Posts Tagged ‘Randall Jarrell’

[with poems by Donald Hall and Charles Martin]

Have you ever imagined, while walking a well-worn woodland trail, simply stepping off into the forest? What if you moved just ten feet, twenty, into the trees? Would you be standing on a spot untouched by human feet for years? Decades? Forever?

I considered this years ago when I led, with my son Josh as co-leader, a little crew of Boy Scouts on a 10-day canoe trek in the Boundary Waters Wilderness of northern Minnesota. We camped each night on the shore of different lake. Some mornings (sunrise 0400) while they still slept I walked away from the water into the trackless forest. Did the last human rest on this lichen crusted boulder more than a hundred years ago, a French voyageur taking a break from trapping? A thousand years ago, a young Anishinaabe scout hunting meat for his village? Ten thousand years ago?

Now Josh spends every day it’s not raining trekking the Blue Ridge & foothills as a surveyor. When did a human foot last jump this creek or climb this unforgiving steepness? This corner marked by a chestnut ten feet in girth – today Josh must discover the remnant of its stump. How long must the earth rest from the tread of human feet before all sign of our passage is erased? How far is it from here to the middle of nowhere?

Last Saturday I joined a trail crew to maintain a little section of the Mountains-to-Sea trail near Elkin. The MST is a work in progress – departing Elkin hiking east, you follow Rte 268 most of the way to Pilot Mountain. Our day’s assignment was an orphan – 1 ½ miles of footpath leading away from the road and on through the woods with no trailhead or connectors. Probably no one had walked this way since it was last maintained in 2020.

Everywhere a little sun penetrates the undergrowth thrives: Goldenrod, Burnweed, Wingstem, Boneset, all manner of grasses native and exotic – summer asters up to eight feet tall, especially through the Duke Energy right-of-way beneath power lines. Add obstructions from grapevine, Smilax, fallen trees and in one single year the trail had become impenetrable, almost disappearing except for the white circular MST blazes on the trees.

In a few more years it might have lead to the middle of nowhere. Which is how you get to the middle of everywhere. Which is the trail I want to walk.

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The surveyor climbs a stonewall into woods
scribbled with ferns, saplings, and dead oaktrees

where weltering lines trope themselves into stacks
of vegetation. He sees an ash forced around a rock

with roots that clutch on granite like a fist
grasping a paperweight. He stares at hemlocks

rising among three-hundred-year-old sugarmaples
that hoist a green archive of crowns: kingdom

of fecund death and pitiless survival. He observes
how birch knocked down by wind and popple chewed

by beaver twist over and under each other, branches
abrasive when new-fallen, turning mossy and damp

as they erase themselves into humus, becoming
polyseeded earth that loosens with lively pokeholes

of creatures that watch him back: possum, otter,
fox. Here the surveyor tries making his mark:

He slashes a young oak; he constructs a stone
cairn at a conceptual right-angle; he stamps

his name and the day’s date onto metal tacked
to a stake. His text established, he departs

the life-and-death woods, where cellular life keeps
pressing upward from underground offices to read

sun and study slogans of dirt: “Never consider
a surface except as the extension of a volume.”

Donald Hall

from Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry. Edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini, A Bread Loaf Anthology, © 1993, Middlebury College Press.

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Both of today’s poems are from Poems for a Small Planet, edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini. This next one by Charles Martin stuck to my soul like beggar lice – I’ve imagined myself stuck in a dry spell for the past several weeks. I can’t resist the epigraph by Randall Jarrell, one of North Carolina’s most luminous poets. While waiting for lightning to strike I’ll learn to endure the rain running off my chin.

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Reflections after a Dry Spell

++++ A good poet is someone who manages, in a
++++ lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be
++++ struck by lightning five or six times.
++++ — Randall Jarrell

And the one that took this literally
Is the one that you still sometimes see
In the park, running from tree to tree

On likely days, out to stand under
The right one this time – until the thunder
Rebukes him for yet another blunder. . . .

