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Posts Tagged ‘family’

I’m going to bet your family is a lot like mine.  Sometimes my parents come to stay a few days over a holiday, with Margaret and her Josh in from Raleigh, Mary Ellen down from Sylva (and all with dogs-squared), and finally Josh, Allison, and Saul all squeezed in.  Then it starts.  First hugs, then catching up and gossip, meanwhile eating, momentary pause in eating, start eating again.  Finally, if we’re all under the same roof for long enough, the stories begin.

Haven’t you heard them?  Stories that start out with, “Oh, I remember when you were six and you . . . .”  “Right, and remember that time we thought no one was looking and we . . . .”  “Sure, and can you remember what Nana would say when we . . . ?”  We’ve heard them all a thousand time, but we can’t help ourselves.  We have to re-tell them.  It’s the stories that bind us together and remind us we’re a family.  Those stories make us a family.

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I was at the Zoo about a year ago when Batir was smaller (though not by any means small).  She still kept pretty close to her mother, Tonga, and they would frequently caress each other with their trunks or even interlace, touching . . . touching.  Today they still spend much of the day near each other; is Batir leaning against her mother’s side?  They’re that close.

Yesterday at the aviary, besides watching the Yellow-rumped Cacique add fronds to a large unruly nest in the very top of a sapodilla, I saw a pair of White-headed Mousebirds that evidently also had nesting on their minds.  They nibbled at each other’s beaks, and then one would preen the neck feathers of the other . . . and they were perched pretty darn close together on that branch.

One morning this week I entered the Park early while the alligators were still bellowing at each other (there are two separate ‘gator enclosures so the males can’t get physical with each other).  As I passed one pool, a larger ‘gator was rubbing his jaw up and down the neck of the smaller, and then she (?) would return the gesture.  I’d have a hard time calling it “nuzzling” when your skin is smooth as an old shagbark hickory, but I can only assume they were making friends.

With such a large extended family of baboons, you can’t pass them by without noticing that there is always some grooming going on.  Sometimes it’s a female picking through the thick mane of a large male; sometimes two females; frequently a mother and child, and then they reciprocate.  The younger members of the troop sometimes stop chasing and wrestling to comb each other out with their claws.

Somehow each species communicates that they are a family.  It may be the complex subsonic telegraphy of elephants or the ritual stereotypic breeding displays of birds, but the message is received.  The bond is forged.  The family prevails.

We humans prevail through the stories we tell.  When that gets old, we tell stories about telling stories. As Zoo ambassador, here’s my challenge to you:  tell me a new story.

I am leaving the Zoo after this week-long residency with a headful of stories.  You’ve got some, too.  Discover them.   Tell them.  You don’t have to visit a zoo, or an aquarium, or a botanical garden, or a national park.  You have a backyard, a neighborhood, a schoolyard.  There is something about any one of those places that can remind you what family you belong to.  Do I have to come right out and say it?  It’s the Family of All Life on Earth.

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Maybe you’ll encounter a creature you’ve never paid much attention to before.  You might learn to recognize a bird’s call or look up the name of that big butterfly hanging around your bushes.  Perhaps you’ll gain some new understanding about how creature A depends on creature B, and vice versa.  Could be you’ll discover that something you’re used to doing every day actually harms creature C.  You know you’re going to feel invigorated after you get a big dose of Vitamin N (“Nature”).

And you’re going to have some stories. I can hear you now, each time you get together with your Family and spend some quality time under nature’s vast open roof – “Hey, do you remember when we . . . ?!”

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A Prayer for the Mountains

Let these peaks have happened

The hawk-haunted knobs and hollers,
The blind coves dense as meditation,
The white rock-face, the laurel hells,
The terraced pasture ridge
With its broom sedge combed back by wind:
Let these have taken place, let them be place.

And where Harmon Fork piles unrushing
Against its tabled stones, let the gray trout
Idle below, its dim plectrum a shadow
That marks the stone’s clear shadow.

In the slow glade where sunlight comes through
In circlets and moves from leaf to fallen leaf
Like a tribe of shining bees,
Let the milk-flecked fawn lie unseen, unseeing.

