For My Parents, Who Are Gone.

I. Father.

When he was here, I spoke and he was changed.
He spoke, and every word changed me.
Now he is gone, unchangeable.
Nothing I do can bring to him this knowledge:
I loved his steadying hand upon my back,
Savored the pride he tried to keep from showing.
Death took him off forever beyond change.
His learning ceased, all alteration done.
But his effects go on, they ripple out,
Diminished, dwindling echoes, light decayed.
We could not know which legacies would last,
Certain only of this: his mark would not soon fade.

I feel him still, the memories return.
His then invades this now. That afternoon
He watched in horror from the balcony
As I ran out oblivious across the street;
The car screeched to a halt. “You might have died.”
His love and fear were anger. I will not forget.
Now he is gone, nothing of him can change.
The coffined body, still beneath the stone,
Decays, but he’s not there. He’s nowhere now.
And grief throbs gently, always, underneath the day.
A father’s death will never pass away.

2. Mother.

She drifted on, diminished,
Her mind a muddle that she did not care for.
She heard the birds sing without the old satisfaction:
Even the garden gave her little pleasure.
Seated much of the time in her antique chair,
Taking her tea at intervals, filling the day.
Her pains had aged with her, she knew them all,
Some greeted with a wince, some shrugged away.

That night, I sat beside her, held her hand.
Mother and son together, talking done.
I thought, of course, of days she helped me sleep.
She drifted off, woke once more with a start.
“What do you need?”—my question—burst from somewhere deep.
Her mild, precise, “I need you,” … broke my heart.

Mother’s England.

If you asked her once what she remembered of England,
It was wildflowers in hedgerows and meadows,
It was field mice climbing cornstalks in high summer.
England to her was the farm where she grew up,
The village at the edge of the Cotswolds,
Gentle hills, woods cluttered with bluebells in spring,
Lambing and harvest, the conduct of her favorite pig.
As for the flowers, she knew their Latin names,
Their particular tastes in habitat,
Their seasons for bud, petal, and leaf;
And so, when she made a garden in Ghana,
She knew that she would have to learn new plants, more Latin.
She mastered them and made them blossom under her fingers:
The roses, fragrant reds and delicate pinks were a gesture homeward,
But the Agapanthus and bougainvillea and hibiscus,
The lemon, the guava, and the mulberry,
All these she learned for her new garden.

If you’d asked her a second time what she knew of England,
She’d have offered you a poem, a poem about the countryside.
Wordsworth, perhaps, whose daffodils were to her no romantic fancy,
But real, wild, plants of the genus Narcissus,
Dancing along the edge of the lake near Grasmere.
Or maybe it would have been Browning,
His buttercups “brighter than this gaudy melon-flower,”
The standard Ranunculus repens found in every English pasture
Contrasted with the alien melon, Cucumis melo …
Which, as my mother would have told you,
Showed that Browning didn’t know much about botany,
Since the melon flower has five yellow petals, larger, it’s true,
But otherwise much like the Ranunculus;
And the pistils and stamens of a buttercup
Are more flamboyant than those of the melon.

If you’d asked after England a third time, she would have told you
That it was time to go out into the sunlight.
Where she could show you her plants, her knowledge and pleasure,
Let you know that English poems and English flowers were all very well,
But here, in Ghana,
Where love (whose poems she also knew) had brought her,
She was at home, cultivating her garden.

 

Other Poems

What do philosophers do? (In 100 Words)

Let me be clear. Thinking things through is tough:
You need the proper concepts, rightly understood.
And no one working on his own will be enough.
It takes a crowd of minds, working together. Then we should
Speak to the culture, speak our truths … the stuff
We’re sure of and the doubts: the bad news and the good.
This is our role. We work things through
Mostly because we want ourselves to understand,
Repaying the privilege by sharing, old or new,
Whatever we discover, slight or grand.

We know that what you’ll take from us is up to you.

 

February 2008: Pennington

Snow filters through the pines,
A bleak wind whistles shrill:
These are winter’s signs.

Geese in their ragged lines
Forage along the hill.
Snow filters through the pines.

Bright as the sun shines,
Nothing escapes the chill.
These are winters’ signs.

