Archive for June, 2012

Some other breathers in the starry night, / Living their days beyond all others’ hearing.

Pat Riviere-Seel has just finished her first day as Poet-in-Residence and the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro.  Tours, meetings, crowds, getting lost, getting found – her mind is awhirl.  She’s finally found a few minutes to unpack and now she returns to the Zoo after closing.

You’ve visited zoos . . . how many times?  Right now you can visualize your favorite animals: the lion invariably asleep, only the tip of its tail atwitch; giraffe curling that improbable tongue around its leafy dinner; monkeys teasing, chasing, swatting each other like sixth-graders on the playground.  And then there are the smells: “Dad, do we have to go in the elephant house?”  But what about the sounds?  Do you remember any animal sounds other than toddlers crying for the ice cream they’ve dropped, mom’s calling for their young’uns to stick close and don’t get lost?

I wonder at the silence that Pat is discovering right now.  Have strange calls begun to rise from the aviary as birds seek their roosts?  Can she detect the crunch as oryx and kudu finish the day’s last mouthful?  After the crowds have disappeared, is that when elephants trumpet and lions roar?

The silent are not those who make no noise.  The silent are those we fail to hear.

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Song for the Silent
James Boyd

Down here the mule leans in the traces,
The plow swims through the loam,
And men at dusk turn quiet faces
To chimney smoke and home.
The roof is touched, then, by the first star’s finger,
A lamp stands in the wall;
Inside the house, slow sparse words linger,
Slow shadows rise and fall.

Out where the tracery of trees is cool
The plow leans toward the shed
In whose black cave the mule
Lies on his rustling bed.
Deep dark and silence come,
The mule no longer stirs,
the house, the darkened room
Seem filled with whisperers:
No sound but quiet breathing,
No light but from the star,
Whose beams through starlight and dark forests weaving
Form webs to where there are
Some other breathers lost in woods and clearing,
Some other breathers in the starry night,
Living their days beyond all others’ hearing,
Beyond all others’ sight.
But not beyond the web that holds them
To plow, to mule, to star,
And with light, lovely majesty enfolds them
And all the earth’s silent breathers, lone and far;
Breathers and brothers in the world’s dark reaches,
Brothers at peace within the web of light,
Free of the day and the ill day teaches,
At rest now in the silver of the night.

The manikins of state who scheme astutely
To blot each other’s names from history’s page
Forget that here in lonely cabins mutely
Men watch the feuds they wage.
But when through roads by ghosts of soldiers haunted
The crippled boys come back to mule and star,
If they shall miss the brotherhood they wanted
Our leaders may learn who the silent are.

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Written in the 1940’s, the final stanza of this poem could equally well describe this current decade, this very day.  So many voices that we fail to hear, voices of creatures both human and other.  Will our leaders learn who the silent are?

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James Boyd (1988-1944), novelist and poet, was a North Carolina literary luminary.   After World War I he and his wife moved to Southern Pines and for the next quarter century stimulated and promoted literary arts in the South, their influence spreading throughout the country.  Boyd wrote five historical novels set in North Carolina, revitalized The Southern Pines Pilot as its editor and publisher, and with WWII approaching organized The Free Company of Players, which produced a radio drama around such themes as freedom of speech, the right of assembly, racial equality, and the right to vote.  His collection Eighteen Poems was published the year after his death.

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Read Pat’s artist’s statement and bio.

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Everything I love changes me, and if I can be true to love I will welcome the changes.

Hear the veery in the deep dapple-dark forest.  Hear the descending double-voiced yearning so airy and earthy, old when these broad poplars were jade-and-honey flowers in their mother’s hair, old when these smooth mossed stones had just cracked from their father’s face.  Sit in the silence of light retreating and perhaps the spirit-bird will join you, a momentary apparition of brown leaf shadow and speckled dusk.  With bright eyes it will accept you, hop once, fly, and in the next moment you will hear again, ancient and aching, Audubon’s flute.

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Audubon’s Flute

Audubon in the summer woods
by the afternoon river sips
his flute, his fingers swimming on
the silver as silver notes pour

by the afternoon river, sips
and fills the mosquito-note air
with silver as silver notes pour
two hundred miles from any wall.

And fills the mosquito-note air
as deer and herons pause, listen,
two hundred miles from any wall,
and sunset plays the stops of river.

