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[with poetry by Alana Dagenhart]

Here, take some with you. You’re not likely to leave my Dad’s presence without hearing these words. It could be a little plastic tub of leftovers from the meal I just brought him and Mom; maybe cookies or a chocolate; a couple of apples – he says he and Mom can’t eat them all. You’ll definitely be carrying the stack of New Yorkers and Sunday funnies he’s been saving. Just try leaving empty handed after visiting my Dad, just try.

Here, take some. How many years before I realized he always has and always will say this? How long have I been trying to analyze why he does? Does anyone ever really understand their father (or their son, for that matter)?

Here, take. It can be too easy to overlook Dad’s deep, even urgent, desire to give. He may seem stubborn and commandeering (just like me, although I prefer “assertive”). He takes charge of every conversation (probably because he literally can’t hear anyone talking but himself; maybe he thinks he’s just filling an awkward lull). Admit it, he acts like a Dad – so let me cut him some slack and open my eyes to the source of his generous essence.

Dad grew up during the Depression in the rural South – just imagine. World War II paid for him to go to Duke. He worked for the same huge company from the time I was four until he retired; he always seemed to be traveling and working at home nights & weekends. Because of Dad’s promotions we moved three times in two years while I was in Junior High (origin of my many quirks, no doubt), but then he declined promotions so my little sister didn’t have to move midway through High School.

Dad saw to it that I graduated from university and med school with no more debt than I could manage. When Linda and I got married and our old boat of a car couldn’t bear the load, Dad towed a trailer from Ohio to North Carolina to meet us after our honeymoon. All these years I can’t recall him spending money on himself, except maybe golf clubs every few decades, but Dad will keep shelling out whatever it takes to maintain the old beach house so all his grandkids can go on enjoying it after he and Mom are gone.

Don’t you want some more? Oh yeah, that’s the other thing Dad says. I hope he can hear me when I reply, “Thanks, Dad, it’s been plenty.”

 

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All the Silver Space

Fire pops and burns blue, Sunday morning
October in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hiss and hum, the constant roaring –
wood is changing,
solid to light,
before my eyes
like you, Dad
muscle to sacks of dry ice.
We both know.

I walk the mountain top trail
yearning for afternoon heat,
your sun in my bones

Sunset: the inside of a buttercup
empty at the horizon.
The sky fades like a tie-dyed tee-shirt,
from canary to lizard
gravel to irises to ocean.
The underbellies of clouds
are streaked in cotton candy.

Moon again, full and daring
around pine and rock.
Your blue eyes
not saying what we know
to be true. Back

cover first.
I knew to look,
bottom corner,
last page of the book,
your handwriting
small and faint.
You didn’t even want to leave a mark.

Alana Dagenhart

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Alana Dagenhart’s Yellow Leaves is not a narrative time line, it is a lyrical collage of visions and visitations interwoven with the relentless thread of her father’s death. We enter her dreams, intrusive but illuminating; we get to know ancestors imagined and remembered; we are invited to share Alana’s days most mundane and most profound. The thread of family tangles and unspools, knots and releases, and what could be dark, somber, a burden too heavy, becomes another bright morning, all the colors of revelation, a yellow leaf whirled and unsettled finally discovering its place of rest.

All today’s poems are from Yellow Leaves, Alana Dagenhart, Redhawk Publications, Hickory, NC. © 2022

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Yellow Then, Will Fly to Every Eave

The blackest bruise
of our human trauma may
not heal completely through.
Some lingering yellow stays.

But Nature’s first green is gold,
her hardest hue to hold,
and what was yellow once and bold
fades in time in form and folds.

Blue will tend the sky of day,
and black will stay the night,
but yellow always leaves again
when sun is out of sight.

Death’s second self, made up of all
the dark the Earth contains,
snuffs bright yellow out, till
none but veiled despair remains.

Then violence bangs
& cuts us to our knees,
blooded-violet searing pain,
rooted between burning trees,

Coral dies, and chestnuts’ blight,
and green is gone –
all gone to dust and yellow leaves.

Unless a poet writing through the night,
will pen an echo fluttering of light
and yellow the, will fly to every eave
and someone late will read from time-tinged leaves

a verse or tow that speaks to them alone
a shelter of thatched pages, like a home.

