These are not paper letters, I know. They do not arrive in envelopes. And yet they can be read by the fire, or at the kitchen table while the soup is on and the bread is in the oven. They can be examined like leaves from the yard at your desk by the window. They bear no scent. There are no handwritten clues. And yet you can imagine both. And as you do, you become the letter yourself. Two authors, two writers, two recipients. And a multitude of messages, one for each thought, each glimpse, each silence, each present, each past, each eternity. All in the moment. And when you look up, and around you, and in and out and beyond, to the graves and the wind and the snow, to the meadow and the fallen tree, to the granite-sleeping shadow, to the deer and her young on the narrow path that leads to the still water, what do you know? Everything. Everything. All. And what you know is what I feel.
Thursday, November 30, 2017
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
The apples are wonderful this year. Or maybe I have somehow become more receptive to their flavor. And of course there is much more than flavor involved. Apples leave the mouth fresh, the teeth clean, and the heart, mind, and spirit in a state of readiness — for what? flight, I suppose — to new heights, new depths, uncharted territory. This is how I feel when I eat an apple. The texture. The crunch. The invasion of juices and their joyous riot on the tongue.
A Larger Life
In my quest to live a larger life,
I have noticed smaller things,
including my own existence,
formerly thought of as profound,
but which now pales before
the taste and crunch of an apple,
or the invisible wake carved
in a misty November sky
by a formation of geese
passing overhead —
until I disappear altogether,
only to resurface on another plane,
where my struggles are unnecessary,
and I am no longer an intruder,
but a participant —
a human apple set upon by larger teeth,
a handful of crumbled earth
trod upon by a multitude of feet,
an enlightened gasp,
a flame burning clear and bright —
no longer a mistake,
or a question mark with a burden
of knowledge to bear,
but an intoxicating expression of delight —
like words on a page
no longer strangled by their meaning,
or a hostage of time free
to run naked in the night wind,
glorified by all that is unnecessary,
rebelling at nothing, nameless, insane —
where the larger life I sought
becomes a child knocking on my door,
breathless, urgent, asking me to play —
when the failed creed of purpose
withers and dies away —
and all that I am is forgotten and embraced.
Collected Poems, 2002
Or this, from the beginning of the twelfth chapter of A Listening Thing, in the words of narrator and dear friend Stephen Monroe:
I once read a story about a man who cured himself by eating apples. His problem was that he had won the lottery, quit his job, and didn’t know what to do with himself. As a result, he stayed up late, drank, and ate all the wrong foods. He was bored silly, because his friends still had to work. At the same time, his friends were bored with him, because he had lost touch with their problems. Tired, lonely, and constipated, he was considering suicide when his mother happened to call. Focusing on his constipation, she told her son that he should start eating apples. To please her, he did. Within a few short days, he was feeling better. Not only that, his entire outlook changed. Crediting the apples, he went to the library and checked out several books on the subject. He learned all about the history of apples and about how they were grown in different parts of the world. Feeling better and better, and having time on his hands and money at his disposal, he decided it would be nice if he could get involved in something interesting that would, at the same time, be of value to other people. He sent off for brochures, read the mission statements of countless nonprofit organizations, and made lists of worthwhile endeavors. None, however, caught his fancy. Then, while sitting one afternoon in his backyard, it came to him. He could buy a farm and grow apples. The idea was so appealing that he checked the real estate section of his daily newspaper to see if there were any apple orchards for sale. There were. Thrilled to the bone, he set out to investigate. In a small town out in the middle of nowhere, he stopped to ask for directions to a certain farm he was interested in. In front of the hardware store, he happened to meet a sunburnt and aging apple grower. The two fell into conversation. When the farmer learned of the stranger’s intentions, he smiled kindly, then told him all about growing apples, from a farmer’s perspective. It turned out that there was an incredible amount of hard work involved in bringing an apple crop to market. The weather could also complicate things. The stranger listened politely as the farmer went through an endless list of things to watch out for. Faced with so much practical thinking, he was unable to explain his own motivation. He soon realized that the pleasure of growing and eating apples was only part of the equation. Buying a farm and raising them commercially was a complicated matter. In the end, the man didn’t buy a farm. Instead, he planted an apple tree in his backyard. The story didn’t say what happened after that. The apple tree could have died the very same year, and the man could have killed himself after all. He didn’t, of course. He grew, right along with his apple tree, and bore fruit in ways he never could have imagined. He enjoyed his money, gave some of it away, married, had children, died, and was remembered along with the tree he’d planted. We know this, because whoever wrote the story did it in a way that left the door open to hope and possibility. And we also know because, everywhere we turn, there are symbolic apple growers all around us.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
What a day it must have been, and, more to the point, what a day it is. The drawing was done November 28, 2014; the poem beneath it, which I have centered this time around, is from 2016.