Let me lie there too
And share the sleep
Of the cool ground’s mildest children.

Fred Chappell
from Spring Garden, 8 1995 by Fred Chappell, Lousiana State University Press.

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You don’t have to visit the Zoo, but it couldn’t hurt.  It’s done me a world of good.  Next time you’re there, see if they’ve started displaying poetry around the Park.  (It won’t happen until after all three of us Poets-in-Residence have submitted our suggestions, but if you don’t see any yet it’ll just be the perfect reason to make another trip before too long.)

Meanwhile, I thank profoundly Ellen Greer, Sue Farlow, and Dr. David Jones as well as all those on the steering committee that developed the vision for this Poetry of Conservation project.  And to all the rest of you folks – design staff, animal handlers, Zoo Com, volunteers, interpreters, Sodexo, Schindler House folks – you welcomed me into your NC Zoological Park family, and I am humbled and grateful.  In sheer awesomeness you are equal to any of the other animals in the Park!

Love, BILL

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Brave families at the NC Zoological Park today: heat index topping 100, no respite cloud, scant breeze, water fountains running low.  Even the rhinos and bongo (antelope) had sense enough to find a patch of shade and not budge from it.  But Zoos are made for families, and a good chunk of mine showed up to join me on my first afternoon as Poet-in-Residence.

My kids are 30+; Margaret said she couldn’t remember ever going to the zoo,  Josh said his last trip was in seventh grade, Allison has fond memories but they’re getting pretty fuzzy.  Jimmy and Dana (Allison’s parents, Josh’s in-laws) and I reminisced about the zoos of our youth and how much things have changed.  But four-year-old Saul didn’t need to philosophize – he kept us laughing repeatedly with his hoots of amazement at every new wonder.  The park was closing as we literally dragged him away from the underwater viewing of the harbor seals, and even rides on the tramand the bus had his eyes popping.  And I honestly don’t recall any complaints about the heat.

It’s not just the old cliché about seeing the world through the eyes of a child. It is something deeper, something that is ingrained in our heredity, essential to our lineage.  Something without which we wouldn’t have survived as a species.  Shall I call it the desire to give our children joy?  It is certainly a self-reinforcing phenomenon, a positive feedback loop:  when I see the awe on Saul’s face as he places his hand against the hand of the baby chimpanzee on the other side of the glass, I just want to keep offering him more of those experiences.  More and more.

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This poem by Peter Makuck captures for me the yin and yang of this sort of desire for our progeny.  We want to protect them from suffering – they will nevertheless experience sorrow.  We want to convey to them whatever meaning we’ve discovered – they will have to discover it for themselves.  My grandson is the apple, all potentiality and sweetness.  I am the stiffening branch.  I can only hope the ground I leave him, when he falls, is fertile.

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 My Son Draws an Apple Tree

I watch it grow
at the end of his dimpled hand
rooted in white paper.

The strokes are fast
and careless, as if the hand
had little time.

Quick black trunk,
a green crown and in the white
air all by itself

a red splotch,
an apple face with a frown
that is his

he gravely says
looking up at me — the stiffening
branch he falls from.

Peter Makuck
from Long Lens, New & Selected Poems, © 2010 by Peter Makuck, Boa Editions, Ltd.
American Poets Continuum Series, No. 121

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Peter Makuck lives on Bogue Banks, one of North Carolina’s barrier islands.  He was the first Distinguished Professor of English at East Carolina University, where he taught for thirty years until retiring in 2006.  While at ECU he founded and edited the nationally-respected journal Tar River Poetry.  He has influenced a generation of North Carolina poets and writers.

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“Not all those who wander are lost . . .”  J.R.R.Tolkien

What would it be like to take a walk and not know where you’re going to end up?  To just sling a pack across your shoulder and strike out southwest, no, let’s make that northeast, OK, just up and out?  I don’t mean when you’re not exactly sure what route to take, or it’s a trail new to you and you don’t know how rough or easy – I mean you have no earthly idea where you’re even headed.  Or how long you’ll be walking before you arrive. Or if you’ll arrive.