Alana Dagenhart

Nature’s first green . . . from Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay; Death’s second self from Shakespeare Sonnet 73.

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What Yellow Light

illuminates the fields of the dead?
What fevered hue burns hot
on the faces of our beloved?

What lime? What straw?

What platinum beam cast triangles
on the oak board floors
of the room they wait
beyond this spectrum?

The Yellow Submarine blaring loud
COMCRUDESLANT command
where sailor scrub-shine metal
and Navy top brass smile big teeth
behind sunglasses?

The neon yellow of the pick-up truck
where my brother and I rode
our backs against the cab
in October, Boone, the Blue Ridge
with our legs under a patchwork quilt?

Th old gold of historic hallways
restored in the color of statesmen?

The palest lemonade sides
of papa’s house, squash in the filed
a buckwheat horse?

The sure blonde of my towheaded little brother?

What frequency has that light?

Is it far from here?

Alana Dagenhart

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POSTSCRIPT: Dad at age 95 says some scary stuff, too. The most anxiety provoking = I have complete confidence in my ability to drive. The ability part is scary enough but the confidence is terrifying.

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2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree

 

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[with 3 poems by Scott Owens]

Which came first? Separate a few of the living creatures in the photo above and see what you can identify: the distinctive mottled leaf of Saxifrage; beneath it a glimpse of moss, its diminutive creeping green; a big hairy leaf, I should know that one but I don’t. Down in the damp there’s bound to be a little township of bacteria, waterbears, wormy things, arthropods.

And what’s that right in the center? A little stemmed goblet corroded like verdigris growing out of that patch of gray-green flakes (squamules)? Center stage – lichen, probably Cladonia pyxidata. Its tiny cup is pebbled within by extra lichen bits growing there (more squamules!) and some of the rough and powdery appearance may be an obligate lichen-loving fungus taken up residence. So which came first in this little community of many kingdoms and phyla?

Most likely the lichen comes first. It can hold onto bare rock where nothing else lives. It gathers moisture into itself out of the very air and how could a wandering moss spore resist? Anything drifting by may land and latch. Plus that little lichen chemical factory can break down rock so that others may use the minerals. Pretty soon a Saxifrage seed finds just enough earth to sprout and enough wet to grow and wedge its roots further into rock (saxifrage = rock-breaker). Everything discovers what they need; everyone adds to the life of the community.

What gifts may I add to my little community? A bit of cautious optimism and encouragement. An appreciation for all living things (OK, yes, that does extend to human beings, at least I’m trying my best). Appreciation of a good joke and appreciation as well of the folks who tell bad jokes. Curiosity and a sense of wonder. The world’s best recipe for Nutty Fingers.

We all need something but we all bring something. Who knows, maybe what I’ve got is just what you need. When one really gets down to it, all the stuff growing in that photo looks pretty haphazard and messy. Just like a real community. Just like life.

And if you know what that hairy leaf is, please tell me!

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In the Cathedral of Fallen Trees

Each time he thinks something special
will happen, he’ll see the sky resting
on bent backs of trees, he’ll find
the wind hiding in hands of leaves,

he’ll read some secret love scratched
in the skin of a tree just fallen.
Because he found that trees were not
forever, that even trees he knew

grew recklessly towards falling,
he gave in to the wisteria’s plan
to glorify the dead. He sat down
beneath the arches of limbs reaching

over him, felt the light spread
through stained glass windows of leaves,
saw every stump as a silent altar,
each branch a pulpit’s tongue.

He did not expect the hawk to be here.
He had no design to find the meaning
of wild ginger, to see leaves soaked
with slime trails of things just past.

He thought only to listen
to the persistent breathing of tres,
to quiet whispers of leaves in wind,
secrets written in storied rings.

Each time he thinks something special
will happen. He returns with a handful
of dirt, a stone shaped like a bowl,
a small tree once rootbound against a larger.

Scott Owens
from Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming, Red Hawk Publications, © 2021

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I’ve admired Scott Owens for many years, not only as a poet but even more so as a builder of community. Scott’s writing wields its openness, its wonder, its unflinching honesty to invite us to realize we are all part of one human family. As in his poem, Words and What They Say: the hope we have / grows stronger / when we can put it into words. Not only words – in everything else he does Scott is building as well. He teaches, he mentors, he makes opportunities happen for the people around him. Perhaps his poems are a window into why he values people as he does, and why he works so hard to make hope a reality.

Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming is Scott Owens’s sixteenth poetry collection. He is Professor of Poetry at Lenoir Rhyne University, former editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review and Southern Poetry Review, and he owns and operates Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse and Gallery where he coordinates innumerable readings and open mics, including POETRY HICKORY, and enlarges the community of creativity.

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The Possibility of Substance Beyond Reflection

I didn’t see the V of geese fly overhead in the slate gray sky as I sat waiting for a reading in my Prius in front of the Royal Bean Coffee House & Gift Shop in Raleigh, NC.

What I saw was the V of geese presumably flying overhead in the slate gray sky reflected in the slate gray hood of the Honda CRV parked before me in front of the Royal Bean Coffee House & Gift Shop in Raleigh, NC.

And they took a long time to travel such a short distance, up one quarter panel, across one contoured crease, then the broad canvas of the hood’s main body, down the other crease and onto the edge of the opposite quarter panel before

disappearing into the unreflective nothingness beyond, where even they had to question just how real they were or just how real they might have been.

Scott Owens
from Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming, Red Hawk Publications, © 2021

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Sharing a Drink on My 55th Birthday

Sharing a drink on my 55th birthday,
my son, his tongue firmly planted
in his cheek, asks what advice I have
for those not yet as old as I,
and I, having had too much to drink,
miss his humor and tell him
always get up at 5
as if you don’t want to miss
any part of any day you can manage.
Clean up your own mess
and don’t clean up after those who won’t.
Take the long way home,
hoping to see something new,
or something you don’t
want to not see again.
Stay up late, drink in as much
of every day as you can.
Be drunk on life, on love, on trees,
on mountains, on spring,
on rivers that go the way
they know to go,
on words, on art, on dancing,
on poetry, on the newborn
fighting against nonexistence,
on night skies, on dreams, on mere minutes,
on the ocean that stretches beyond
what you ever imagined forever could be.
And when someone asks you
what advice you have, give them,
as you’ve given everyone and everything,
the best of what you have.

Scott Owens
from Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming, Red Hawk Publications, © 2021

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*** Extra Geek Credit — the lichen Cladonia pyxidata is host to the lichenicolous (lives on lichens) fungus Lichenoconium pyxidatae. Such fungi are parasites of their lichen host and mostly specific to a single genus or even to single species of lichen, but although some may be pathogens for the lichen in many cases the relationship is commensal. No harm done. Join the party!

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[poems by Joyce Compton Brown and Billy]

Happy Birthday to Me!

Yep, February 11, this is my day. Sixty-nine years ago my Mom was probably feeling the Niagara rumble from her birthing bed on the umpteenth floor of St. Mary’s. On the American side of the Falls, if you were wondering. Name already picked out – Eugene Wilson the Third – but already in use by Dad and Granddaddy so nickname picked out as well – Billy.

In a few years Mom and Dad moved back down south – Memphis, this time – then over the next ten years to Delaware, Michigan, finally Ohio, but never back to their home state of North Carolina. “Here’s to the land of the Long-Leaf Pine, a summer land where the sun doth shine.” Linda and I moved to NC a week after our wedding – to Durham, Duke Med – and held a place for them here. Just in case.

It’s a good thing. Ten years ago Mom and Dad at last resettled near us, Winston-Salem, where Mom grew up and went to Reynold’s High. They’re right across the street from historic Old Salem. I visited yesterday (secretly hoping there might be cake and candles – Birthday Party #1-of-many). Today I’m expecting Margaret and Bert (4) from Raleigh. Maybe tomorrow Saul (13) and Amelia (6) from across just around the corner. Maybe more cake?

So what do I actually want for my birthday? In Russia I’d have a pie with my name in the crust; in China a longevity noodle that fills the entire bowl (with scallions & bok choy); Hungarians would pull my earlobes (69 times); Jamaicans would dust me with flour.

