Horses at Midnight Without a Moon, by Jack Gilbert

Poems for Stuart, Part 2

Riversky

The sky above our old river-side campsite near Northumberland, Pennsylvania.

Last time I read a poem by Marie Howe called "The Gate." It's one of the poems I considered reading for my friend Stuart who was visiting from Australia, and wished to capture a bit of video in which I would read something that spoke to where my life is right now, sort of the state of my spirit. Well, that was a difficult choice. Several poems came to mind almost at once. Each acknowledged life's difficulty and darkness, but also hope and recovery. I've read a lot of what they call "Mindfulness Poetry" this last year. And the poems that mean most to me are the ones that recognize the reality of our suffering, but also the presence or potential of our joy.  It is joy and peace which I can choose to move toward, and to live in. 

So I emailed three poems to myself to be read from my phone that day, and I carried one hard copy of another with me. I would know when the time came which was the right poem to read. And though the one I read on video was the most fitting for the moment, and for the beautiful summer afternoon on which we recorded it, I felt it would be good to display the runners-up here on the blog, because they too are important, too important to not be read out loud.

Poems are created to be voiced, even if it’s just in your mind’s ear. You may have heard me say here on The Dad Poet in the past that a great way to get to know a poet, and what she or he was up to, is to read their works out loud. And I guess Stuart’s request has created in me a need to further explore why these particular poems chose me, and what else I can learn about myself and the poet who wrote them, by reading them for you.

As for the state of my soul . . .

Despite what horrors are brought to us from near and far, instantly through the marvels of our own created technologies–shootings and bombings, or the troubles from Brexit to Trump, in spite of lost friends and loved ones, life is ultimately good. I believe that. And while some days are very dark, most days it is not so much the darkness, but how we react to and choose to act in the dark that matters.

I choose to be at peace as much as possible, to sway like a branch when the wind blows, but not to be lost from the tree and my roots in it. I have much to be grateful for; I have three sons who have grown up to be good, kind, and intelligent young men; I have friends who stick, as that old book says, closer than brothers; I have the love and devotion of one particular man who cherishes my life. If I had only one of these things, I would be a fortunate man, rich beyond telling.

Not long ago I went through a period of time in which the world seemed a scary, dark and unpredictable place. I was always anticipating the next thing to go horribly wrong. But the truth is, none of the darkness, pain, and fear in the world compares to the plain and lucky miracle of being alive.

If this all sounds more spiritual than usual for me, I must ask, with no bitterness or desire to be answered, why should I need to believe in gods or spirits I cannot see when there is so much beauty right here in front of me, here, now, on earth? I will not waste one more minute of my life moaning with my eyes shut in prayer when I can be marveling at the birds, feeling the cold shock of a mountain stream’s water on my feet in summer, admiring the smooth veins of a leaf, or the coarseness of tree bark. There is beauty and glory here in the minutes we have to breathe, in the same air that lifts the hawk and the hummingbird.

That is true prayer, experiencing life, rather than wishing it away, or hoping for a deliverer, some devil or ancestor to blame. Not hoping for some mythical afterlife while we squander our precious few minutes on earth pining for an imagined reward somewhere else.

I believe in life. I believe in people, and I am learning how to be where I am, how to put faith in myself, not arrogantly, but trusting my instinct and ability to use the knowledge I have to place my foot, my next step, in a direction that is good, and if I fail, to not be too hard on myself as I alter course for the better.

Please, friend, reach out your hand. Try not to give in to the fear. There are millions of more loving mothers than there are heartless killers on this planet. Even if we haven’t met them yet we have many more friends, sisters, and brothers than we could ever have enemies. And those who choose to be enemies have their own reasons, be they conscious choices or the result of damage and hopelessness. But we need not live like that, and we need not live under the shadow of it either.

Maybe you can’t see hope right now, but maybe you can sense it? Can you smell it, hear it? That movement in the dark is more likely a friend than a wolf. Isn’t there enough evidence that the sun will shine again tomorrow, and that spring will come?

And I suppose that is my Sunday sermon, one day early.

The original text by poet Jack Gilbert can be found by clicking here. Previous posts and recordings about, and of Gilbert can be found here.

Addendum

I’ve come back after writing this because I wasn’t expecting to make a statement of faith, or non-faith here. But the plain fact is that I have found so much beauty and freedom and joy by leaving behind those teachings that no longer make sense to me, as fables and stories. Maybe they were meant to help; probably they were metaphorical in their beginnings. Maybe they were stories told to make children behave; certainly, they have been used since, even in recent times, to control and to oppress.