How words go off on their own
when no one is listening
the wind through empty spaces
an approaching train
an approaching rain
an approaching sensation
as if you were their skin
longing to be touched again
and distance is all that remains
Save for a few dead leaves caught in its joints, and a few tiny undeveloped fruits attached like nodes to its extremities, the fig tree is bare. The coloring of the branches changes with the temperature, now green, now gray. The whitish blotches on its skin are like age spots, with patterns and lichens and lumps. The tree is both woman and man. Behind the tree is a little shed. Behind the shed are the neighbor’s fir trees, which bury us in needles and branches and cones. Rectangular steps, planted in a gentle curve, lead from the house to the shed. They are covered with moss. About midway along the path, some of the stones are pushed up by a large fig root. This is on the west side of the tree. Other large surface roots radiate all around. There are mushrooms, too. It’s a fairy tale world. Wind in the firs. There is a very old bamboo chime hanging from the fig tree on the southwest side as you near the shed. I love its hollow sound. I think my mother put it there, although I might have been the one. But I know she is the one who first brought it home. The wire it hangs from has long since disappeared into the wood. And so it is like a little temple back there.
April winds —
look up from your prayer,
spring has awakened
the temple bells.
Songs and Letters, April 23, 2008
Monday, November 27, 2017
A little blue bird and a little blue word,
each hungry and real as the other,
each with a mother, each with a father,
one with a feather, out in the weather,
the other together with heather and leather and twine;
yes, one with a feather, out in the weather,
the other the color of sky,
singing, Fly, bird, fly!
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Saturday, November 25, 2017
A chilly morning, just above freezing. Jules Verne, Galileo, Beaumarchais, Louisa May Alcott, Morley Callaghan, the Brothers Grimm, Keats, Kenneth Rexroth, William Saroyan, and Cervantes, waiting on a shelf immediately to my right and slightly behind me, at eye level. Eye level. Sea level. This house is situated at 161 feet above eye level. But whose eye? And what if the person is sitting or standing? How tall is this person? How high is the chair? Is the chair a mountain? A chilly morning, just above freezing. Clouds. What if they part, and it should be discovered that there are no longer any stars in the heavens? What if they part, to reveal the closed eye of a dreamer dreaming a dream, the eye so large that the face is kept from our view? Does that seem impossible? Is not our existence and presence, which seems to natural and inevitable, every bit as miraculous and unlikely? Chaucer, on the shelf just above. A life of Proust. Letters, Shakespeare, and the memoirs of Count Grammont. A collection of stories edited by Maugham. Above them, on a perch near the ceiling, the poems of James Whitcomb Riley, complete in ten volumes. Hoosier father, son? Everyone. Hoosier mom? Molière? Gibran? No. My mom is a song. And at sea level is my coffee cup. And high tide is coming on.
Friday, November 24, 2017
Writing what I feel is like remembering a dream. Maybe that’s how the world began. Or did it begin with my mother, and her love for Omar Khayyam?
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.
Although firmly in the grip of her dementia, she could still recite a verse or two from Fitzgerald’s first edition. She would also on occasion recall the opening verses of Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”:
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
There. See what I mean?