All those sound awesome, but no, don’t bring presents. I have a walk in the woods with Linda planned. I have Grandkids to wear me out and make me laugh. We have the Blue Ridge with its arms spread to hold us here, not saying much, not needing to. Trees and mountains, family, homeplace – happy birthday to me!

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Looking Across

the fog shuffles
++++ within
++++ ++ the folded mountain

whispers
++++ old stories
++++ ++ of before we were

Joyce Compton Brown
++++ from Standing on the Outcrop, Redhawk Publications, © 2021

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I’ve heard Joyce Compton Brown read her poetry at many a gathering and my admiration still grows and grows. There is a treasure of different voices in this collection from Redhawk, Standing on the Outcrop, but they all have in common their deeply felt truth, authentic as hunger and earth. These are rural voices, Southern voices, mountain voices, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century; they are telling urgent stories in danger of being lost if Joyce does not hear them and reveal them to us. Places, history, personal struggle, hard-won triumph — these are Joyce Brown’s specialties and she here treats them well.

 

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Mattie, 1955

Before our families came
++++ there wasn’t much.
They say there were some old forts,
++++ and arrowheads
the men turned up
++++ in the plowing.
We mad collections,
++++ sent them to school
++++ ++++ for the kids to show.

They say these pastures
++++ were good hunting grounds,
And I don’t wonder,
++++ look at this land, these two mountains –
Linville, with its craggy top, Honeycutt
++++ folding on up toward the highlands,
this river, the clearest water.
++++ Any living thing would be drawn
++++ ++++ to this valley.

they say the Catawba and Cherokee fought
++++ over it till we came.
Then they fought us.
++++ It was perfect for these farms.
You can still see,
++++ those big old white houses
from before the land got too divided
++++ and people had to find work.

They say it had a name,
++++ Conasaga, an Indian word
for beautiful valley.
++++ That may just be talk.
But we use the name
++++ for our cookbook, and the kids use it
for their school yearbooks.
++++ They like the way it sounds.

Joyce Compton Brown
++++ from Standing on the Outcrop, Redhawk Publications, © 2021

 

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Stroke

Afterwards he was free
to speak a new language,
come back to tell them all.

They strained to understand
to interpret his assertions
to feel his newfound power.

He told them how
he’d hated factory saws
the whine of lathe and blade

Told them how
the smoldering glow
held by tight-closed lips

kept him from
trying to tell
what they didn’t

want to hear.
How he’d loved
his fingers shuffling

guitar strings
that flatpick style
speaking its own sad voice

milking the cow
in his own sweet barn
before everybody else was up

They couldn’t see
the fiery tongue
above his head.

They couldn’t feel
the pyretic fury
in his mind.

But now he was
at center, felt the
glow from lips of fire,

felt the heat
in seething brain,
felt the gift

of flaming tongue,
watched them all
leaning inward.

Joyce Compton Brown
++++ from Standing on the Outcrop, Redhawk Publications, © 2021

 

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I’ll close my Birth Day post with a poem I wrote almost 20 years ago. Oldest son, first grandson, I was always the good boy. Never got into trouble (or at least never got caught). High school class pres. Early admissions, graduations with honors. Married my high school honey and we’re still best buds.

(Although when we were college Juniors and told my parents we wanted to get married, my Mom said, “Oh thank goodness, I’m so glad you didn’t decide to run off and live in a commune!” I guess maybe my hair was a little on the long side that year.)

Being the eternal good boy might become a burden – especially when one knows full well that one is not nearly as good as everyone makes out. (But anyway I prefer, Linda too, the silence of a forest to the company of people – no dang commune for this good boy.)

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Good Boy Turns 50
++++ “I ain’t no physicist, but I knows what matters.” – Popeye

How did he earn this golden sobriquet
first christened by Nana for the merest trait
of being born the first grandchild, the grinning gay
toddler who could do no wrong? And wait,
how did he keep it all through the sixties when
pick up your toys and set the table gave way
to a ponytail and poems by Ho Chi Minh
(though there was no doubt he’d still bring home the A)?
Forever the glass-half-full sort of guy,
in marriage, too, he hefts vows more abundant
than Old Fred’s prescription, “Don’t leave and don’t die” –
the grace of wanting to want what she may want.
++++ So let’s give him what he needs in the next fifty
++++ if he ever discovers what that might be.