For someone like me, whose days are mostly lined out in fifteen-minute blocks, to simply walk in the moment is such an alien concept it’s almost terrifying.  I’ve taken some pretty long walks over the years, fifty and a hundred miles some of them, but I always knew within a few hours when I expected to arrive at my final goal, and within a few square meters of where that goal was.  Unfolding big maps and memorizing the landmarks, dissecting guidebooks (literaly, to rearrange the torn-out pages), scratching notes on little cards I’d carry with me along the way – they’re all metaphors for this planned-out predetermined regimented life of mine.  Once in a while I might stray from the trail and wander the woods, but I always know to be home by dark.  Yet by even the most wildly generous estimate my life is now two-thirds over.  Do I remember where I’m headed?

Friday morning Linda and I are going to pick up my eighty-something parents in Winston-Salem and drive to the Greensboro Coliseum to attend Josh’s graduation from UNCG.  Can I even list the obstacles that have made his path of the past ten years so uncertain?  The ones he never imagined he could succesfully negotiate but did, the ones that crushed him more than once, the ones he just had to hoist on his back and carry, sweating, all along the way?  Many times he and we too have doubted there even was a path, much less a way to travel it.  But in the past few months there have been subtle signs, like seeing the first trout lily and knowing spring has arrived, that this is real. It IS going to happen.  One of the sweetest images is that of my mother discovering, as she unpacked boxes from their recent move back home to North Carolina, the blazer she wore as a UNCG (then “Women’s College”) graduate sixty-three years ago, a “‘49” pin still attached from one of her reunions.

Way to go, Josh!  Your GrandMommy will be wearing that blazer, and I will be wearing admiration in my heart for your achievement.  You toughed it out and I’m proud of you.  It’s the steep path that brings us to high places.

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Which of us ever really knows exactly where we’re headed?  What the heck am I talking about?  Career, marriage, kids, grandson, church, yardwork, a vacation from time to time – enough there to fill any number of present hours and more than enough to fill any contemplations of the future.  Is it only old guys and ascetics who take time out for a minute and ask, Where am I headed?  For those like me who are too fidgety for a meditation practice, too cocky for a psychologist, too type A to spend time doing nothing instead of something, there’s a window to throw open and stick your head out when those questions tap on the pane.  Poetry, of course, the opening window.  When I read a poem that pierces my id I don’t get all the answers: I discover the questions.

Thank you, Cathy Smith Bowers, for this poem and all it doesn’t say.  I was reading Cathy’s book Like Shining from Shook Foil as part of a project to collect poems to be displayed at the NC Zoo.  Among others, I want to include one by each of our NC Poet Laureates, back to James Larkin Pearson.  I started at More Weight on page 119 and read the book backwards (I know, I know, they make a pill for that sort of thing).  Hers is a poetry of arresting images, lightning, and jagged truth-saying.  When I reached poem #1, perhaps from being filled with everything that had come before, all the questions clamored loud and I knew this is the one for the Zoo, and for me.

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Paleolithic

We love these old caves – Lascaux,
Altamira – and walk carefully
the way we always enter the past,
our hands bearing
the artificial light of this world.

We imagine those first hunters
crouched, conjuring luck,
carving into rock-swell
their simple art – whole herds of bison,
the haunches, the powerful heads, floating
orderless along the walls.
And some are climbing sky
as if they were stars, planets
obiting something they cannot see.
Centuries will pass before they
right themselves, their hooves
coming down onto the deep
wet floor of leaf-fall.
Remembering earth.
Remembering where it was
they were headed.

© 2010 Cathy Smith Bowers.  from Like Shining from Shook Foil, Press 53.  First appeared in Southern Poetry Review.

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Cathy Smith Bowers was named North Carolina Poet Laureate by Governer Bev Perdue in 2010.  Press 53 (Winston-Salem, NC) published her new and collected poems, Like Shining from Shook Foil, that same year.