But the one who knew it was nothing more
(That flash of lightning) than a metaphor,
And said as much, as he went out the door –

Of that one, if you’re lucky, you just may find
The unzapped verse or two he left behind
On the confusion between World and Mind.

Charles Martin

from Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry. Edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini, A Bread Loaf Anthology, © 1993, Middlebury College Press.

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[My immense gratitude to the Elkin Valley Trails Association for imagining, creating, maintaining, and improving the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Stone Mountain State Park to Elkin and onward east through Surry County, North Carolina. And for inviting this lunkhead with a shovel to join in.]

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2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree

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He began life as Blue Mouse, and how apt: pointy nose, bristly whiskers, cupped ears, and of course he’s the color of September sky.  Nowadays, though, when I walk in the kitchen door and Saul careens from across the room, he grabs my hand and says, “Get Blue Rat!  Get Blue Rat!”  Just how has the little creature transformed? Perhaps it’s the prehensile tail (it has wire in it so it can curl and grab things, like little boys’ ears), or the big googly Muppet eyes.  Could be because Blue is three times the size of the life-like field mouse finger puppet that drives the school bus and doesn’t talk much.  Most likely, however, it’s because of Blue Rat’s voice: gravelly, colloquial, with a distinct Bronx accent.

Voice?  Voice, you say?  How did a little stuffed plush critter come by a voice?  Well, from his conception Blue Rat has been designated as my ward.  When it’s play time (and it’s always play time) and we pull out the fuzzy animals, plastic figures, Lego men, Saul commands, “You talk Blue, and I’ll talk all of these.”

Because they all have voices.  Mappy the Hamster doesn’t have a mouth – he sort of mumbles.  Pinky Pie (purple kitty with pink nose) is high pitched and squeaky.  Lego pirates and space men are appropriately gruff and swashbuckling.  Saul “talks” all of those.  I get to talk Blue Rat.  He just looks like the kind of guy who’d be most comfortable chomping a Coney Island while he ogles the girl rats on the boardwalk.  So every afternoon when Saul whips him up a sandwich (plastic pancake, tomato, fried egg), he gustos it down and says, “‘Ey, Baby, dat’s deelishus.”


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Voice.  (Prepare for a big leap here.)  Voice.  When you read, don’t the characters speak in your mind?  Pitch, accent, cadence.  When you write, don’t you imagine and invent a persona for each creature?  Their voice?  How they say is as important as what they say.

One of my favorite little books is The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell.  The whole week I was at the Zoo last summer I carried copies and gave a couple away.  The Bat Poet discovers the voice of Owl, Chipmunk, Mockingbird, and they are all true.  In the end he discovers his own voice, and we discover how odd and wonderful it is to live in the bat-world.

Here are a few stanzas: I hope you’ll borrow or buy the book yourself.  Is there any end to the voices we may speak?

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from The Bat-Poet, Randall Jarrell, pictures by Maurice Sendak, copyright 1964 by The Macmillan company, copyright renewed 1992 by Mary Jarrell

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The mouse beside the stone are still as death –
The owl’s air washes them like water.
The owl goes back and forth inside the night,
And the night holds its breath

. . .
Curled at his breast, he sits there while the sun
Stripes the red west
With its last light: the chipmunk
Dives to his rest.

. . .
A thrush is singing, then a thrasher, then a jay –
Then, all at once, a cat begins meowing.
A mockingbird can sound like anything.
He imitates the world he drove away
So well that for a minute, in the moonlight,
Which one’s the mockingbird?  which one’s the world?

. . .
The mother drinks the water of the pond
she skims across.  Her baby hangs on tight.
Her baby drinks the milk she makes him
in moonlight or starlight, in mid-air.
Their single shadow, printed on the moon
Or fluttering across the stars,
Whirls on all night . . .


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New York Times book review of The Bat-Poet from 1964.

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