Bill Griffin
++++ first appeared in Pinesong, annual anthology of the NC Poetry Society;
++++ ++++ first place in the “formal poetry” category, 2004
++++ collected in Crossing the River, Main Street Rag Publishing, © 2017

 

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[with 3, no, 4 poems by Paul Jones]

Oh well . . . life goes on . . .

No it doesn’t! Who ever said that? At least not on and on and on. And the problem is not growing old, the problem is everyone around me is growing older.

I’m biased and I know it – too many all-nighters in the ICU knowing my patients will never wake up, will never breathe again without that machine. Why choose to prolong those hours? Too many weekly visits to the nursing home, my patients who will never again chew, swallow, recognize, understand, smile. Why choose to prolong those days?

Still, when you are breathing and smiling there’s a huge hurdle to leap before you’re willing to talk about how you want your body treated when you can’t breathe or smile. Easy to put off making that living will when you’re in the midst of living; too late when you’re in the midst of dying.

Last year I spent a few weeks helping Dad update his and Mom’s will and estate. Gather up mounds of papers, talk things over, scratch heads, and then the final step: spending a morning with their attorney to nail it all down tight. Just because most politicians are attorneys does not imply the converse, that most attorneys are self-infatuated power-lusting villains. Not at all. Dad’s attorney, Ms. S., treated us like family. Like she was the cousin who knows a whole lot more than we do but who can explain it in a way anyone can understand.

To describe two hours with an attorney as a pleasure? Well, yes indeed.

As a family doctor I never found it easy to talk to my patients and their families about death. Necessary, yes; essential, yes; never easy. Perhaps it’s the taboo that if you name something you give it power over you. But a last will and testament is all about death. If you’re not going to die, don’t bother making a will.

Ms. S. talked with us for two hours about death, straight up, matter of fact. I learned a lot about what Dad and Mom want for their own final days and for a legacy to their children. I learned that Dad, in the right place and time, is willing and even anxious to talk about his death. We left the office smiling, arm in arm (figuratively as well as occasionally literally, 95-year old knees and all).

Of course, Dad still vows he’s going to live to a hundred. At least he’s got one helluva estate plan.

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Seventy Three

When in time frost found me, leaves were gone yellow
or fallen or few on branches or fallow
fields. Limbs were empty choir lofts. Youth’s bright birds sang
then left before the cold November must bring.
I found myself in twilight, the glow on snow
or rime on those brown stems or white wisps of breath
– how many more before death plants me below? –
But here I can see further, here my life’s breadth
forms a vista. Here where flames once leapt, grey ash
is heaped, warm still from what past fires I’ve known.
Still all this going is not completely gone.
Something of those late bird songs will stay, will last.
What we see in age makes all we love more strong,
knowing what we love we leave before too long.

Paul Jones
from Something Wonderful, Redhawk Publications, © 2021

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I’ve always been a bit in awe of Paul Jones’s poetic gifts. Envious even. Not only because he can make rhyme so damn modern but even more for his capacious breadth and depth. What an imaginative reach! I’m not reprinting To a Tuber here but read it and you will become convinced that the potato is within all the vegetable kingdom most elegant, elevated, and worthy of praise.

So I knew before I ordered my copy of Paul’s new book Something Wonderful that it would be, and it is. The sly wit is there, waiting to pounce, but also heartfelt longing and wry uncompromising looks into personal finitude. You don’t really discover why the cover is covered with 19th century illustrations of bats until page 80 and the title poem. Take the time, make the trip. It’s worth it.

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Ireland Seen from a Porch Swing in Hickory, NC
+++ — for Adrian Rice

Ireland is a country without porches.
What they call a porch is just an entry.
No one sits there watching for neighbors
walking by with their electric torches.
Their voices, soft as blossoms, gently
fill humid summer nights with rumors.

Over there, secrets are shared in the pubs.
From unsteady high stools, the stories, tinged
with irony, rise easily as smoke.
New worlds are created by old words spoken.
even the weightiest tales take on wings,
if only whispered above the hubbub.

But here, the slow news is told by moonlight
in the lazy tease of an August night.
Too often tea, iced and sweet, is the drink
that greets the blink of stars through the dark
as our voices wander, each twang distinct,
in the dog-starred nights and the torpid days.