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I’ve lived in this little town for thirty-one years, but almost every day someone still asks me, “Where you from?”  I don’t tell them.  Maybe if I’m not in my long-suffering persona at the moment I might just say, “Here.”  And move on.  Or I might sidestep with, “How far back do you mean?” and if they press then I inform them that my Griffin forebears moved down here from Virginia to Union County (near Charlotte) before the Revolution.  Or I might go on the offensive: “All my folks are from around here,” with further ammunition that my Mom grew up in Winston-Salem and Dad in Hamlet.

But I never tell them where I was actually born.  That would end the conversation.  Because what they’re really saying is, “You ain’t from around here, are you?”  And I’ll be damned if I’m going to confirm it.

Why?  What’s the big deal?  Afraid of being labeled a Yankee?  It’s not as if there aren’t fifty other things besides my pure midwestern accent that brand me an outsider in this rural county.  Not Baptist.  Not Republican.  Not a football fan.  Not a Tarheel (although I have no compunction about letting my Carolina friends know I went to Duke).

No, I’m not running away from the things I’m not.  I”m running toward what I long to be.  Not exactly a state of being, but a state of belonging.

I belong to North Carolina and it belongs to me.  I’ve slept on the ground in its forests and mountains.  I’ve drunk from its streams.  I’ve planted trees here.  I can recite its toast: Here’s to the land of the longleaf pine . . . .  I’ve lived in a lot of other towns and a lot of other states, but this is the one I need to accept me and take me in and hold me.  Maybe it’s exactly because I lived in so many different places growing up – I need some place where I belong.

So I won’t apologize for getting defensive when someone tries to imply I’m not from around here.  Just take heart all you folks who have moved more than twenty miles from the place where you were born.  Even if your great x 10 grandfather didn’t live here, you can belong.  Just put down a taproot of love, and when someone asks where you’re from, you tell them, “Right here, damn it.”

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Moving – I couldn’t help but get agitated about all those moves after reading that Jodi Barnes has moved at least twenty-four times in her life, as far as she can remember.  Her book Unsettled keeps returning to that theme, the quest for belonging.  Of course there are the boxes packed, unpacked, repacked, and their tangible artifacts of memory.  We can’t let go of things because we can’t bear to be cut off from our past.  Memories – are they really roots that are strong enough to feed us?  Is home what we’ve left behind or where we long to arrive?

Jodi’s poems reveal so many things left behind.  Love: we thought it was real, but it has moved on without us.  Lives: that pack our hearts long after we’ve lost them.  So many false steps and false starts that may end with us feeling cut off.  Is there any hope for us wayfaring strangers to finally discover our home?  The gods of metaphor; the dirt beneath our feet; the persona of myth we don like an astonished cloak; all those things that leave us feeling uncertain and longing.  Everything unsettled.  And yet . . .

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Pretend Pioneer

My friends ask, are you moved in yet?
They mean is my stuff unpacked;
am I settled?
I envision wagon wheels,
mail-order brides, the frontier.

But here my sole risk is to trip
over cardboard,
the clutter of privilege.

Once I unwrap what I thought I’d need,
I circle camps of chattel on a polished floor,
stretch the metaphor of expansion,
contrast this mansion with teepee
desire – its flapping door.

Next time I’ll answer Hell No
I got to keep moving.

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The Hardness of Cardboard Philosophy

Memories hide beneath cardboard wings,
seek solace against worn seams.
Last night, I dreamed this box
grew feathers and flew away.

But it stays, obeys gravity,
reminds me of a frayed decision:
to face the weight or leave this matter
to tidy imagination.

I think I remember why it’s no use
to ply back flaps on time capsules.
It’s the same stuff.  Pixies don’t exist.
And there is no magic in this dust.

Yet something pulls me to the drab,
unrelenting, rectangular shape,
my arms extend, my fingers bend
to search breaches in brittle tape.

Strands of hair, stale baby’s breath,
baptismal candle, eyelet gown,
first tooth, proof of life –
unmoved, they stare me down.

As I try to keep them dry,
not mourn her past, the missed –
angelic imps resist my wish; the box sits.
Another blurred present flies by.