Cardinals dart among vines
Woodpeckers drill:
Snow filters through the pines.

A flock of sheep dines
On rimy grass, down by the mill.
These are winter’s signs.

The frosted ivy entwines
The sycamore; and still
Snow filters through the pines.
These are winter’s signs.

 

Books

So many I would rather have behind me,
These books that are the substance that we share,
Our common culture’s heart. But how to find the
One to enter now, one that can bear
The burden of tradition? How to choose
Out of so many that I could have read
To understand myself? How not to lose
The chance to strike new paths through my own head?

From Gutenberg they carried the message out
Image of image of thought for each of us,
Shared without sharing. How could anyone doubt
The press could mirror all and teach to us
The gathered wisdom of man? They could not know
The swelling stream of words would overflow.

 

Heritage

This is our language. We must make it live.
Respect its rigors and its resonances. Give
Necessary shape to thought. Respect what’s ours.
Without constraint we forfeit the ripe powers
Of this old tongue, this heritage unearned,
Possessed by all who love her. What we learned
In shaping lips and ears to make our English speech
Is precious beyond words. So we must teach
Each following cohort how this prize was made,
Murmuring that freedom is the gift of laws obeyed.
Without this discipline no sense can come
Out of the buzz of chatter, the rich hum
Of the heart’s breath. This generous feast
We have been granted, let us leave increased.

 

Birds

If there is nothing precious in the particular words,
Their sequence and their music? Well, then, the paraphrase
Captures it all, translates everything that matters.
So something else is important, when the summer birds
Sing in our garden, stretching the long days.
I cannot translate their meanings. When the catbird chatters,
When the cardinal whistles and the blue jay screams
When the chickadee riffs rise, and the woodpecker drops her call,
What they tell me in paraphrase is nothing at all.

But oh their messages work their magic nightly in my dreams.

 

Shaping a memory: Valencia, May 2008

The chirping cardinal, cheery as spring, darts among bushes
Of fragrant rosemary, mint prolific and perfumed thyme.
For an instant—intense as our morning sun—I am overwhelmed by a wish
To remember, perhaps through a measured rhyme.

I start by trimming the fat, cutting the unnecessary word,
Seeking the essential idea. The cardinal becomes just a bird.
Trim, a metaphor, more precise than any unfigurative verb,
I’ll keep. The rosemary, however, and all her kind, can be simply a herb.
Cutting and seeking, too, seem exact; but darting
Is moving through air. So, if I am trying
To avoid the inessential, the air, the motion through it—
All that—is more than I need. This, then, will do it:

Trimmed: A bird moves among herbs.
 

On the Road: In Colorado Springs

Your fancy hotel promised you
(In Colorado Springs)
A mountain view, of snow and blue …
You wish, you wish, it had been true
In Colorado Springs.

And so you watch the orient view
In Colorado Springs.
Here on South Cascade Avenue
The towers you see conceal the plain
That rolls back east without a rise.
The view here is forever skies
And skies, and skies, and skies again.
In Colorado Springs
Where dreams—ah! dreams—are rare and few
And those there are do not come true
In Colorado Springs.

Below the peaks you cannot see
The chestnut-sided warbler sings;
The western bluebird hovers free
And hummingbirds beat humming wings
There are so many wondrous things.
If you could, only, only be
In 821 not 822
(The odd rooms have the mountain view
In Colorado Springs.)

They promised you a mountain view.
In Colorado Springs.
Alas, alas, they did not do
This simple thing they’d promised to.
In Colorado Springs.

On the Road: In Reno

It is autumn here in Reno.
But does anyone but me know
In the Legacy casino?

Here the sky’s a painted dome
And the buffalo that roam
Are etched on styrofoam

I think I should go home.

On the Road: Transylvania University

1.
In Lexington the grass is blue
As I am, since I’m not with you.
The stallions wildly racing too

With all their grace, are shades of brown
That match my mood … they get me down.
Better the colors of the town

Of Pennington, where we belong.

2.
The skies at Transylvania U.,
Like all her pasture grass are blue–
Kentucky grass, a stallion’s feast.

Visiting here from way back East
The Southern drawl, the leisured “Y’all”
Remind me, like the grass, the sky,

That home is elsewhere. I must fly.