You have known many takers, known many givers, walked many pathways, crossed many rivers.
Maybe you’ve known a husband or two, some lovers or wives. You’ve died a few deaths, lived a few lives.
You have been a seeker, you have been a finder, you have found the forgotten and remained a reminder.
You have worn many costumes and fanned a few fires. You’ve cleaned up the mess but then tangled the wires.
You have been the wild, and also the idle, swung up in the saddle and borne the bridle.
One gardener, many flowers. One eternity, many hours.
You have written the song, invented the singer. You are a happiness giver, sadness bringer.
You have danced on the roof, curled up on the floor. All this you have done, and more.
All these things, I too might be. All these things, I too may see.
And though we come from different places, look out through eyes on different faces –
Many roads, one destination. Many rhythms, one vibration.
“Gratitude To Old Teachers” – Robert Bly
When we stride or stroll across the frozen lake,
We place our feet where they have never been.
We walk upon the unwalked. But we are uneasy.
Who is down there but our old teachers?
Water that once could take no human weight –
We were students then – holds up our feet,
And goes on ahead of us for a mile.
Beneath us the teachers, and around us the stillness.
The cardinal, for one, content to go about his business. The fox, for another, at ease for the moment in his auburn jacket. The groundhog, wisely putting off her errands until March, depending on the weather. The soft gaze of the doe regarding me, seeming for a brief moment to consider me as something vaguely interesting.
The frozen arteries of streams drawing lines to the lake that is the heart of this place. A cascade of water stopped dead in its tracks by a change in molecular structure. Snow turning almost blue just after the sun slips behind a hill to the west, like that framed photograph of Sweden in the doctor’s office waiting room, its top edge dusted once a month to the lonesome sound of an occasional cough, the next name called exactly as the last name was, a clean copy of how all names will be called for the rest of the day, week, year, barring any unforeseen shift in the ratio of consonants to vowels.
Standing beneath spruce boughs watching snow descend, unhurried, like bits of ash or feather. Standing in close to the heart of the tree while wind sways the limbs, as if you were sailing an evergreen ship, charting an imaginary course to Nova Scotia, then on up into Iceland and even Norway.
Another storm warning issued, another mug of hot liquid slurped, welcomed into a body cocooned in fabric layers, some woven by hand, some by machine, another silent Hallelujah expressed. An obsession with time and temperature, forecast and calendar, and with saying we know the new year will be a great one – this last among so many other unfounded claims, clothed in a strangely American propensity to keep one’s chin up.
If I didn’t have to go to work today, I’d write a clever turn-of-phrase or a cryptic suggestion only you would understand the meaning of. I’d spend my time among the dead, paying my respects with a few well-put-together lines destined to become a classic. I’d write a poem for you because you’ve been on my mind lately, maybe even work on one of those novels that have been sitting in a shoebox in the closet for half as long as it takes children to grow up and finish school.
I’d write about the embroidery of music leaving an indentation where it makes contact. I’d casually sip my tea, considering how art, relationships and weather can all be fickle and tough to predict. I’d consider how, of all the woodpiles I’ve seen, the German Beehive requires the most patience and is a thing of beauty.
I’d mull over all my fears and desires, go for a walk, stare out a window, hope I might be of use to someone by the time my head meets a pillow, contemplate my dream about Paul Simon where I attended the opening night of a play he wrote, and afterward we sat and quietly drank pint-glasses of beer, me telling him how much his music meant to me that time I rode the bus in the rain. He understood and – of course – will be coming for Christmas.
But whether I have to go to work today or not, I’ll remember nothing has ever been mine to claim – all is given, even my name. I’ll not forget I’m blessed, palms pressing together in front of my heart. I’ll take a look at all the circles in which I’ve lived, gain some perspective, as if seeing them from the tiny window of a passenger plane with my forehead pressed against the glass. And, pulling the sword of my life from the stone of the world, my heart will recall how to make the much larger circle of thank you, thank you, thank you, spoken in a silent and wordless language.
