Tag Archives: William Stafford

RAIN SONGS

 

20160308-IMG_5281

 

                                                                                                         and holy
                              days asleep in the calendar wake up and chime.

                                             – William Stafford (“How You Know”)

Tree frogs awake in the dark,
in the rain, a steady wave of chorusing
croaks upon croak—thousands

clear the air in their throats
again and again, prolong moments
no one else seems to want.

I pause in my tracks listening
deep into the wet blackness to a holy
tradition begun before man.

 

0.88″

 

THE THREAD

 

                                 There’s a thread you follow.
                                      – William Stafford (“The Way It Is”)

Perhaps it was something your mother said
that dashed the demons, or a quiet reverie
with your father when the mallards rose

above the cattails, dripping from a cloudy
Sabbath sky, or a lover who gave you eyes
to see into others, or those grand epiphanies

that have taken root in your mind, found
fertile ground among the folds of gray
to produce a home to become you.

And when we stray from who we are,
we must hold on to the thread to hear their voices
ring above the din of falsehoods beckoning.

 

AFTER AWHILE

 

                        You others, we the very old have a country.
                        A passport costs everything there is.

                              – William Stafford (“Waiting in Line”)

Circles mapped to save steps on sure ground,
well-worn routine from barn to mangers,
feed and irrigate with the right tools

to mend our presence along the way—few
loose pages nowadays, at the ready—gathers
to brand and wean replayed, filed by pasture.

I remember the old dogs refreshing scent posts
in the last of the light before they slept
into forever, and all the old horses in the dark

nosing buckets trying to bring the sun—
and my father’s careful words, after awhile,
you have to get used to not being first in line.

 

LEAVING WITH STAFFORD

 

I imagine that the young men
I went to school with have retired
by now, given up their desks
for free-wheeling possibilities

to coast downhill grades, collecting
their rewards and all the promises made
to themselves, over and over again.
I truly wish them all the best.

And I suspect the girls have become
wise grandmothers with practical advice,
keeping secrets in ceramic cookie jars
with noisy lids like I remember.

Leaving with Stafford, I retire
from a world too large to digest,
and go to that far place for the familiar
sign, those recognizable tracks

where wild makes sense of circumstance.
We are collecting short stories
like mushrooms in wicker baskets
before they fade and melt into the ground,

discussing how we’ll sauté them over fire
in butter and garlic to melt in our mouths
instead. Already we can feel their wild
flavor rage in our veins, like venison,

as we shed the old flesh, find keen eyes.
All the ghosts will rise beneath the stars
to gather at our fire, faces flickering
in the darkness to share the light.

 

BATTLEGROUND

 

                        Then the man noticed that he didn’t
                        have any shadow. He went out and
                        looked around: nothing had any shadow.
                        He began to squint up his eyes, it was
                        all so bright. And wherever he looked
                        there were sharp little knives.

                              – William Stafford (“Stories To Live In The World With”)

1.
We were but shadows on this ground,
young bulls bellowing into space
hoping for an answer in an echo—
not rivals down canyon pawing dirt.

We cast more shade now as we go
remembering the bluff and bluster
of manifest destiny—the arrogance
of greed blest by God—feeble-legged,

stumbling in cobbles along the creek.
If left alone for a century or two,
time will heal the tracks, erase mistakes
we might have better learned by.
 

2.
It did not begin or end there. Three
hundred shadows passing in this canyon
when Sir Francis Drake stabbed
California sand for Queen Elizabeth I

leaving little sign of how their minds
worked grinding, making palatable
what was at hand until—you know
the rest—like echoes in these hills.
 

3.
Pages welded together in dark corners,
transcripts in generational stacks
only attorneys dream of designing,
hold both petty and valuable details.

How it shook the old house, my father
overwhelming his in a thunderous
shouting match, a sparring over nothing
to hone a keen edge for the Corps.

Or the luxury of divergent dreams
of royalties instead of rent, in-laws
and family divided and divorced with
land—and from the tracks cut deep.
 

4.
We are but shadows on this ground
passing beneath us as always, immigrants
in old space that cannot stay the same
in the new world that swirls around us,

an invisible adversary invading our air,
our flesh, this dirt we shall return to—
however gladly or reluctantly, to cast
no more shadows—at home at last.

 

= = = = = = = = = =

Stories To Live In The World With (Someday Maybe, 1973)

A long rope of gray smoke was
coming out of the ground. I went
nearer and looked at it sideways.
I think there was a cave, and some people
were in a room by a fire in the earth.
One of them thought of a person like me
coming near but never quite coming in
to know them.

Once a man killed another, to rob him,
but found nothing, except that lying
there by a rock was a very sharp,
glittering little knife. The murderer
took the knife home and put it beside
his bed, and in the night he woke
and the knife was gone. But there was
no way for a person to get in to take the knife.

The man went to a wise old woman.
When she heard the story, she began to laugh.
The man got mad. He yelled at the woman
to tell why she was laughing. She looked
at him carefully with her eyes squinted
as if she looked at the sun. “Can’t you
guess what happened?” she asked.

The man didn’t want to be dumb, so
he thought and thought. “Maybe the knife
was so sharp that it fell on the ground
and just cut its way deeper and deeper and
got away.” The woman squinted some more.
She shook her head. “You learned that from
a story. No, I will tell you why you
thought the knife was gone and why
you came here to ask me about it:
you are dead.”

Then the man noticed that he didn’t
have any shadow. He went out and
looked around: nothing had any shadow.
He began to squint up his eyes, it was
all so bright. And wherever he looked
there were sharp little knives.