It’s ghosts that bind us across our weathers,
that tie the lilt and slur of daily sagas
told inside and out, in bars and open air,
to some episodic common drama.
They appear here and there, vivid and stark,
in talk that reweaves their spells in the dark.

Paul Jones
from Something Wonderful, Redhawk Publications, © 2021

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Still Waters

I am still, waiting
for the one moment
that old Eastern sages
say gives absurdity
an absolute clarity,
the moment multiple
bald monks chant to induce.
They say the Way is
like water. It will work
its wonders at due time,
the way water always
breaks up rocks, turns them
into sand, but will not
be transformed itself.
Being water, it’s
already what it needs to be.
Winter and ice
merely redefine water.
Wind, when it works, only works
on the surface of water.
When fire meets water,
water is sent to heaven
but fire just becomes ash.
Water like saints returns
to perform its steady work.
Sleet, snow, rain or hail –
even fog – are water’s
temporary bodies.
In time, water will be
all part of one huge sea.
Water will save us all
in time. In time, they say.
In the meantime, be water
as best you can be. Me?
I am still waiting
for all waters to become
still, to run deep, and
clear a few things up.

Paul Jones
from Something Wonderful, Redhawk Publications, © 2021

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Saint of the Trees

What is the proper sacrifice
To please our Lord, the Saint of Trees?
I asked the ferns for their advice:
What is the proper sacrifice?

“Lie here and dream of paradise,
Sink into the soil like the leaves.
That is the proper sacrifice
To please our Lord, the Saint of Trees.”

Paul Jones
from Something Wonderful, Redhawk Publications, © 2021

 

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2014-07-13 Doughton Park Tree

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[with 3 poems by Shelby Stephenson]

While I sit with Dad in the hospital we make a checklist of everything we need to do to close up the house. He had a TIA last night – “a little health problem” is how he’ll describe it to the agent at the News & Observer to explain why he’s canceling his subscription. His scans show no stroke. We wait for the doctor to discharge him, then he’ll take it easy (will he?) for a few days while I do laundry and winterize the cottage in Pine Knoll Shores, avoid the Labor Day traffic for the drive back to Winston.

Check lists. Dad already has a dog-eared collection, each one another page on his yellow pad. I create an updated list on my phone while we wait – first entry, “check Dad’s check lists.” When we finally buckle in on Tuesday and tick off the last item we will have accomplished something.

Or so I want to think. The next five hours in the car generate their own list: find accessible bathrooms, some roadside shade for the lunch we packed. Damn, forgot to give Mom a COVID mask at the rest stop. Unload, unpack, raid the freezer for supper. Make sure we’ve sequestered all the medical records for his appointment with his local doctor.

When I shoot a macro of a flower I want that anther tack sharp, but the blur of stem and leaves hinders identification of the species. Hey, I know all these lists I make are just to keep me hopping from one moment’s task to the next but I see the big picture. I read Dad’s echocardiogram and joke that he’s 94 in the body of an 80-year old. I know there’s a check list whose final box is his final breath.

But then flip the page. Another list. At the top: Remember. Let me tell you all the stuff we talked about on that drive home.

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[TIA – transient ischemic attack: a brief episode of decreased brain perfusion
that may herald an impending stroke]

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The Local Falls

When I come home I walk to Middle Creek
through thirty minutes of springtime bushes
to where the Mouth of Buzzard Branch trickles
with water to bridge the bubbly rushes.

Dangling their legs, a few bank-fishermen
mumble to Chub Robin full moon in May,
cigars and cigarettes in roll-your-owns,
eyes on lead-lines for bottom feeders they

bait with grub-worms dug behind the outhouse.
They fish too with fat swamp-worms freed from mud
near head of Cow Mire’s spring, a pudding-souse
Time works into clumps like huge Angus cuds.

All’s quiet: Daddy sets a turtle-hook
and baits it with chicken guts, one motion
as he stabs the stob, slings the cord the brook
settles, waffling under his location.

His hands gather Nature’s complete cunning.
Love allows for fresh food on our table,
His tongue, lips, face, limbs, and actions winning
affection of his wife, my mother, Maytle.