Still, maybe you find comfort in them. If so, this blog post was not written for you, though I hope you see the symbolism and find truth in them metaphorically more than literally. Maybe you can believe me when I say that I care as much about your peace of mind and happiness, as you care about the state of my soul.

And maybe you find all this offensive or insulting. If so, I apologize. The literal interpretations of so many holy writings have left many like me without hope or encouragement. I contend that we are doing great damage in the church today by teaching that we are born corrupt, that we are literally “nothing without Jesus.” If you find hope in the doctrine of original sin, and the propitiatory sacrifice of God’s son for your salvation, I mean you no insult or ill will.

I only wish to encourage those, like me, who might have been taught that not to believe such things means there is no hope or meaning at all in the universe, let alone their own lives. You see, I believe to the contrary, that it is a beautiful and surprising delight to realize that we create our own meaning in the world and that our lives need not fit some formula interpreted from antiquity.

It is comforting to think we have a heavenly parent, a father, or even a force of the universe that has our best interests at heart. It is frightening to move out into the dark alone. But oh how exciting and glorious to find we can! And maybe the imaginary friend of our childhood was just the beginning, practice at getting to know and be comfortable with our own selves, and building up the courage to recognize ourselves in others, and to reach out to them. After that, there is no need for friends we can’t see.

You want me to know the love of your god. I just want us to not waste the one life we are given waiting for something that will never come. How sad to stand at the corner waiting for a friend while thousands walk by. We are friends. Shake my hand, will you?

One last little thing while I am on this gigantic subject, I do not believe we need an unseen deity to create our moral code. We have done this on our own, no matter how we’ve framed it, or what stories our culture has taught us about it. We know in our hearts it is not good to hurt others or ourselves. We understand by instinct what it means to love, and if we need a book, or a code, or an unseen force to keep us from doing evil and harm, then we have some very serious problems that religion won’t fix.

I bid you peace, and courage to move toward those horses in the dark meadow that Jack Gilbert tells us about. Be careful, but while you’re at it, take a deep breath and be delighted in the chill of the night air, and anticipation of discovery.

The Gate, by Marie Howe

Poems for Stuart, Part 1

River big background isle of que

The Isle of Que, where I read a poem for Stuart on a stranger’s upturned boat.

I had the chance to finally meet and old friend on Sunday. And if that sentence sounds weird, it’s because you probably still haven’t adjusted to living in a century of online organizations and connections. I “met” Stu through the old website I used to run called Gay Fatherhood. Cheesy name, maybe but it was what we started with back when MSN still did Groups, and it stuck when we went to a dot com.

Several of the most active men in that group were people I had eventually met in person. Vince and Keith, for instance, are men I’ve not only met, but our families have vacationed together more than once. These are some of my dearest, closest friends in the world, my brothers even. And small as the world has become, I have made friends who I haven’t even met in person yet. I know, there are still a few of you out there who say that you really don’t know people until you meet them in person, but that’s crap. You can meet people in person and never know what’s really in their heart.

So, should you be careful when you meet people online? Sure, just as careful as you are when you meet people face-to-face. Notice I did not say, “in the real world,” because even if the person is pretending to be someone they are not, you are still in the real world. It’s harder to hide your true self these days, and maybe it’s even easier to hide in person in some ways. But that’s a discussion for another day.  The point is, the real world includes electronic communication like we saw only in Star Trek  while we were growing up. Skype, Facetime, Hangouts, there are a hundred ways to get to know a friend in Spain, Brazil, Germany, California, or in Stuart’s case, Australia.

So Stuart was in visiting with his son Rho who’s doing a smashing job for his company at their new location in Brooklyn, New York. This father-son team was on their way to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, way over on the southwestern side of Pennsylvania. So I took a short jaunt south and they diverted a bit north so we could meet up at a street cafe at a restaurant when I used to work, oh, a hundred years or so ago.

What a lovely couple of hours that was! It was not like a first meeting at all. I felt like it was one of many such precious visits, but I will concede that there is nothing quite like giving a good physical hug to a dear friend. And of course, sharing in that thing we first had in common, fatherhood. Rho is quite the young man, Stuart. You’ve done a fine job there. And yes, of course, I imagine he did a good bit on his own, right?

A lovely side note about this visit was that Stuart wanted me to bring a poem so that he could record me reading something that was helpful or inspirational in my life, something that spoke to the heart of where I am right now. Well, I had several possibilities in mind, and the following poem was one of the runners-up. Stu gave me permission to use the video if it comes out okay, so I promise to share that later. But the following piece is one that touched me very recently.