This is a true story. He really was dead.
My mother told us about it. She told us
never to kill or rob.
At a little pond in the woods
I decided: this is the center of my life.
I threw a big stick far out, to be
all the burdens from earlier years.
Ever since, I have been walking
lightly, looking around, out of the woods.

                                                            – William Stafford

Courtesy of

 

Early Morning Writing

IMG_7330

 

Fellow blogger menomama3, Life in a Flash and Wuthering Bites, has asked that I share my writing process.

 

To begin with,

I get up early, my writing habit for years. It’s black outside except for one unobtrusive mercury vapor light at the horse barn, not a sound in the canyon. This is my time. No ringing phone, no demands from the outside world. My mind is fresh from whatever dream possessed it while I slept and relaxed. Often a dream lingers inexplicably, sometimes a day or two with vivid images and interactions or just a fog of feeling I can’t explain. But bottomline, my mind is all mine for a couple of hours.

Staring at a blank white sheet is not as intimidating as it used to be, and more often than not I already have a line strumming in my head, perhaps one garnered from my sleep. If not, because this is my discipline to write every morning, I have several collections from poets I admire on my desk that I may open randomly, and many on the shelf if the ones close at hand don’t help my inspiration.

In either event, the first line goes down. It may become the third line, last line, but in the process, that’s unimportant. By the third or fourth line of the first stanza, I’ll probably reorganize the first line anyway, or trash it altogether. I edit while I write, unlike many poets I know. My poetry is somewhat lyrical, and this jousting around in the first stanza or two, I think, is to set the meter or rhythm of the poem. I tend towards internal rhyme, it seems, and lean on it heavily to establish, or reestablish, meter.

I may approach the page with strong purpose, but most of the time I don’t know exactly where I’m going, and that’s the fun part. This grazing livestock culture relies heavily on metaphor, on personification, on anthropomorphic (new word, Suzanne?) explanations, and with that, a unique vernacular I also try to utilize in my poetry, as my own way of thinking.

I depend on details that I visualize to turn a line in a poem, a cause and effect, hands-on approach, and allow myself to feel the action, to become vulnerable and human, hoping to connect with readers beyond my world.

And why?

Reclusive by nature, the cattle culture has been under siege for generations. Hollywood has not helped our reputation, nor have a half-dozen well-meaning campaigns originating in town to oust us from the land, often in favor of development or other extractive industries. Our livelihoods are dependent on the renewable resource of grass. In it for the long term, we do everything we can to keep the ground, and our cattle, healthy. Land and cattle, we are one family, and that comes first.

Projects

come when time allows, I have several in my head: a chapbook with a working title of The Dry Years (surely to sell like hotcakes) and a perfect-bound, larger collection that will include the chap; also an eBook of photographs and haiku, when I can find a format as kind to the photographs as wordpress has been.

 

TOUGH COUNTRY

                  Wherever we looked the land would hold us up.
                        – William Stafford (“One Home”)

We have come back to rest upon the rock
we couldn’t move out of our heads—
you riding barefoot on a Kentucky

mule to town before I was born
to land here, young. He raised us both
after the war that forever changed him,

and us—all of us close, and those close to us.
I tie those times to the underwater look
in old Mort’s eyes understanding more

than his bib-overalls could handle. Doc
Sweeney was no doctor, but said it best—
“He didn’t come back the same.”

Slow to move now, we never weakened—
grateful for the gravity that holds us up
to gather tough country in our sleep.

 

 

“One Home”

SENDING MESSAGES

                                              …and we sprawl with it
                      and hear another world for a minute
                      that is almost there.

                                – William Stafford (“Sending These Messages”)

Almost like the code we tried at ten
to pass notes in school, letters mailed
our parents couldn’t comprehend—

it was our bond to a separate world
composed of pages of petroglyphs
that are lost, but not secret anymore.

Ah! All the love letters dispatched
to safe places beyond longing
for days and nights of perfect dreams.

I could have been an attorney
and learn to hate language, or
an accountant with only one answer—

cop or minister weary with humans.
But the places I didn’t go is small
by comparison: the thin, outer crust

to another world inside us all,
almost impenetrable. I work
around its edges, sending messages.

 

 

                                              “Sending These Messages”
                                     (if you get this far, the typo is ‘slant’)

THE HEROIC WEST

                                        Every day, every evening, every
                                        abject step or stumble has become heroic—

                                                – William Stafford (“Waiting In Line”)

What once was wild play
when we could right ourselves
and dodge the ricochets,

reach and rope a dream
that danced on a long twine,
is no less heroic now

measuring each hoof beat,
every swing in the branding pen.
I have watched old men

ride closer to the center
of concentric circles in time
spinning quickly on the outside

to find their dot within
a slow-motion bull’s eye
just to inhale the details

that make each moment rich—
and dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.

 

“Hay for the Horses”

IN THE DISTANT HAZE

                              Now I carry those days in a tiny box
                              wherever I go.

                                   – William Stafford (“Remembering”)

I feel for pocket-knife, keys and wallet,
handkerchief, cigarettes and lighter
before I pull on my boots, find my glasses

and pick which hat to meet the day’s
surprises, but this tiny box is always
with me. Before daylight, I crack the lid

to see what wants out on paper: a river,
a lake or Sierra pass take shape, pine smoke
curls through cedar boughs and I am

there with coffee before an eager fire
on another cold morning. Here money
buys nothing, and no more than paper

to ignite wet kindling after a thunderstorm,
all other urgencies are washed away, shed
downstream to mix and pool in the Valley—

like the Christmas flood of ‘67, when
they shipped food and freight into Visalia
by boat in May. We think we have

seen extremes, but the San Joaquin
has always been changing—begun
in the mountains, days above it all away.