From Unsettled, (c) 2010, Jodi Barnes, Main Street Rag Publishing

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With his masters in chemical engineering, my Dad got a job with Western Electric straight out of Georgia Tech.  I was born in Niagara Falls, the American side.

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I’m fourteen and I need a new pair of pants (the Aurora High dress code states “no blue jeans”). My dad drives me to Solon to the men’s store. I am not feeling at all like a man when I consider walking up to the clerk in his jacket and tie and asking for help finding what I need. I don’t even know how to describe what I need, much less do I have the intestinal fortitude to ask for it. My mouth is dry. Everyone in the place (all two of them) is staring at me. What a dork! Then my dad walks in and says three words to the clerk who points to a rack. Dad pulls down a couple of pairs, holds them up to my scrawny frame, sends me into the fitting room. They’re OK. He pays and we drive home. DAMN, my Dad can do anything!
When I was thirty-eight and shopping with my fourteen-year old son, I walked up to the clerk and asked how to find the pants. And I was convinced everyone in the place thought I was a dork. But then I suddenly realized my son couldn’t tell I felt like a dork. He must have thought I knew what I was doing. And then I thought maybe my Dad always felt like a dork and was never really filled with the confidence I always sensed exuding from him. And now I’m fifty-eight and still feel like a dork, but I’ve at least reached the point where I don’t always care whether people think I’m one or not. [OK, OK, until later, when the retrospectoscope clicks on and I think, “Why the hell did I say that? What a dork!”]
Which doesn’t have a thing to do with this poem by Annalee Kwochka. Or maybe it does. In her premier book, Seventeen, Annalee includes endnotes that explain the moment in 8th grade when she suddenly realized her parents didn’t have themselves figured out any better than she did. When your idols are suddenly discovered to be human and fallible, do you hate them for it? Or is that the moment when you really first begin to love them?
And now I’m recalling Annalee reading from her book at Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities last month. Poised, beautiful, expressive, honest. Her piercing skill with words, her entangling extended metaphors, how she reveals a depth to the teenage psyche I didn’t know we former-teenagers ever possessed. Totally non-dorky. But still I wonder – did she go home that night and think, “Why the hell did I say that?!” I hope not. I hope there’s one person on the planet that feels completely at home in who they are and who they’re becoming.
Oh, and postscript to my son: does it help to know that your old man who carries a stethoscope and writes poems and knows the Latin names of things is really still, at heart, a dork?

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 Storms
for my mother
You, with your
Mouth drawn tight and your fingers
Fast on the keyboard, you seem
So lost in your own private storm.
You can’t feel the winds that rip
From your mouth, scarcely notice the
Words they carry.

Do you dance
In your own rain?
Once while spinning
On the warm summer sidewalk, I
Watched the chalk-pictures drain their rainbow
Through my pink-painted toes,
And thought I might have glimpsed
A little happiness.

Do you sing louder
Than your own thunder?
When I was swinging in a spring
Thunderstorm, I let my voice seek the
Bluebirds and their bright feathers, the ground
Falling from under my mud-stained feet as song
Lifted me through that crack in the storm
Where the sun seeps through.
And I found
A silver lining
In the angry, tight-pulled words
That brought me out into a summer storm,
Wishing you were here with me.

from SEVENTEEN by Annalee Kwochka, (c) 2010
For information, contact Running Poet Press
RunningPoet17@gmail.com

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Annalee Kwochka won first prize in the 2005 NC Poetry Society student contest for lyrical poety (grades 3-8) for her poem Window Seat at the City Bakery, and she has been accumulating kudos ever since.  This fall she’ll matriculate in Davidson College’s creative writing program.

SEVENTEEN reviewed by Scott Owens 

Mona Lisa Muse by Annalee Kwochka, won first prize in the 2008 NCPS student contest

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I’ve made a whole lot of bird lists over the past twenty years. (Made a BIG one yesterday – see the post in a couple of days.)  I’ve got lists for my yard, my neighborhood, for Elkin and Surry County, for Pine Knoll Shores, for NC and a bunch of other states, and then of course the master list, the “life” list.  I’ve even gone on a couple of organized trips where a guide would point to the bird and tell you what it was — then you add it to another list.  And check it off in your database when you get home.