He’s gone; I help turtles cross Sanders Road.
Interstate-40 whizzes loud nearby.
Every waking day’s a different load.
What glory warriors must have wooed with sighs.

Pollution’s out of honor and our shame.
The sunfish’s eyes bloat like old eyes.
They wear bumps like my psoriasis (blame
chemicals on crops – fertilizers).

I bid the owl keep me pitched with tenor
to carry this: run blue-tailed swamp-rabbit?
I hear the beagles yow-yowing: Jake Mills
says those rabbits taste like the swamp run-off.

Shelby Stephenson

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These selections are from more, by Shelby Stephenson; Redhawk Publications, Hickory, North Carolina; © 2020 Shelby Stephenson. Used by permission of publisher.

A new book by Shelby Stephenson in his 82nd year is an anchor to the past and a beacon to the future. His lines settle you down and hold you fast like the mud near Cow’s Mire spring. His lines open your heart to love, death, redemption – to all of life. His lines advocate for the heritage of language and the language of heritage spoken in unflinching truth. There is no sentimentality here. And woven through each poem is the music of his tenor cum baritone – never forget Hank Williams! – and the gentle humor that wraps an arm around your shoulder and lets you know you’re welcome here.

Shelby has been professor, editor, NC Poet Laureate, minstrel, and most of all traveling ambassador of the word. If you’ve met him or heard him, you’ve been encouraged to read more, to write more. During years of submitting to Pembroke Magazine while Shelby was editor, I came to treasure his rejections, hand written on a tiny slip, invariably with a message like “not quite, Bill, but keep trying.”

Shelby Stephenson still lives on his family farm, Paul’s Hill; his family has “owned” it for generations. Shelby always adds those quotation marks. It must be quite a lofty hill because from there Shelby seems to be able to survey and discern all of human nature, as well as animal and earth nature. His poems may nest in the springtime bushes near Middle Creek but they fly over the countryside and lighten all the sky. He reminds me of North Carolina’s second Poet Laureate, James Larkin Pearson (1879-1981), who in his poem Fifty Acres (1937) sees all the world from his home in Boomer, Wilkes County, NC.

I’m just beginning to see a bit myself.

More please, Shelby – more!

 

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Circling Sonnet Number Two

You call it “realistic” that we should stay
where we are, you among your friends for life
and I, here, on Paul’s Hill miles away
from you and the very feel of a knot
sanctimonious ceremonies would
sour tightly sweaty aspersions barren
of Discord and Disdain and just a ton
of regret that we two should let heaven
outstrip all praise for earthly things and fame.
The easy new is not décor but blood
turned jelly in emotions and refrain.
Your reputation may dull those whose load
might turn both sides from love’s scent
if we do not sound out Love’s instrument.

Shelby Stephenson

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For Robert Frost

When you came to Memorial Hall to read,
Your black coat made your white shirt muss your hair,
As if you were standing outside in wind.
In a speech class I presented a “there”
in “Birches,” letting music in your lines
Lead the way of conversation in rhyme.

I did not try to imitate you, as ome would.
That crackle down in your throat, the doting
Tone seeking for you that turn in your woods,
When you paused, said someting about the road
You took that made for you the difference.
You reminded me of Luke the Drifter,

One of my childhood heroes who brought me
To songs and music, along with sermons
That wadded the pulpit at my Rehobeth
Primitive Baptist Church, yes, the come-ons,
A Brother, never a Sister, lining
Off a hymn for me in perfect timing.

I had never been to a poetry
Reading, by the way, would not have been there
Except for Charlie Whitfield who barged in
My dorm room in Lewis, saying, “Shelby,
You want to see a cadaver?” (Charlie
Was studying hard for medical school.)

I was silent; my mind flashed to Rehobeth,
Mortality, death, promises, and grace,
While there beside a long scalpel she lay,
Uncovered, more naked that a fish, scaled.
I said, “Charlie, let’s get out of this place.”
We arrived at The Hall; I sat blank-faced.

A few years later I failed the law; my
Memory never did lose your presence.
I bought easements, rights-of-way, for towers
Around New Hampshire, saw birches bending,
And boulders sunning, plus those rambling walls,
And I could hear you leading me, always.

Shelby Stephenson

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2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree

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