Thursday, November 23, 2017
Several mornings ago, early in the dim light, I was walking in the rain when I saw a very large bird I thought must have been a heron or a crane, winging slowly overhead near the treetops, between firs, past poplars and redwoods, at a speed that seemed hardly enough to keep it aloft. It changed directions, then again, before disappearing behind and beyond other trees. In that light, at that hour, everything was gray, in darker shades for the larger evergreens, in lighter for the bare maples, with the bird somewhere in between. A living shadow. I have thought of the bird every day since. It is like a character in a story, whose life goes on after the book ends. It wings, then rests. Wings, then rests. Finds food. Tends to its cleanliness. Makes its own observations. It reminds me of the secret lives going on around me at every moment, some of which, in all innocence, I crush underfoot. And when I say you have no idea how happy I am that I came to myself again this morning and am able to put down these thoughts, however awkward and limited their form, and however similar mine, I know you will understand. It is a secret life.
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
A very moist, warm air flow. Sixty degrees. Yesterday evening, the smoke from a neighbor’s fireplace hung low in the street, bound to the mist, the damp-scent to cling to one’s clothing and hair. We carried it in. It’s still here. We’re still there.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Three trees in front of the house are volunteers. One is a young rapidly growing cedar, the offspring of a much larger cedar across the street. Another is a young rapidly growing pine, the nut of which must have been brought here by a scrub jay or some similarly beak-worthy bird. The third is a delicate lacy-green maple, and we all know how their little seedpods can take to the air. The evergreens are lush and happy in the rain. The maple is mostly bare, and her leaves are gathered beneath her and scattered in the general area, in an array of colors that lifts and gladdens the heart. And so we are thrice blessed. All my life, led by the example of my parents, volunteers have been welcome, unless they sprout in a place where they would do damage, such as the cottonwood that erupted behind the house near the foundation when my mother was still alive and living here. And even that tree I kept for a while, trimming and guiding it and admiring its leaves. But finally it had to go — as did my mother, as will I, until I am recruited for sky service and planted elsewhere. Aye.
This morning, like every morning, there is no greater surprise than being here — not that I know where here is, or if or who I am. And if I did, then maybe there would be no feeling of surprise at all — or maybe the surprise would be even greater — as if I had said, in all innocence, Let there be light, without realizing the extent of my powers.
Monday, November 20, 2017
Sunday, November 19, 2017
November 19, 2017
He reminds me of my father.
Last night I dreamed I came to the back door
of an old unpainted house.
I let myself in.
My mother and father
were at a small stove, making coffee.
There was some urgency in their manner,
as if the coffee were boiling over.
That’s when I awoke.
I can’t quite remember:
did they know I was there?
Saturday, November 18, 2017
I derive a great deal of satisfaction from moving books around. Since I have so many, and since most of them are in this room, it takes a bit of doing not only to fit them all and to accommodate new arrivals, but to arrange them in a harmonious, meaningful way. In effect, each book must be free to sing from its place on the shelf, while bidding its neighbors to join in. Bindings, colors, sizes, page edges — all must be taken into account. Wherever one is in the room, whichever way he is facing, there must be a feast for the eyes and an ultimate balance. The books must be presented in such a way that they demand to be picked up, turned over, held, and examined. Those that are in stacks must be accessible. Those that are gifts must always be at hand. Those that are so old that they can only be touched infrequently, must not be made to feel they have fallen from favor; on the contrary, they must be honored like the venerable grandparents and great-grandparents that they are. There is somewhere in the neighborhood of two thousand five hundred books in this room. There is also my mother’s desk, where this is being written, and upon which reside a full set of Lord Byron, a full set of Montaigne, a set of Daudet, a set of John Lothrop Motley, and other miscellaneous volumes. Paintings, photographs, drawings, gifts, family heirlooms of humble origin. Three comfortable chairs: the red rocker that once belonged to my mother’s father; the medium-sized leather recliner (my reading chair) that my mother used to sit in; and a smaller rocker that used to belong to my father’s parents. The room itself is not that big. I would measure it right now, but there are too many obstacles. I think it is meant to be a den or sitting room. It has a large window that faces the street. But the room really continues into the front yard, because I have encouraged the plant life out there to become a kind of enclosure that gives privacy and yet affords glimpses of the street. I have written many a poem about the goings on out there — the bird life, the grass, the lilac, the delicate maples. If I could keep books out there too, I probably would. But only a few. I would hate to over do.