But among all those lists, among the thousands of data points, for some reason there are some individual birds I never forget.  My first Northern Parula – right here in my own backyard, but I waited almost an hour for it to show itself at the tip of the big white oak.  The Black-Throated Blue Warbler Mary Ellen and I spotted near Muskrat Creek Shelter on the AT, our last evening together on the trail.  The Common Yellowthroat Nancy and I stalked through briars so she could see her first one.  On and on.  I’m thankful for each creature’s tiny jewelled body.  I’m thankful they decided not to conceal themselves forever.

The birds I added to my list during organized trips are just not as memorable as the others (well, maybe the Harlequin Duck bobbing in the surf at the pier in Rodanthe . . .).  Am I saying that we treasure most those things we have to work for?  Good Puritan ethic! But that’s not exactly it; I guess I would rather say we treasure those things we discover for ourselves.  The branches are full of warblers – will I raise my eyes and look?

This is the closing section of my poem Leave and Come Home.  My journey as father is about to enter unmapped territory – the mountains and coves of grandfather.  Warblers are returning from their wintering grounds to make a new home.  How have they found their way?  How will Josh and I find ours?  Some vast unseen magnetism compels us.  Perhaps home has always been, although unnamed and so often unseen, that inner will to discover.  Maybe home is always that very thing we hope to find.


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Leave and Come Home
Backyard, Elkin, North Carolina

Which one is home: what I know and leave behind
or what I have yet to reach?
May 1st storms all day and night but this bright morning
frees the migrants from their cover – tree limbs fill
with warblers.  In an hour they’ll resume their passage north,
but for now they’re willing to reveal themselves
if we have the will to notice.

In a few days Josh will become a father. I watch
the corner of his mouth for a hint of one laconic smile . . .
there it is!  He follows a trail of a hundred steps to assemble
my grandson’s crib. Outside the back window
Cardinals jostle at the feeder and

among the poplar blossoms warblers ruffle droplets
from their wings, show off their woodland jewelry,
glean aphids from beech twigs.  In the spotlight
Black-Sided Blue preens in formal dress, then flies.
And does he dream of the feast of insects
at his Costa Rican winter grounds or of the nest
he’ll build at Clingman’s Dome?  Or is it simply
some vast unseen magnetism, cycle of sun and
circling stars that speak to him to reveal
his home?  Point to it, Mom.  Or leave
me to discover it myself – home may yet abide
in what we hope to find.

Tomorrow I will lean into that crib compelled
by stars and magnetism, leave for later the unnameable
complexity of color, shape, song, that unspoken
trail that twists between son and father:
into that soft pink ear, I’ll whisper Redbird.

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[Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society.  In four sections, it reflects some fifty years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family.  I posted section 1 on 5/8, section 2 on 5/15, and 3 on 5/22.  This is the fourth and final section.]

 

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How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wing . . . The Gospel of St. Luke

Bogue Banks.  Thirty-four miles long from Fort Macon in the west to the old ferry station at the eastern end, and in most places so narrow you can see both the sound and the ocean from your deck.  And you’re never very many feet from tarmac.

But there is at least one spot on the Banks where you can’t hear the SUV’s grinding along Rte. 58.  Where the live oaks and loblollies are so thick with greenbrier you wouldn’t even think of taking a shortcut.  Where egrets roost in the trees, osprey snag mullet from the inlet, and if you’re real still you can hear the tick and crinkle of a million fiddler crabs tapping their tiny claws to attract a million little females.

The Teddy Roosevelt Natural Area is site of one of North Carolina’s four aquaria, but the real attraction for me and mom are the trails that wind away from the visitors center back into the pine knolls.  Away from sun worship to slow black water and tidal ponds.  And while I’m slapping mosquitoes, Mom is seeing the merest flash of color from a high branch and exclaiming, ” A Redstart!”