As deer and herons pause, listen,
the silver pipe sings on his tongue
and sunset plays the stops of river,
his breath modeling a melody

the silver pipe sings on his tongue,
coloring the trees and canebrakes,
his breath modeling a melody
over calamus and brush country,

coloring the trees and canebrakes
to the horizon and beyond,
over calamus and brush country
where the whitest moon is rising

to the horizon and beyond
his flute, his fingers swimming on
where the whitest moon is rising.
Audubon in the summer woods.

Robert Morgan.

[Collected in Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry, Sally Buckner, editor.  Carolina Academic Press, 1999.]

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Last Saturday I walked beside the creek and up the mountain with my sister while each veery called to the next that we were on our way.  Today Linda and I drive to Durham to meet my teacher, the first time in over thirty years, and to gather with his students gathering from fifty states.  Already we’ve been cataloguing the changes.  What do I love now that I didn’t love then?  How have I been true to the loves that entered me years ago?  Before the noisy afternoon, I take a moment to listen.  And when my bones are old as stones, trees, moss, how will my voice be recalled?

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Robert Morgan was born in Hendersonville, North Carolina and grew up on the family farm in the Green River valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  He is currently the Kappa Alpha Professor of English at Cornell but has returned to North Carolina many times as visiting professor and writer to Davidson, Duke, Appalachian State, and East Carolina.

The Veery (Catharus fuscescens) is a small thrush of deep moist woods, chestnut brown with a speckled breast.  All thrushsong is melodic and haunting, but to me the veery is most magical.  On a quiet afternoon you clearly hear him singing harmony with himself, the doubled notes possible only with an avian syrinx (unlike my limited tenor’s larynx).

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June 1, 2012

This is Dan Lawler at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  May I speak to Bill Griffin?

Hi, I’m Bill.

Listen, Bill, it’s about your back country permit.  You’re not going to be able to stay at Cosby Knob Shelter on June 9.

What is it? Too many hikers?

No, too much bear activity.  A bear tore up a couple of hikers’ . . . packs.  We’re closing the shelter for a month or two until he gets the message and moves on.  Those Cosby Creek bears – ha, ha – they give us problems every spring.

Ah . . . well . . . that’s fine.  I’m not all that fond of sleeping with bears.


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July 23, 2000

Today Mary Ellen and I embarked on the Great Sibling Bonding Adventure.  My sister and I spent a week backpacking the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mtn., GA to Deep Gap, NC, something shy of 100 miles.  Growing up separated in age by six years we never spent much time together, never had a lot in common.  Now we’re sweating up every steep ridge together, eating out of the same pot, sleeping in the same little tent.

Along the way we count the birds and name the wildflowers, and make up names if we don’t recognize them.  We make supper in pitch dark at Gooch Gap.  We make up funny songs (“Nothing Like a Log” to the tune of “Nothing Like a Dame”).  We make it to Muskrat Creek Shelter on our last night and celebrate Mary Ellen’s thirty-eleventh birthday with a stale cake I’ve stashed in my pack all week.  We make friends.


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June 8, 2012

Now it’s Friday morning and we’re cinching up our hip belts at Big Creek ranger station to head into the back country again.  Last month Mary Ellen called me and said she was overdue for some big brother quality time.  We broke out the trail maps and chose a non-old-guy-destructive three-day loop in GSMNP.  Since we’ve been shut out of Cosby Knob by the bears, we’ll hike 5 1/2 miles to Walnut Bottom and spend both nights there, Big Creek chuckling beside us.  On Saturday we’ll hike a ten-mile loop that takes us up to the AT and right past the bear-haunted trail shelter (and while we fill our bottles from the spring there we’ll keep whistling the entire time).

We’ll name every flower, tree and shrub — in twelve years damn if Mary Ellen hasn’t learned them all, right down to the Latin binomials.  After supper we’ll hang our food up high, and while dusk settles into Walnut Bottom we’ll sit on mossy creek boulders, sip mint tea with powdered milk, and wonder if the bears have discovered unattended dinners on the Tennessee side of the ridge.  Or if at this very moment they’re watching us from within the dog hobble and rhodies, just waiting for full dark . . .

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If you hear me, it will be a nut falling
from the buckeye.  If you hear me,
it will be a dry branch
seeking earth,
it will be slender fingers
of mountain ash waving praises
to the ridgelined sky.

If you see me, it will be a shadow
only one breath deeper
than twilight.
If you see me, it will be the twist
of heart that skips
a beat, the stark
of pupils gone abruptly wide.

I am mist that enfolds the laurel.
I am stone that reclines beneath black hemlocks.
I am a rumor at Maddron Bald,
a tremor at Mt. Guyot.