We are in the midst of a misty morning — yes, the midst of a misty. Timid frost. Like a deer afraid to show herself. And then, suddenly, she is surprised by her reflection when she finally decides to drink. Oh. Who am I? And who am I to think? Water in me, water of me, how good it is to meet.
Friday, November 17, 2017
Making soup out of simple ingredients: potatoes, garlic, leek, carrot, celery, and one very small tomato. The tomato is from the garden. It was picked a month ago. The variety is Indigo Rose. I mention the tomato specifically because the plant was given to me by my now ten-year-old grandson as a Father’s Day gift. A bit late to be planting a tomato. But it grew and produced. The fruit ripened late, but that was quite fine with me. Just turned off the soup. It smells very good. I forgot to mention that there is a little meat in it. Does that make it stew? No. I think not. I have theories about these things. Or are they beliefs? For instance, it depends on how you cut up the potatoes. If they are in chunks, then you have stew. But if they are in slices, then you have soup. That this and everything I have said to this point is of absolutely no consequence rather delights me. I left the peels on.
I have another new book: The Journal of a Disappointed Man, by W.N.P. Barbellion, whose real name was Bruce Frederick Cummings. I started reading it today. I have a real weakness for journals, diaries, lives, and letters. So far, this one is wonderful. Here is a picture of it. It was published in 1919, the same year the author died. Imagine that. If you want to find out why the man was disappointed, you can follow the links. I won’t be disappointed if you don’t. Because I won’t know.
The Journal of a Disappointed Man
We all know what it is to see someone from across a room, and the feelings that go along with it, the curiosity, the surprise, the fear, the tension, the joy, depending on who the certain someone is, or, more accurately, depending on who we are and how we perceive them. The memory, the hurt, the possibility. The strange feelings of attraction or repulsion. The immediate desire to make this person a character in a story, however beautiful or implausible. We love her, we really do. In another life, he might have been a king. In this life, which we know must be a dream, he still might be. The intervening space — do we measure it in feet, or in years? Do we cross it in a great ship? Is that ship our body? And what of the stars, the galaxies, the wind? We feel ourselves rise and fall and tilt upon the waters. The room, we discover, is vast. It comprises the whole continent. It is the world. Suddenly we find that there is a lantern in our hand. We are all holding lanterns, and we are beckoning to one another from the shore. Then, when at last we are about to meet, we drift awake. And that is when we say hello, or pardon me. That is when we speak: you seem so familiar; haven’t we met before? And the answer is, yes, of course.
Thursday, November 16, 2017
That we write each other in this way fulfills a very old promise. And the promise is this: that those of us not met in the flesh may yet express — and, yes, touch — that which is deepest within us. That this would seem to require effort is an illusion. Those are our distractions speaking; our seemingly sacred old habits; the nonsense and noise we have allowed to cloud our view and cripple our attention. And so the question we must ask is, what really occupies us? Why, when we see trees so graceful about losing their leaves each fall, do we cling so desperately to ours? This isn’t to be answered rhetorically, or according to what we think we or others most want to hear. It is to be answered privately, and patiently, without hurry, and with the entire energy of our lives. It is to be answered with our lives. Our lives will be the evidence, just as they already are, and always have been.