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In the steam of the maritime forest and the glare of the strand, parent birds struggle to protect their young from heat.  In this third section of Leave and Come Home, I wonder if I have protected my son adequately from his struggles or too much.  Does a parent ever finish with worrying whether their child will make it?  Will I ever finish questioning whether I’ve been adequate to the task?

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Leave and Come Home
Theodore Roosevelt Natural Area, Pine Knoll Shores, North Carolina

It’s been a long time since anything
surprised me.  By their mere voices I name each bird
that speaks from the rippled heat of jack pine
and yaupon, but I couldn’t tell you a single word
my son would wish to say.  No, that’s wrong.  The problem is
I don’t speak a single word I wish
he’d hear.  Here the birds cover their eggs
not to keep them warm but cool.  They hatch
altricial, blind, but in two weeks they fledge
and fly.  All as it should be.  I feel I have to lay my arm
on Josh’s shoulder not to push him forward
but to hold him up.

This trail crosses black water and climbs a sand knoll
knee deep in mosquitos; I smack
and squirm, but Mom always looks up.  She points
to sunlight coalesced into the shape
of Warbler, Prothonotary, perched at his cleric’s chamber
of commandeered woodpecker hole.
And in your ecclesiastical garments can you accept
confession, the hardest one a father
could admit?  That from reticence, confusion,
or hopes never uncovered like a wing not lifted
from the nestling’s eyes, I haven’t held him up
but held him back.

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[Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society.  In four sections, it reflects some fifty years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family.  I posted section 1 on 5/8, section 2 on 5/15, and I will post section 4 on 5/29.]

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Many Native American cultures – Iroquois, Oneida, others – express the sacredness of earth and family in this guiding principle: make your decisions according to how they will affect the seventh generation. The idea of planning for seven generations has been adopted by ecologically minded groups from California to Vermont. Engineers, builders, civic planners – “7 generations” appears in their name or their mission statement.

Why seven? Besides being a number with plenty of mystical portent, there’s a practical matter to it. With a good memory, reasonable longevity, and a little luck you yourself have a good chance of knowing personally seven generations of your family. Linda had a long and close relationship with her great-grandmother, who lived into her nineties. In fact I met Great-Grandma White several times when Linda and I were dating (along with a houseful of about fifty cousins, aunts, uncles, and greats, all of whose names I had been carefully coached to memorize – and folks, this wasn’t the rural South, this was the Rust Belt). And if Linda and I live to ninety our grandson Saul will be 35, surely old enough to have had a couple of great-grandkids for us. Add it up – seven generations.

Extended family. Reaaaally extended. It does make you want to think a little more critically about where you place your priorities. Saul, I’ve already planned to bequeath you my best binoculars, solid enough to stand the test of generations, a legacy I hope. May you see things with them that I’ve only imagined.

Imagining. Seeing. It happens when I read this poem Conversations on the Leaving by Marty Silverthorne. I find myself smack dab in the middle of the generations. It’s one thing to experience a poetic image that brings a vivid scene to your mind, but it’s quite another to find yourself in the room, in the conversation, stammering to add your own voice to the dialogue. So poignant, so immediate – I wish I were kin to Marty. Maybe after reading his poetry I sort of am.

The poem is from his book No Welfare, No Pension Plan (2006, Rank Stranger Press, Mt. Olive, NC). The entire collection is exquisitely personal – much of it is an elegy for grandmother, grandfather, father. The language embodies the rough life of the farm and the pride despite poverty of Eastern NC; the language rises with gut-felt power like a revival preacher; the language sings mournful like nightbird and swamp. Great Granddaddy Fred was water, / fluid and free. / In his palms, seeds sprouted; / sap seeped from his pores. (from Water Walker). There are smells and sounds and dog-tired feelings here that we don’t want to lose. We can’t stand to lose them. We can’t afford to. They need to be recalled to the seventh generation.

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Conversation on the Leaving

He was speaking of the leavings;
his voice broke in a rhyme,
poverty, poems he had witnessed.

They didn’t leave much – trinkets
mainly trinkets – nothing of value;
you knew their poverty, son.

So I didn’t get much.