The state trooper walked so slowly up to my driver’s side window, it had to have been deliberate. Either that, or he was trying to mimic what he’d seen in all those Looney Tunes cartoons he’d watched as a boy.
The only sounds were those of July cicadas, one other passing car, and the trooper’s boots munching on gravel as if it were potato chips. The gravel had a clean look, and must have just recently been laid over the red clay by road workers along the shoulder of that country highway’s blacktop ribbon.
“What brings you to Georgia?” he asked, after an illuminating discussion about how fast I’d been going. Having noted my Florida plates, followed by my New York driver’s license, this was naturally his next question. He didn’t sound much like Mel Blanc. Kind of looked like him though.
I must have sounded a mite confusing in my long-winded answering of that simple question, as I tried to explain how my uncle had passed away, and that my father had left me my uncle’s car, and how I’d flown to Florida to pick it up, and now I was driving it back to New York, and I had decided to stop and visit my grandfather on the way.
“Who’s yer grandpa?” He asked this question in such a way that made it clear he wouldn’t give me a ticket if he knew who my grandfather was. So I told him who my grandfather was, and the name of the road he lived on.
The trooper took the rim of his hat stiffly between thumb and forefinger, adjusting it while I held my breath. He ten-mile stared down the road from behind his aviator sunglasses for a long slow southern moment, back in the direction of Moultrie. You had to watch closely to see him shake his head no.
“Welp”, he said, “sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
That money has long since been paid to the state of Georgia, but it’s still funny to think back on how – all the while I was pulled over and waiting for him to look me up, write the ticket, and have a conversation – a fat black film canister containing no less than nineteen joints lay beneath the driver’s seat, its existence (and, more important, its whereabouts) unbeknownst to me until two days later when I stopped at a Virginia gas station to write something down, and dropped my pen down the crack between the seat and the center console.
In hindsight I reckon this makes him the coyote, and me the road runner.
But you know how it is, sitting on piles of undiscovered treasure, or sometimes potential hornet’s nests, that – for long stretches of time – you never even know are there. You just carry on, keep going, twenty miles over the speed limit.
Some days you forget to check your rear-view mirror, some days you look back a little more often, and still other days you catch yourself staring. But always you hope, against hope itself, that one day you might learn to use your head for something besides a hat rack.
Of course, let’s not be so eager to smile about it that we forget this crucial point: I wouldn’t have had to part with one red cent, had Georgia law enforcement been acquainted with my grandfather. That trooper would’ve smiled, tipped his hat, clapped his hand twice against the roof of the car, and said “Well, you have yourself a nice day.”
A brief interview about poetry with Homebound Publications:
HB: Why did you start writing poetry?
CMR: I’m not sure which is more true: if I began writing poetry, or if poetry began writing me. All I know is, at some point, it became a necessary creative way for me to understand the world, my own experience of life in it, and to express whatever needs to be expressed.
HB: What inspired your first poetry collection?
CMR: I’ve been creating a body of work for several years, and have multiple collections I fiddle around with when I succeed in making the time and having the energy. I make amalgams of old poems and new poems that seem to have something in common thematically, trying different combinations. So it feels like cheating to say my first collection is “inspired” by something (though certainly the conception of each poem began with an inspiration, epiphany, reflection, or observation). It feels more like finally hitting a home run after striking out several times.
HB: Do you have a favorite poem from the collection?
CMR: No. Maybe if I were a woodworker I’d have a favorite table or something.
I might be a little too working-class for that notion. Just keep trying to make yourself available to the muse, you know? Roll up your sleeves and get in there and do your art.
HB: What poets have inspired you over the years?
CMR: So many. Basho, Kay Ryan, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Tony Hoagland, Whitman, Frost, Louise Gluck, Rumi, Wendell Berry, W.S. Merwin, the Beat Generation…..the list is endless.