Raven is mistaken – this Ridge is mine.

And if you hear me, it will be the rising chest
of the mountain and its timeless slow
and if you hear me
it will only be because
I didn’t hear you first.

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In some twenty years of backpacking the Southern Appalachian mountains and Great Smokies, I’ve encounered a bear exactly once.  Mike Barnett and I were hiking without the noisy accompaniment of teenagers.  We’d set up camp one evening and I had walked back up the trail to spot some birds.  I’d been standing completely still for about twenty minutes, waiting for a Pileated Woodpecker I’d been hearing to show itself, when I heard a soft crack behind me.  I figured it was a buckeye falling.  Crack again.  I turned.  Slowly.  Twenty feet from me a large black mass with a pointed nose was staring towards camp where Mike was fixing supper.

And where did that happen?  Cosby Knob shelter.  That night I wrote the first draft of Bear in the AT log book and next morning left it in the shelter.

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and a p.s. . . .

Hey Sister — I’m looking closer at all the wildflower photos we took and I believe we saw BOTH lesser and greater purple fringed orchids!   (Platanthera psychodes and grandiflora).    —    your Bro

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[Bear first appeared in the journal Cave Wall, and was the first poem I wrote in the collection Snake Den Ridge, a Bestiary (March Street Press, 2009.]

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In three weeks my cousin Pat is going to take a small step into the vast unknown.  Pat Riviere-Seel is going to spend a week at the NC Zoological Park in Asheboro as its first Poet-in-Residence.  She and I have been whispering and tittering (in the email sense) about her preparations almost daily because just a few weeks after her sojourn ends I am going to follow her in the same role.  And yes, before you ask, the curators have promised fresh straw in our cages.

How does one  qualify to become a Zoo Poet?  The decision process of the artistic committee that established this new program remains obscure to us, the selected, but I can tell you a little about Pat’s qualifications as a poet.  She has the ability to imagine herself into unimaginable personalities.   She can speak in the voices of the voiceless . . . so many voices.  To read her poetry is to be touched, mind and heart, by people you could never otherwise have known.

Perhaps some of this creative skill has grown from her affliction, as she describes it, of “recovering journalist.”  In the thousands of interviews and articles over the years, how many personalities consumed her?  How many epiphanies when she suddenly saw with another person’s eyes and felt the whole of their motivations?  In her book The Serial Killer’s Daughter, Pat has completed the astonishing transition from journalist to poet.  Through the poems speak not only the daughter and mother, but other family members, victims, onlookers.  The story as it unfolds, and as the daughter begins to suspect, gives me a chill every time I read it.  It can’t be easy to weave together fear and desperation with calculating cruelty and still leave the reader with a sense of compassion, but my cousin Pat is someone ever willing to take a step into the vast unknown.


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My Brother’s Keeper

My brother doesn’t believe me
when I tell him it’s no accident
everyone close to Mama dies.

Always Mama’s favorite, he’s
the smart one, college degree,
office job.  He can’t afford

a stain of doubt ringing
the collar of his starched
life.  How could he forget

what happened when
he enlisted:  Mama declared
the Army wouldn’t take him,

a widow’s only son.  Two weeks
she railed like a street preacher
calling to the lost.  My brother claimed

Mama’s grief soured his stomach.
It’s nothing, he told me.  Just the stress
from seeing Mama so upset.

He forced himself to eat with us
the day before he left.  No cake,
he said to me.  But Mama insisted.

Clumsy, she screeched
as I slipped
and the cake shattered.

© Pat Riviere-Seel, The Serial-Killer’s Daughter, 2009, Main Street Rag Publishing Company.  Additional sample poems at Pat’s homepage.

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Yes, Pat and I are really cousins.  Her great-grandfather, the Reverend J.N.S. Daub, is also my mother’s great-grandfather.  That makes us second cousins one generation removed.  (Your attention please:  due to the vagaries of genealogical arithmetic, this does not mean that Pat is old enough to be my mother.)  We discovered this connection only about ten years ago when we met at an NCPS meeting and she mentioned that she’d just attended a family reunion in Lewisville.  I said, “Hey, that’s where my great-great-grandfather is buried,” then later mailed her a photo I’d taken of the headstone.  Cosmic!

And as far as her being selected as Zoo Poet, I also happen to know that Pat has written a number of poems about bears.

The Poets-in-Residence will be offering adult and youth workshops during our weeks with the animals.  For more information about Pat, me, and the third Zoo Poet Michael Beadle follow these links!

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