Did you get the green elephant?

Yeah, I got the elephant.

Wasn’t it a stencil to draw by,
with a thumb tack for an eye,
wasn’t it a stencil?

No, it was a napkin holder,
a broken napkin holder
she pinned above the plate rack
with a white thumb tack.

Oh a napkin holder! I never knew.

They didn’t leave much – trinkets
just trinkets – old odd things –
that mean nothing to no one, son.

Did you get the horse heads,
the wooden horse heads,
brown, wooden horse heads
nailed above the headboard in the bedroom?

They were dogs.

They were dogs?
I never knew they were dogs.

Yeah, they were dogs.
Cut’m in woodshop
with a coping saw
I’ve still got.

Like I said, I didn’t get much —
trinkets I saved
they were going to throw away.

Your brothers won’t want much;
they don’t remember the oak floors
covered with linoleum
or the day we framed the new cabinets.

Dad, did you remember the church
how about the church;
not the Eiffel Tower but the church?
remember the church? It was broken;
the children broke the church.

Son, I didn’t get much;
they didn’t have a lot to leave
but the church, I got the church,
the family was forged in the church.

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Four Poems by Marty Silverthorne

Feature at NC Arts Council

Asheville Poetry Review

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[for the first post in this series of four, see May 8]

Years ago, before I’d reached my fortieth birthday, I remember talking to a friend who was looking pretty darn glum about his fiftieth. “Oh come on,” I said, “Just think of it as the half-way point.” I couldn’t understand why that didn’t cheer him up. Now my own fiftieth has got dust and flyspecks on the binding, and apparently I still haven’t memorized its aphorisms. If it’s impossible, as must seem obvious to any rational being, to put right all the mistakes I’ve made, why do I keep looking back? Why do all the possible futures unfolding out of my particular Heisenbergian uncertainty seem to have edges of creeping tarnish?

In this second section of my poem Leave and Come Home, I am struggling with uncertainty. Will our future relationship, mine and my son’s, be bright as the Firethroat or remain out of reach? I think of my own Dad, turning 85 this year. So much of our communication in my younger years was subterranean, never quite reaching the surface. How much angst did I cause him with my long hair and Grateful Dead? (Some other day I’ll share about how Linda helped us re-learn how to hug.) So much I didn’t know about my father, and so long before it occurred to me that I didn’t.

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Several year’s ago Aunt Ellen (Dad’s sister) was going through boxes of papers from their parents’ home and discovered a letter Dad had written to his Mom from Boy Scout camp. He must have been thirteen. He had just passed the requirements to earn Birdwatching Merit Badge and was describing the birds he’d identified. Wait a minute! Big Momso is the bird watcher! You sneaky Dad, you, looking up into those branches all that time and never telling me what you were seeing. Well, I’m telling.

.  .  .  .  .

Leave and Come Home

Horseshoe Island, Newfound Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Last night a pair of Bald Eagles scrawled their wild script
along the silver lake. We lay on high rocks above the water, waited
for the final stars of our adventure to ignite.
Only Hermit Thrush spoke – silence
unaccustomed from our Scouts but habitual
for Josh and me.

This morning I leave him to goad
the younger ones to break our last camp –
when he leaves for college will he goad himself?
I follow the island trails, aim field glasses high
as if the warblers I’ve learned this trip might bestow
some special unction. When I pause they gather
in low branches and cock their heads, a query
I can’t answer. They leave me there.

Almost finished now, this last solitude, this last trail that has tried
to lead back to my son, close enough to hear
the tink of scrubbed pots; high in the spruce
another unnamed voice reedy and ascending
into emptiness. I search, it flees; I scan, it eludes until
on a gray limb in the gray-green canopy with a gray moth
in its needle beak it blazes: Firethroat. Blackburnian Warbler.
And if I rush to camp and pull Josh back in time
will we look up and share the prize
or stare into empty branches?

.  .  .  .  .

[Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society. In four sections, it covers fifty some years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family. I posted section 1 on 5/8; I will post section 3 on 5/22 and section 4 on 5/29.]

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