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Monday, November 13, 2017
by which all that is useless and spent is driven from me
I like to think you begin in the heart of a small wood
curious about the lives and the love of two leaves
and that you are as helpless as anyone
who has faith in poetry
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Friday, November 10, 2017
Yesterday between rains and windstorms I was able to clear the gutters and downspouts of fir needles and birch leaves. The fig now is mostly bare. The stack of empty flowerpots continues to grow. I also cleared the front flowerbed, full of leaves and a few straggly blooms, gave it a good deep digging, and then another after adding manure. It was quite mild out, in the mid-fifties. Behind the house, the ground is thick with fir needles. This happens every fall. The wind cleans the trees, scatters all the spent needles and cones. The gutters catch the cones, the cones block the rain, and the gutters overflow. I go out again and again to clear them and the water runs freely once more. There is nothing I can do about it. The trees belong to the neighbors to the south. The storm winds come from the south. And if the trees were in our yard, what would I do? The same, of course. Unless they were a danger, I couldn’t bear to take them down. Besides, it’s good to be out in the weather, whatever it is. Sometimes I get soaked. Sometimes I shiver. The wind whistles through my ears — there’s nothing to stop it in between. And so, gutters or no gutters, I make a point of going out several times a day. The exposure does a body good. And you can see what it’s done for the mind. But the mind is part of the body. Just as the body is part of the dream. And what is the dream part of? Everything. And everything is good.
Thursday, November 9, 2017
I’m not sure what time is, or if it exists. I don’t know that it passes. I’m told that it changes speeds. I’m told that we change speeds, even while sitting here like a lump, as my dear mother used to say, in front of a computer screen, or philosophizing for the silent amusement of these familiar four walls.
When did I become the ghost
that haunts these rooms?
When I could no longer
find my way out, I guess.
When my mind grew thorns
and knobs wouldn’t turn.
When I started to groan
and walk like my mother.
When she looked through me
and minutes turned to years.
When I looked through her
and saw the clock had stopped.
When our quiet talk became
dust on the furniture.
“Pictures, Tables, Walls”
Songs and Letters, January 31, 2008
And so consequently, I never really feel like time is running out. I am not an hourglass. I might have one more year, or thirty. I might have one more minute. I might already be gone.
Old though he was,
Death hadn’t the heart to take him,
The diligent, muttering scribe.
Already, the world had forgotten him,
His ideas shining like coins.
He worked alone,
With little or nothing to eat.
His table was littered with pages.
Death looked on:
Perhaps an exception in his case.
Why be forever bound?
Am I not free to choose?
While Death thought thus,
The old scribe continued his work.
He had long outlived his fear.
Let Death come, let it not come.
To him it was all the same.
There was a time, Death said,
When I would have laughed
At such an attitude. Or been offended.
But that time, that time, is gone.
Though I might crush him with a single blow,
This scribe isn’t the least bit concerned.
Death smiled to himself:
It seems I am losing my touch.
Still, he did not act. Could not.
He began to ponder his own eternal nature,
And the grim task he had been given to perform.
When was I born? Not ever, not ever.
When will I die? Never? How can this be?
Who made this decision for me?
And another thought: Do I not murder?
One by one, Death remembered:
The tiny children, the mothers, the wives.
Death remembered the strong young men
And the wise grandmothers he had buried:
So cruel, and by my own blood-soaked hands.
Yet poets liken me to winter and autumn:
See how Death paints the leaves and fields;
Thus he prepares us for the bright season ahead.
The old scribe heard the sound.
He turned, then went to Death’s side:
Forgive me, my friend. I am old,
I did not know you were here.
He placed his hand,
Warm from the work he loved,
On Death’s weary shoulder.
“Death and the Scribe”
Songs and Letters, September 17, 2005
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Tuesday, November 7, 2017
This book will break your heart if you have one. And yet, through it all, and even after you have finished reading it, you will give thanks for its simplicity, grace, and intelligence. Rare indeed is the autobiographical work that is so keenly and objectively observed, especially one that focuses on childhood and coming of age under such trying, difficult circumstances. Life in a large family with an alcoholic, sexually abusive father is enough to break some, and permanently damage others. To survive is a triumph, especially when that survival flowers, without bitterness, as self-understanding. Love has the final word. And so we can truthfully say that Elisabeth Hanscombe’s life, still far from over and promising of work to come, is proof that despite or perhaps even because of pain, art and eloquence are ever within our grasp.
