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[with 2 poems by Robert Pack]

If we keep it we’ll have to kill it. My Daughter-in-law is holding the whelk she’s discovered in the shallows near Lookout Bight off Shackleford Banks. Knobbed whorl, indigo interior of striped nacre, bigger than a baby’s fist – she suddenly drops it back into the water. The shell’s inhabitant has shifted its operculum and startled her as it crawls across her palm.

She picks the shell back up and we lean close as she turns it over and over. Perfect. Beautiful. We can’t keep it or kill it, elegant gastropod, primal sea snail. I remember Nana boiling the big shells she gathered from the sound below her house but I don’t recall ever eating conch chowder, only the procession of pink and tangerine lining her sun porch, mother-of-pearl inside but intensity steadily fading through the years.

What can we keep? What can we take with us? Not life. Maybe just the things life has touched. Sixty years later I still hold Nana’s conch shells in memory. I still see my Mother bending to capture a lettered olive rolling in the surf (while all I spot are shards). Tomorrow I will still hear my Granddaughter’s laughter as she splashes across the sandbar to see what her mother has found, and I will watch them together lower the magical creature back into the brine.

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These two selections are from Robert Pack’s All One Breath (Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019). Many of the poems live intimately with nature, whether wild Montana where Pack lives now or the New England of his memories. Some of the poems are stories peppered with wit, unexpected turns and outcomes, subtle puns. I laugh at loud at some of his poems, tear up at others. The entire book, seems to me, weaves the thread of connection from place to place, from life to life – nearing the end of life, Bob Pack teaches us what we carry, what we can keep, what we might leave for others.

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Bear Grass Interval

++++ At roughly ten year intervals
this globe of minuscule white flowers
clustered on a dense green stalk
appears profusely in the vernal woods
of mountain-range Montana,
so the entranced observer stares
at what appears to be
a galaxy of stars that has now drifted down
and settled softly on the earth.
++++ Ask anybody who has witnessed
this phantasmagorical display,
and they will swear
that they have never seen
a spectacle so tranquil
and serenely beautiful.
++++ Yet I imagine beauty
here on earth does not
originate in the beholder’s eye,
but dwells out there inherent
in the humming universe
as one of Plato’s fundamental forms
beyond the realm of time and space
that still can harmonize discordant thought
and woo the tides of the recumbent air.
++++ You ask how this far-out belief
affects my life; am I
less self-absorbed and less defined
by personal diminishing
to primal and concluding nothingness?
++++ Perhaps if everyone would pause
to gaze upon the Bear Grass flowers
glowing on the mountainside,
and view them as if willfully designed,
a combination of sweet symmetries
and startling randomness,
then they would feel less separate,
less lonely, less irrelevant, content
to play the quiet role of witnesses.
++++ But now, right now, the galaxy
of Bear Grass flowers is not visible
and will not reappear
for an uncertain interval,
assuming earthly time
still measures disappearances,
the emptiness lost love and friendship leave
forever achingly behind.
++++ I do not know if I’ll endure
another interval – a wandering
beholder of the momentary woods –
until Bear Grass returns to grace my sight
and holds there, astounded
and suspended in delight

Robert Pack, from All One Breath, Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019.

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Sandhill Cranes Dancing
++++ ++++ ++++ for Patty

++++ At dawn the Sandhill cranes, their heads
splashed vivid red, initiate
their mating dance, circling each other
on long, narrow legs tanning their huge, gray wings
in slow, dreamlike deliberation.
++++ They throw sticks from their pointed beaks
into the air to flaunt their mating skills.
Their whooping echoes out across
the same dew-sparkled field
where they’ve returned each spring
for twenty years since we, my wife and I,
initially began to keep our watch.
++++ A forest ranger we’d not met before
stops by our house to ask if we have seen
the grizzly bear tracks in the mud
beside our border stream. He tells us that
the constellation Ursa Major will
appear tonight effulgent
right above us in the northen sky
and that he likes to stay awake at night,
with just his telescope for company,
to calculate how long it takes
red-shifted light to reach the earth.
“My favorite is melancholy Saturn,”
he declares and its attendant moons,
each one with its own orbit, hue, and size.
“My hope is that I’ll find a hidden moon
that no one has observed before;
it would preserve my name.”
++++ He says that stars right now are being born
and burning out, collapsing on themselves,
that due to universal entropy
in maybe fifty-billion years
all matter will thin out and dissipate,
so that no memory and no
intelligence – none would survive.
++++ And even I, who own no telescope,
can comprehend terminal emptiness;
it’s no less thinkable than is
next May without our being here to watch
the cranes perform their dance as if
their tossing sticks into the dawn
and catching them might signify
that everything returns again
to re-enact past happiness.
++++ Yet in our bones we know that soon
our bearing witness must conclude,
just as the green field must turn brown,
which it, alas, has been designed to do.
So let us pause again in misty light
to watch those red crests blur and disappear
above the waving trees, and listen hard
as medleyed crane calls float away
and fade into a murmur in the air.