It’s from Marie Howe’s book What the Living Do. You can read the title poem from that book here. And for more about the poet and that work, check out this interview from 2014. The poem I chose is called “The Gate,” and you can read the text, as well as hear Howe’s better reading of it at On Being.

George, a Poem by David J. Bauman

William_Butler_Yeats_by_George_Charles_Beresford

George’s favorite “modern” poet.

Recently I shared another video in which I was reading a poem.  It was well received, but what surprised and delighted me was a comment from a former, and favorite teacher of mine, that the “lady moon poem,” which followed that piece, was “fabulous.” I had forgotten that it was included in the video clip. Having said that, what follows is not the lady moon poem, not yet.

Not only is that poem unpublished, but to be honest, I had never even submitted it anywhere. It’s a good piece, so why have I been holding on to it? I think it’s because of something that happened at the last meeting I had with another major mentor in my life, Mr. George Pfister.  You see, he was ill, having been fighting complications of MS for years. I had been watching that tough, Bronx-raised, cranky old poet shrink. Okay, so he wasn’t that old, but his illness and disposition made him older than his years.

I remember asking him who was his favorite modern poet. With conviction, he answered, “Yeats.”

“George,” I said, “Yeats is not exactly modern.” *

“I’m doing the best I can,” he growled.

I don’t know how he managed to prepare snacks for us that day, let alone how he made the climb up those narrow stairs to his apartment, but using his walker, he had set out a plate of crackers and cheese and had neatly put out two glasses and a bottle of wine. He wanted me to bring some of my poems to read to him again. So I brought the lady moon poem. And the tough old bird had me baffled because he was wiping tears from his face, and softly laughing. I wasn’t sure if he was happy or sad. Apparently, he was both.

I asked what was wrong. He shook his head, and said, “That’s very publishable. Just do a little editing and send it out.” He waved his hand, anticipating my questions, “You’ll know what to do. It’s beautiful. Someone will publish it.” The thing is, I think he knew that we wouldn’t have many more meetings like this, and he confessed that he was having a hard time maintaining his focus for long periods of time. He seemed so tired.

Well, the moment was beautiful anyway. I will heed his word and send the poem somewhere. Maybe I’ve kept it mostly to myself because I wanted it to be perfect, to honor him the way he should be honored, or else I just didn’t want it to face rejection by an editor. But it’s been edited, carved, and polished many times since, and now and then, as in the case of the aforementioned video, I’ve felt the need to read it out loud. I’ll share it with you on the blog once it gets printed somewhere.

Meanwhile, the following poem was written before the scene I described above, before the walker had become necessary. But it was only a rough draft, and I never did share it with him. We had bonded over poetry and were really just getting to know each other. I was managing the front of the house at a restaurant and bar near his place, and I just wanted him to get home safely. There is much more to say about George, so I suppose there will be more posts about the scoundrel soon, and probably–hopefully–more poems about him also.

George

As children in the graveyard
we used to play a game
with flashlight and fear,
our minds scrambled
with a nervous delight,
a desire to be missed—
and then discovered.

Now we do like then,
but headlights pass on,
engines fade. No one waits
behind a tombstone here.

Tonight I help you home—
not far, just down the street
and across, but it takes time.
Weaving the sidewalk, we find
a stoop with three steps,
and rest a while.

No moon. No stars. No ghosts.
The other bars let out hours ago.
You and I discuss wives,
children and exes, our need
for gods, or not, thoughts
on the cross, crusades,
and inspiration, scripture
and verse, muses
and the history of prayer.

Eventually we rise,
walk wavering and slow,
not wanting you to go
as other greats have, downed
by a taxi near the tavern.

Seven more steps to the curb,
under a halo of light, you
bobbing slightly as I bring
you around. I am happy we are
here, aiming for your door,
and more than a little relieved
that the graveyard is outside of town.

©2014 by David J. Bauman. Originally published in Contemporary American Voices, June 2014

We could delve into the debate about whether Yeats was an early modern poet or the last romantic poet, but George pretty much knew where I was coming from on this issue.

 

There Is Wind, There Are Matches, by Gerald Stern

The last few weeks in the news have been . . . Well, honestly, I don’t think I have words for them yet, and so I have retreated this weekend into poems, and into handling such delayed tasks as (finally) working out the settings between the microphone and the new laptop, and avoiding other things I probably should be doing. And so there arises this post. Poems like this, along with others I’ve recorded this morning, help give me hope. In beauty, in humanity–good words to cling to, even if they seem unrelated to our current heartaches.