Elisabeth’s blog, Sixth in Line.
The Art of Disappearing
by Elisabeth Hanscombe
Paper. 272 pages.
Brisbane : Glass House Books
ISBN-10 : 1925231585
ISBN-13 : 978-1925231588
Monday, November 6, 2017
Sunday, November 5, 2017
By the way, should you ever want or need to drop me a line, my email address can be found in the right-hand column, not too far from the top, under Correspondence.
At last, your letter has arrived —
in the form of a butterfly.
Isn’t that just like you?
And now, everywhere I go,
I hear children say,
“Look — that man is whispering in color.”
Poems, Slightly Used, November 1, 2008
Saturday, November 4, 2017
By and large lately, the early morning and evening walks have been windless. Last night the moon was so bright I almost wished I had sunglasses. Moonlight is sunlight, you know. The smell of dry crushed leaves, even though the leaves are wet — how do you explain that? Why would you want to? By the time you’ve accomplished the task, the leaves have changed, the smell has changed, and you have changed. Haven’t you? No? Why? Are you sure? And then you discover that even not explaining is an explanation of sorts. At the kitchen window this morning. Washing out the old Revere Ware coffeepot my parents bought when I was about twelve. The fig tree. The better part of its yellowed leaves now on the ground. And other incomplete sentences. One year, when the tree was still fairly small, my mother, in the restlessness of her disease, picked off as many of the yellow leaves as she could reach. She wanted to keep things neat. When she turned her back, another fell from higher up. Laura, the leaf said, we love you. “Tell Laura I love her.” You remember the song, even if you don’t know it, or don’t think you do. “Tell Laura not to cry. My love for her will never die.” And other complete sentences.
Year upon year, fall upon fall, the maple leaves on the path remind me of hands. And one must die to know what it is to be held that way — die to the branch, die to the stem, die to the light, die to the wind. In other words, one must live. You turn up your collar, look skyward, then back again at where you have been. And find it changed. Because you have.
Friday, November 3, 2017
During a quiet stretch yesterday afternoon, I entered each of the twenty-one volumes of my recently acquired Gilbert Parker set in my online catalog — an unnecessary task, to be sure, but one I enjoy, because it involves opening and examining and smelling each book, and because I know that someone, somewhere, sometime, might benefit from it. My collection is private, but it is on public record — not unlike my thoughts, it occurs to me. And of course in the end, nothing is private, and everything is. Or it least it seems so, sitting here in a dimly lit room surrounded by nearly 3,000 books. It’s still dark out. The streetlights are on. They are modest, well-spaced, not overly bright. They could be on a string. When you’re out walking, you can pick them one by one and put them in your pocket, and when you come back inside, you can take them out, blow them cold, and put them in the top drawer of your childhood chest of drawers, the one that has been painted a dozen or more times. The next morning, they are out in the street again. And so are you.
Thursday, November 2, 2017
Yes, it is fall, but November has arrived with a strong sense and scents of winter in the air. Not that it’s particularly cold — it was mild enough yesterday evening that at one house down the street, the front door was left open and I couldn’t help but hear an unhappy father shouting at his little children, I don’t want to hear it! Irony. Ironing boards. My mother’s sprinkling bottle, the hiss and steam, the pressing of shirt collars, the strangely intoxicating atmosphere of domestic activity. I don’t say I know. But I do say I feel. And yet your hand might just as easily pass through me on its appointed rounds. Sacred things, hands. My claim is that they do know, and that they have better, more accurate memories than most, although the nose is hard to beat. A heartbeat. What glows? Winter notes. You are sitting next to your piano teacher years ago, watching her hands. It is raining out. And out is in.
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
The Works of Gilbert Parker. The Imperial Edition.
Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Sold by subscription, 1916-1919. Twenty-one volumes.
Tomorrow or the next day or the next day,
I’ll begin the leisurely process of entering these
in my online catalog at LibaryThing.