Robert Pack, from All One Breath, Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019.

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[Note: When I was growing up my family used the word conch to refer to every big spiral gastropod on the North Carolina shores and sounds. What we were actually finding, usually just pieces of their shell in the ocean surf but the living, crawling creatures in Bogue Sound, were whelks. The big ones, true whelks, are in the family Buccinidae, but whelk is also a common name applied to various unrelated varieties of sea snail. The true conch, family Strombidae, lives in Florida and farther south; again, many unrelated species of sea snail in different families are also colloquially referred to as conch. Whatever you call them, discovering a complete unbroken abandoned shell on the beach is worth a big whoop and holler.]

Photos by Bill Griffin. Header art by Linda French Griffin.

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2020-11-03a Doughton Park Tree

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[with two poems by Robert Pack]

We almost didn’t walk that extra trail. It was noon when my grandson and I finished the 3.3 mile Elliot Coues loop at Fort Macon State Park. Across the salt marsh we’d watched egrets glide and settle; crouched for fiddler crabs and ducked for banana spiders in the maritime forest; climbed the highest dunes on Bogue Banks for a view of Beaufort Inlet. Now we were sweaty, parched, almost back to the car when we came to the little afterthought of a side trail.

We almost didn’t walk down to the sound and around the tannic pond. Almost passed without noticing the sleek ratsnake where it eyed us motionless from the bank before it glided back into the sedges. Almost didn’t turn up the short spur to discover the ibis ignoring us, nonchalant, preening.

Almost didn’t but we did. Maybe my grandson will remember saying, “Come on, Pappy, that’s enough pictures,” or maybe he will remember the glistening head, jewel eye, periscope neck while we waited a full minute for the snake to flick its tongue a second time.

Rat Snake, Elaphe [Pantherophis] obsoleta

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For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth the beasts; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they all have one breath. +++++++++Ecclesiastes, Three

My introduction to Robert Pack was as co-editor with Jay Parini of Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry (1993). This year I bought his most recent book, All One Breath (Green Writers Press, 2019). Bob Pack has been called one of America’s best “nature poets” but the “nature” of his poems opens its arms wide to embrace every human experience. Perhaps that’s the final task of poetry: to acknowledge and explore every thing we have in common with each other and with every creature, particle, planet.

These two poems speak to me as old guy who wants to show my grandkids all I see. And as young guy still with everything to learn.

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Crossing the Bridge

++++++++++++For Stanley Bates

++++When old age shall this generation waste,
++++Thou shalt remain in midst of other woe
++++Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayest:
++++Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,
++++That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need
++++to know.
++++ ++++from “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats

And now it is my generation
that has gone to waste.
I have outlasted my best friends;
no one is left but me
and this elusive, talking urn.
So I will play along with this
engaging fantasy as if
the late philosopher Stan Bates
and his exploratory mind were here
to tease me with the concept of
statically engraved eternity
and help me to distract myself
from the engulfing sense of emptiness
by thinking about thinking while
assuming thought is able to
protect us from the thoughts we think:
discoursing with a meditative urn,
conversing with you when you are not here.
I will interrogate the urn
by asking what it means by its
notorious and enigmatic claim
that Truth and Beauty are identical,
and I’ll conjecture that the far side
of the urn, the side I cannot see,
shows a tableau of a familiar scene
in early spring of a carousing stream
still edged with a fine filigree of ice
and highlighted with puffs of mist
like miniature ghosts. Across the stream
a tree has fallen like a walkway
for a spirit, should he need a passage
to the undepicted shrubbery
beyond the sleek stones on the other bank.
The spirit is, of course, invisible,
as you are now, but I can hear
his wafted flute notes as he passes by
in lilting harmony with the swirled stream’s
incantatory whispering –
as Keats could hear soft sweetness in
the silence of those “unheard melodies”
and I can hear you praising the audacity
of Keats’s baffling paradox.
I’m guessing that you would agree that this
impressionistic woodland scene
is beautiful and I’d be pleased to have
the urn give it artistic permanence,
but since all permanence is an
illusion, the urn’s vain assertion
in undoubting certainty
cannot be true, yet knowing that
it is not true – nothing is true
that does not change and disappear –
surely is true, despite our wish that we
might be less permanently sorrowful,
and sorrow no more than a shadow
on fresh snow, the murmuring of wind
amid the drying meadow grass.
But I cannot delude myself or long
be unaware of the surrounding emptiness,
pretending that you’re here and we
are entertained by speculating what
the urn might understand about
our need for solace in its offering
of friendship to its onlookers.
Stan Bates, philosopher, is gone – he is
not here on earth to quip he is not here.
Consummate connoisseur of classical
conundrums, maestro of mimetic mirth,
steadfast, devoted, generous – it’s true,
as well, he was a realist of woe
for whom grief was the bond for all of us.
And I think that it is beautiful.
There is a slender, sloping bridge
of wooden planks and wooden rails that I
have crossed a thousand times on my way home
and paused to watch the white-tailed deer
come out to drink, arpeggios
of water sliding silver from their lips,
and I can recollect those seasons when
determined beavers made a dam
and built a hutch, a perfect dome
Euclid himself might have designed,
and once at dusk, but only once,
I saw a pygmy owl swoop down
on soundless, outstretched wings
to snatch a vole beneath the snow,
his golden eyes like harvest moons
whose radiance delineates the dark.
I’d need a million, eulogizing urns
to keep such earthly memories alive,
even for just a fleeting interval –
as if, dear Stan, they could be kept for you.

Robert Pack, from All One Breath, Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019.

 

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Giving Thanks

Two ponderosa pines define
the entryway that leads –
this clear and midday afternoon –
down to the shore of Holland Lake.
My son helps lift my outworn body
over the smooth gunnel of our fishing boat,
and off we go in the direction of
the gliding loons who dip and disappear,
leaving behind the lilting echoes
of their melancholy calls.
Framed by a could, and eagle
streaks toward its enormous nest
above the forest maze
and misty labyrinth.
++++ The mountain on the lake’s far side
offers meadow of gold Balsamroot;
a pregnant doe lifts up her head,
pausing at the water’s boundary.
About four boat lengths past
the swirl where the resounding waterfall
foams out and merges with the lake,
a cove reveals a beaver’s hutch
remarkably symmetrical –
each branch and twig packing into place –
suggesting some unchangeable design
has been revealed to me.
Simply to look, to hold in memory,
was all that my senses needed to achieve,
and all wished-for contentment could embrace.
But not quite so – such satisfaction
left still more to be desired:
++++ I needed to express
imagined gratitude
for pulsing light reflected from
round purple stones that murmured
with the undulating tide.
I needed to bestow high praise,
as if such praise could be received
and sheltered safely in the forest haze;
I needed to give thanks for symmetry,
and all its variants
in the unfolding Aspen leaves,
in the emerging needles
nearly shining row by row
on the awakened Tamaracks.
I needed to commend
the shaded slopes and crevices
for their fine tints and multimarked hues;
I was uplifted and impelled
to offer unrequited praise
for the melodic interlude
of disappearing loons –
as if such mournful singing was
and unanticipated gift beyond.

 

Robert Pack, from All One Breath, Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019.

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Needham’s Skimmer, Libellula needhami

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Photos by Bill Griffin. Header art by Linda French Griffin.

 

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2020-11-03b Doughton Park Tree

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