I first heard this poem read by Dr. Mary Brown about the time that the last Horn and Hardart’s closed its doors in 1991. Her reading left quite an impression on me. And I’ve been in love with Gerald Stern ever since. The original recording of this was from 2010, and the audio was just bloody awful, so I decided this morning to redo it with the newer Rode NT mic.

I apologize now for the parade of schmaltzy images. But some of them were just too hard for me to let go of. Like the speaker in the poem, I decided that they “were not a waste,” and while I could update the audio, the rest would stand pretty much as I made it, an imperfect creation, by the fumbling, but enthusiastic YouTuber I was six years ago.

Perhaps it’s not necessary to know all the details of how the waiter-less automat diner met its demise, done in by the changing lifestyles of American diners and the rising popularity of fast-food chains. But you may enjoy reading a bit of Horn and Hardart’s history in the Smithsonian Magazine.

My apologies for not crediting the images, but this was put together with what I think were mostly copyright-free photos. If I am using something that belongs to you, please let me know and I’ll be glad to remove it, or to give credit where it is due. Like most of the things I’ve recorded here, it is done without seeking official permission from the poet. I hope the good man takes it as a compliment, and I hope you go buy one of his books!

There Is Wind, There Are Matches

by Gerald Stern

A thousand times I have sat in restaurant windows,
through mopping after mopping, letting the ammonia clear
my brain and the music from the kitchens
ruin my heart. I have sat there hiding
my feelings from my neighbors, blowing smoke
carefully into the ceiling, or after I gave
that up, smiling over my empty plate
like a tired wolf. Today I am sitting again
at the long marble table at Horn and Hardart’s,
drinking my coffee and eating my burnt scrapple.
This is the last place left and everyone here
knows it; if the lights were turned down, if the
heat were turned off, if the banging of dishes stopped,
we would all go on, at least for a while, but then
we would drift off one by one toward Locust or Pine.
— I feel this place is like a birch forest
about to go; there is wind, there are matches, there is snow,
and it has been dark and dry for hundreds of years.
I look at the chandelier waving in the glass
and the sticky sugar and the wet spoon.
I take my handkerchief out for the sake of the seven
years we spent in Philadelphia and the
steps we sat on and the tiny patches of lawn.
I believe now more than I ever did before
in my first poems and more and more I feel
that nothing was wasted, that the freezing nights
were not a waste, that the long dull walks and
the boredom, and the secret pity, were
not a waste. I leave the paper sitting,
front page up, beside the cold coffee,
on top of the sugar, on top of the wet spoon,
on top of the grease. I was born for one thing,
and I can leave this place without bitterness
and start my walk down Broad Street past the churches
and the tiny parking lots and the thrift stores.
There was enough justice, and there was enough wisdom,
although it would take the rest of my life— the next
two hundred years— to understand and explain it;
and there was enough time and there was enough affection
even if I did tear my tongue
begging the world for one more empty room
and one more window with clean glass
to let the light in on my last frenzy.
— I do the crow walking clumsily over his meat,
I do the child sitting for his dessert,
I do the poet asleep at his table,
waiting for the sun to light up his forehead.
I suddenly remember every ruined life,
every betrayal, every desolation,
as I walk past Tasker toward the city of Baltimore,
banging my pencil on the iron fences,
whistling Bach and Muczynski through the closed blinds.


From Early Collected Poems 1965 — 1992
Copyright, 2010 by Gerald Stern

Swing, a School Bus Poem

In keeping with the request that I share more of my published poems, here’s a clip from part of a longer reading at the Joseph Priestley Memorial Chapel in Northumberland Pennsylvania. Two months later this poem appeared in the pages of Contemporary American Voices alongside the excellent poets Brian Fanelli and Jason Allen.

Swing

While I was waiting
for the bus, Miss Shaffer said
“Get off the gate!
It’s not for swinging.”

But I knew better.

Another, on the playground—
I don’t recall her name,
But she yanked
me by the arm, right off

the swing set, and screamed,
“Don’t call me ‘old Lady!’”
I was only trying to yodel
(Yodaladie, yodaladie…).

And one time I wasn’t doing anything,
so I was sent to the principal’s office.
That was when days were for doing
nothing when you could.

When swings were for singing
anything that came to mind.
Fences were just in the way
and every kid knew the truth;

gates do that for a reason,
and it goes against nature
not to swing them.


©2014 by David J. Bauman. First printed in June of 2014 in Contemporary American Voices.