousands of metaphors earth provides us, searching for that elusive something we can’t quite name. As I write this I’m reminded of the final line of narration from the movie A River Runs Through It: “I am haunted by rivers.”

This momentary convergence of metaphor is precisely why I come to these mountains each October. In the span of two weeks the metaphors collide all at once: the river, the turning trees, the sudden dips in temperature. The earth turns and whispers out: winter is coming. And as I think of it, perhaps winter is the overarching metaphor here, that our lives as we think of them pass in cycles, just as the seasons that cycle around us.

In his book, Winter Garden, Pablo Neruda writes:

I am a book of snow,
a spacious hand, an open meadow,
a circle that waits,
I belong to the earth and its winter.

To a degree, metaphor is one of our most mysterious driving forces. It can be lovely and meaningful, and it can be dangerous. We instinctively need order in our lives, and order includes the rudimentary understanding of where we are and where we’re going. Order. We stack our silverware in separate piles: forks, spoons, knives. Order. Disorder confuses us, and there’s nothing more confusing than demise. I suppose that’s why we’re all out here this morning waiting with some impatience for the sun to bounce its rays against the treetops in autumn.  We’re searching for order and meaning.

I am haunted, as the movie line says, but not by rivers. I am haunted by order. That’s why, on this chilly fall morning, I’m about to drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway to join all the haunted others.


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.