A couple of years ago my friend Mike and I went backpacking in the Slickrock Wilderness, near Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. On day one we reached our camp site in mid-afternoon, about half-way up the mountain along Little Santeetlah Creek. With tent pitched and bear bags hung, I lay down in a patch of sun to listen to the chatter and riffle of cold crystal over moss-draped boulders, laughter over smoothworn gravel.
As I dozed, water voices sang to me. Urgent conversations, reminding, cajoling, the words critical but somehow never clear. I half-dreamed of the people that had walked these hills. Native hunters stalking deer where the clamor masks the sound of their approach. Homesteaders sledging river stones to turn to cornerstones beneath chestnut timbers. Foresters marking the next stand they’ll cut, somehow never reaching the old growth poplar and hemlock at Joyce Kilmer.
So many voices lost in the creek’s murmurings, yet also brought to life in that mutter. Aren’t we as poets the keepers of lost voices? We capture in a phrase a moment that would have been forgotten, an image that would fade. If we can speak for those who have no words they will “bless us with their bones.”
This poem by Margaret Boothe Baddour, For the Lost Poets, speaks to all who would be keepers of lost voices. Seeking a mountaintop, discovering a new high place, she revivifies those poets whose voices might have been overcome by the clamorous falling water of years. Before we can say, “We are lost,” we find ourselves in a new place with new breath. Be still, listen for meaning within the whisper, the murmur, the water, the earth. Someone wants to speak to you.
For the Lost Poets
— Wildacres, 2008
For every day they die among us,
those who knew it was never enough
but hoped to improve a little by living.
– W.H.Auden, “In Memory of Freud”
I. They Whisper to Us
On this mountain top – so high not even birds
fly here and only small, complcated insects
amid the ox-eye daisies and wild yarrow
worry us with their rush-roar-whir –
we brieve for those poets whose rustling voices
the quiet, the strong, even the raucous ones
are lost. No, not lost. Only hushed.
They whisper from just over the next hill.
II. We Are Lost
We lose our way, looking for Roan Mountain
where, folks say, the pale pink laurel grows.
At the crossroads, an old man stand
like a cigar store Indian. His white mustache
and brogans, his worn overall speak hillbilly
but before we can say, “We are lost, he smiles
gap-toothed and points like a sign: “Turn left,”
he says. “Three mile uphill to Roan Mountain.”
III. They Leave Their Words
At the Continental Divide, we glimpse horses
but the cows up here, the cows so black and sleek
where sun shafts the greensward, the water so pure
at the place where it runs downhill to the east
where bugs whir in the clover! A white moth
brushes our arms. Like moths, those lost poets
touch, leave their words hanging, alive in the air.
IV. We Breathe for Them
Flash of fire – a mountain man, wave of water –
an ocean lover, the stillness of stone,
the roar of wind, all those poet friends
whose wise, strong words provoked this world
have now become the earth and air. They bless us
with their bones. Now we must breathe for those
who, when they breathed their last, exhaled in verse.
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from Scheherazade and other poems by Margaret Boothe Baddour, Saint Andrews College Press, 2009.
Margaret teaches Humanities, Creative Writing, and Drama at wayne Community College in Goldsboro, NC, where she holds the Bell Distinguished Chair in Teaching. Among her many awards and honors is the NC Poet Laureate Prize of the NC Poetry Society.
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