HB: What are you working on next?
CMR: More poetry, and a prose poem collection.
When I was a boy, one of the things I loved most was a collection of 45-records, passed on to my Grandma Ruth from her dad’s jukebox and pinball machine business Keystone Amusement based in Silverton, a small Oregon town in the Willamette valley an hour’s drive south of Portland. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Grandma Ruth would “ride the route” from customer to customer (taverns, arcades, diners, roller skating rinks), changing out records in jukeboxes and replacing broken flippers in the pinball machines, or delivering new machines and hauling away damaged ones, returning them to my great grandfather’s shop to be fixed by “mechanics”. That was years before I was born, but those records would become an important part of my childhood, creating memories that became tangled up with meeting my grandfather for the first time.
I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning. Growing up as an only child with a mother who refused to own a television, I learned to love reading, and read piles of books on rainy gray Oregon days, of which there are plenty. My love of stories and characters merged with the thrilling discovery of my grandma’s vast 45 record collection. A few were old jazz and disco, but the vast majority were outlaw songs, trucker songs, and story songs from the 60′s and 70′s, both popular and obscure. Often the songs would depict bad guys as heroes, involving cowboys, outlaws, gold prospectors, trains, truckers, knives, guns, booze, and women. To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein – ‘these are a few of my favorite things’.
The summer I turned eleven, my dad came and whisked me away on a summer vacation to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida. “Get ready to meet Grandpa Buddy,” my dad told me. “He’ll tell you that ‘you gotta be tough’, and that ‘gettin’ old ain’t for sissies’.” For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure. Flying across America, I stared down in amazement at the Rockies, the circles, squares, and rectangles of the Midwest, the silver ribbons of rivers, the palms and cypress trees of Florida, all the while doted upon by stewardesses.
What kind of name is ‘Buddy’ anyway, I thought as I bounced around in the car, my dad navigating a sandy old pothole-riddled road that plunged us deeper into the tropical forest around the Withalacoochee River.
To my delight, grandpa Buddy turned out to be a retired version of one of those characters in the songs I loved so much. He’d lived an adventurous life as the captain of his own shrimp boat; he’d lived out a slice of the Americana I idolized, though I was much too young to understand that. And so I came to idolize him, practically overnight. He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished them with the chops of a master storyteller. My dad and I would sit for hours listening to the syrupy accent of his deep Johnny Cash-like voice, going on about Key West, the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche, Veracruz, Matamoros. He talked about a different world then the one I knew, but I identified it as the same world being sung about on the old 45’s: heroes, outlaws, tough guys, sailors, pirates, thieves, swashbuckling heartbreakers and unknown legends.
“You gotta be tough,” Buddy would say again and again. It was the takeaway, his mantra, the moral of every story he told. He continued to say it into his nineties until he passed away. He loved to lie back in his chair, clasp his hands behind his head, and think about all the different lives he had lived, all the chapters of his story. “Watching the re-runs”, as he called it.
In my overactive boy’s imagination, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen. He lived in the Florida jungle on a river full of alligators and snakes. He made shrimp nets and hammocks by hand out in his workshop, where an industrial fan – so large it looked like it should be in an airplane hangar – hummed. There was a hand carved out of wood in the window by the front door, giving all visitors the finger. He had tattoos, a topless jeep, nine machetes and an earring. Okay, it was probably more like two or three machetes, but in my kid-mind it was definitely nine.
It turned out that my Grandpa’s real name was Marvin, a name he never liked. He quit school as a young boy and worked as a helper on fishing and shrimping boats. The fishermen would say “Hey buddy, do this or that for me”, or “Thanks buddy”, and the name stuck through the years until he had his own shrimp boat and was known as Captain Buddy.
After that trip, I returned to my familiar quiet life with my mom in our little house in rural Oregon. I stayed in bed all the next day, heartbroken, unable to stop the tears. My mom kept asking me what was wrong, and I kept telling her I wanted to go back to grandpa Buddy’s house and live with him in Florida. I was just a kid with an overactive imagination and a shortage of male role models in my life; I didn’t understand that he was just a man, just a vulnerable person with fears and desires like anyone else. In my head and my heart, he was way larger than life.
I spent the rest of the summer loathing myself; I suspected I wasn’t tough by anyone’s standards – least of all, Buddy’s. And I figured that – when it came down to it – I probably never would be. But I had also learned something of immense value that I would carry with me from then on, though I wouldn’t identify it clearly for many years to come: through my grandfather, who I barely knew, a light had switched on inside me, a light that shined inside my mind. It was the light that comes from the magic of storytelling, sparked by all the books I’d read, kindled by the old 45’s, and fueled by the power of character – fiction or non.
Reckoning appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Stonecoast Review (University of Southern Maine). This poem came about as an amalgam of a few different things that came together in my mind to create a snapshot of a character.
The first was from a visit to Yosemite National Park, when three friends and I were walking near the village and saw a bobcat. This wasn’t a “sighting”, it was realizing a bobcat stood six feet away. It behaved just as I’ve described it in the poem, having almost no reaction to its close proximity with us, affording us a great close-up look before it walked away.
The second came out of camping in Big Sur and experiencing the infamous stretch of highway there. This combined with my affection for big moustaches, heroes and villains both fictional and real, pirates, desperados, bikers, hippies, unknown legends and lovers who sweep through town with a devil-may-care attitude. This combined even further with a contemplation of the connection that exists between the Big Sur/Monterey area, American literature (Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Robert Louis Stevenson), poetry (Robinson Jeffers) and the Beats (Kerouac).
The final image in the poem is “the temple of well-fed lions”. It’s become a recurring phrase in my poetry; I’ve used it three or four times, and now it threatens over-use, so I should probably leave it alone for a good long while. It came about one morning after a solid night of sound sleep, when I felt so deeply rested I thought about how lions look, lazing about after a feast and sleeping away the majority of the hours in a 24-hour time cycle. That same morning I happened to be looking at Maxfield Parrish’s “Daybreak”, and the temple image merged with the sleeping lion image in a moment of inspiration.
Picking my way along a path
passing through mountains,
I suddenly came upon a bobcat.
It yawned, barely acknowledged me,
sauntered past, six feet away.
As I watched it evaporate into the forest,
moving as if to say the world is mine,
I was struck by an overwhelming desire
to grow a hedgerow moustache,
covering the expanse of my upper lip
like Mark Twain, Sam Elliot,
or a rugged musclebound hippie biker
who wears a rolled-up yoga mat
slung across his back
where you’d think
a double-barreled shotgun would be,
hugging the curves
of Highway One through Big Sur
on his sweet, sweet chopper,
all at once a sage, recluse,
iconoclast, beatnik, mountain man,
and unknown legend,
inviting you to join him
at the temple of well-fed lions
in order to empty your spleen
of accumulated dreams.
Just because we’re sentimental about a household object that used to belong to a grandparent, doesn’t mean the dog won’t eat it while left at home alone all day. To him, a coaster with the Notre-Dame cathedral painted on it is – while not the preferred afternoon snack – quite suitable to chew on.
“To think of all the grand plans you once had”, he says, smiling up at me one day as we walked through the park, with an expression indicating that he is at once a wise sage and a mischevious trickster. “You were trying to be more than you are.”
He’s right of course. I am only a wanderer, like the kind you see sketched on a Chinese scroll, small and off to one side. I am the reader in a chair, in the corner of the bookshop with tea and an apple fritter.
There’s just something about a hot cup of tea and a warm apple fritter, when you’re perched on the shore of the Milky Way, fiddling with the margins that exist only in your mind.
Here’s a link to my recent article on Sivana East, for anyone interested: