Wandering in the Blackout Forest
She wasn’t a Joe Sixpack drinker
consuming alcohol with gusto
or quietly sipping bourbon or wine
or both at all hours
like my dad.
One martini and she was off balance.
One drink was all it took
to spring the hatch suppressing
every childhood resentment
or marital grievance
or parental dissatisfaction,
and come the morning
claim not to remember anything!
Joe Anonymous remembered enough
of his drunken escapades and abuses
to enliven the AA meetings.
Because of her rages,
Mother owned all the bandwidth
in the family,
and it was up to us
to brainstorm strategies
for outfoxing peevishness
and sidestepping pyroclastic vitriol.
Theme: Distance learning
Visual distance learning began
with the Golden Age of Television.
With our 13-inch screen,
I was present at the creation.
I learned to Double your pleasure,
double your fun;
Winstons taste good
like a cigarette should;
See the USA
in your Chevrolet;
Nothing say lovin’
like somethin’ from the oven;
Sometimes you feel like a nut,
sometimes you don’t;
A little dab’ll do ya;
and Get a lift from a Camel.
The most amusing ad for me
was sung in the boys’ room when we had to pee:
You’ll wonder where the yellow went
when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.
Visual distance learning is old,
as old as me, but the kids are told
laptop learning is a new idea.
It’s not. Learning with visual media
is a proven practice, tried and true,
since the end of World War II.
Children adjust to our sheltering times
by learning more than jingling rhymes.
Theme: Traveling through darkness
After living with roommate Jim
and his country music for three months,
I was ready to go home to Top-40 L.A.
To my surprise, I liked the music
on KSNN radio, the market leader
for youth in southern Idaho.
The most popular disk jockey
was afternoon host Tumbleweed Tom,
an Englishman from County Durham.
Relentlessly up-beat country rhythms
accompanied the so-sad stories:
I lost my job, my girlfriend moved out,
the dog died, and my truck broke down—
all before lunch! But I reached
my 90-day limit. Time for a change.
I loaded my ’52 Olds and headed south,
passing the glorious Wasatch Range
snow-glinting in the afternoon sun,
and entered the teal-tinted sagebrush
and red-rock country of southern Utah.
Another three hours to St. George.
Dusk. Spinning the dial on the car radio,
searching for something—anything—
that might be interesting,
I landed on 1520, a rock & roll station
in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City?
How is that possible?
It was a mix of Top-40 tunes and oldies,
a new term at the time.
I recall “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,”
and “Runaway” by Del Shannon.
Tunes by Gene Pitney and Elvis, too.
But the oldies were the best part.
I sang along with the doo-wop classics
never heard in Idaho or Utah.
Danny and the Juniors. The Drifters,
The Penguins. The Platters.
The best moments of middle school
and high school flooded back
in a three-hour concert,
a fabulous rock & roll Götterdämmerung.
Beyond the Narrowing
The narrowing of life from health and wealth,
from one blessing to another,
from years of privilege and steadfast friends,
to loss and loneliness,
to hourly pills and daily shots and weekly transfusions of platelets,
to pain and weariness, and now to this.
Life narrows, narrows to nothing,
and with your death I am forced to see
how the narrowing worked for you.
I thought of you when death came for me.
Confined to bed unable to breathe
surrounded by faceless forms in masks and shields
(strangers who knew I had no chance),
I passed through a wormhole of confinement
to a faraway alabaster beach
where I saw a sun bridge over wine-red waters
spreading to a timeless immeasurable darkness
in the whirling cosmos.
Theme: New (baby blankets for Project Linus)
For the Faces I Will Never See
Long stretches of handling the hooks
with rhythmic certainty
seamlessly moving forward on a row
occasionally looking up at a movie
seen before many times
(knowing which scene is coming)
sometimes losing track
of the sequencing cadence
or noticing the row does not look right,
counting, counting, ripping out,
saying a word not safe for work,
then back on track,
finishing the main pattern
and refining the border—
the final step—until
done at last!
For the faces I will never see,
you bundled newborns in other arms,
my love goes out to you.
I imagine my yarn
chucked against your chin,
but that is where my story ends.
Wear it well
and pay it forward
for children of your own
if you can.
My Iranian Gentleman
In his soft-spoken, conspiratorial voice
he told me his name,
but it flew in one ear
and out the other
and I failed to ask again.
To this day he is: my Iranian gentleman.
His jackets were a blend of wool
and cigarette smoke.
Occasionally, he gave me a hint
of yesterday’s cocktail.
He was a determined reader of books
in English and Farsi—
books about Kissinger, the Shah,
Mohammed Mosaddeq, Iraq,
and, of course, Iran,
the headwaters of every sadness.
Saucer eyes flickered
behind tortoise-shell glasses.
Whip-thin, he looked taller than he was.
With a full head of hair
not yet entirely gray,
he was once a handsome man.
Once he was a man of importance,
a corporate lawyer in Tehran
until the students drove him out.
Now he works at the EPA.
I could not get him started
on the law or the environment.
His only public passion: Iran
and what America should do about Iran.
Three daughters in Qom,
an ex-wife somewhere,
a lost career—
the man was lonely
and wanted to go home.
I ride a different bus now.
I did not expect to miss him,
but I do.
So much fruit beneath the husk
of political grievances
was never shared—
his youth at university,
Persian history and culture,
adjusting to American life.
Strangers on the bus
are best kept that way.
I do not like to show my cards.
But this option for a healing friendship
to my regret.
The Hills of the Central Coast
Under a raspberry haze, row after row
of the smooth-sanded hills of the Coast Range
compress into a flat two-dimensional view.
Except for the accidental live oak here
and there, bare grassland is all I see.
Telescoped ridgelines are like art-paper cutouts
stacked on a canvas: the lowest are khaki tan;
the highest in the back are on the brown edge of black.
Only the silhouette of the topmost ridge remains
at the coming of night. Unchallenged by city lights,
a tsunami of stars washes over the world.
The same stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
The great American poet was gravely ill.
Confined to home, he was game enough for an interview.
As I was ushered into his august presence,
I noticed letterhead papers taped to the walls
of the rooms, corner to corner from floor to ceiling.
Each was a version of, “Sorry, not for us.”
Of course, I started to laugh, which was the point.
The old man’s voice was soft but clear:
“The rejection letters keep me humble,” he said.
“I often wonder where the editors and publishers—
these gatekeepers—are today with their insights.
The uncharted path is hard to follow at first.
I get that. Sometimes it takes a while
for the world to come around to the unforeseen reality
that a loathed new idea despised by the authorities
will be the conceptual capstone of the coming age.”
I wrote a poem about the Coronavirus for my faith community at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Snohomish, WA. It is titled “Mass in Times of a Pandemic.” Here is a video of my narration of the poem.
NOTE: A special thank you goes out to my 16-year-old grandson in Florida, Max Renner, for helping me create this video. Max is a skilled programmer already. It appears this young man has a bright future in software engineering. Thanks, Max!
Mass in Times of a Pandemic
Have mercy upon the people of faith, O Lord,
who put their trust in you, as an enemy, unseen
and silent, steals across our land and the world
abroad to tap on shoulders—as if at random
like a monstrous game of tag—of unsuspecting men
and women who strive to make it through the day.
We sing, Kyrie eléison, Christe eléison,
Kyrie eléison, with great gladness; and we pray:
Give us courage, O Lord, come what may.
We shoulder sorrows at the end of a darkened day,
seeking shelter against the forces of the night,
and in the lengthening shadows we find our way
to the empty tomb of Christ with the perpetual light
of one hopeful candle burning bright
to celebrate the risen Lord. We look to the west:
the glow of the golden sun gives way to the light
of vespers. Secure in our safe lodging, we are blessed
to praise the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
How did the Coronavirus disaster come? Two ways:
gradually, then suddenly. Science knew it was real
and lethal, but leadership dithered for many days
until a great nation was brought to heel.
Worse than war, we tumbled down into the hell
of separateness. Each of us must suffer alone,
apart from the warmth of fellowship in which we feel
a common bond. But we shall rise again!
Even in isolation, we are one unbroken chain.
The virus requires we find new ways to cope.
Gatherings are banned; individuals widen their space.
In isolation, we glimpse in memory, dimly, but we hope
to see each other soon face to face,
cheek by jowl, in a happier time and place.
Privately, we pray, Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of hosts. By the loving grace
of God, we plan to come together fully
as one body and sing the Hymn of Victory.
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away
the sins of the world. We the faithful may be sheep
in need of a good shepherd or innocents in the ways
of the world, but the body of Christ is wide and deep
and the people of this church have commitments to keep
whether blown to the four winds or gathered in place.
We are set on sowing in the Spirit—in the hope of reaping
eternal life. My friends, go in grace
until we meet again face to face.
My Moment in Time
Curving through a basalt cut,
the slim-waisted river brings
waters from the Two Oceans Plateau
at Jackson Lake to the faraway waters
out west, all the way to Astoria.
Cache Peak is due south.
Smooth-sanded alluvial fans
are tan with flecks of sagebrush teal.
To the north, the massive Craters of the Moon
lava fields lie between the river
and the distant mountains of central Idaho.
I stand alone in this isolated spot.
Civilization is nowhere in sight.
Little has changed since the Bonneville Flood
scoured the Portneuf River Valley
at the end of the Ice Age or even
when the first people arrived more
than ten thousand years ago.
This moment by the river—my moment
in time—is a one-of-a-kind snapshot
in the millions of years that some version
of the Snake River flowed to the Pacific.
This tiny stretch of river is not
the complete river any more than lives
exists in isolation apart from all the brothers
and sisters of the past, present, and future.
Like the island in the stream parting the waters,
it isn’t you who travels forward.
The small measure of time meant for you
travels toward you and beyond you.
In the Old English Style
I ken a cross cleaving clouds
high in the heavens of purple hue
the mark of my liege in the middle of morning
suddenly streaming strange ray-daggers
fiery flames from Wayland’s forge
burnishing war-bucklers baring souls
loosening artifice from feckless lives
who lack conviction leaving at the last
grim cobble-ground the gut of groundlings
daring discernment on judgment day
Who was Cædmon?
Cædmon was the earliest writer of Old English literature who lived in seventh century according to Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English people,” which Bede wrote in Latin. He translated “Cædmon’s Hymn” from Northumbrian into Latin and praised him as the most inspiring writer of the sacred verse. Unfortunately, most of the poems written by Cædmon are not found. But according to Bede, Cædmon wrote on Christian themes like creation of the world, origin of man, Exodus, Jesus’ incarnation, resurrection, preaching of apostles, terrors of future judgment, pains of hell and delights of heaven.
Francis Junius published “Cædmon’s Manuscript” (1655). It contains many poems on themes mentioned above. It is probable that some of these poems are the work of Cædmon.
Cædmon became a lay member of the monastery in his later life and he was not well-educated. But in his vision an angel appeared and blessed him with the gift of composing songs. Cædmon later became a monk and spent the rest of his life in Whitby monastery until he passed away peacefully in 680 A.D.
My poem on this page is based on a story about one of Cædmon’s poems. His actual poem is now lost.
For Barbara Miars
The sky is clear of clouds,
but snow is in the air,
whipped up from the ground
and raked from rooftops by fierce winds.
At asymmetric intervals,
powdery white blows across
my poetry window.
Wind erosion is obvious
in the harsh noon sun.
Boot prints are sculpted and polished.
Stubborn warm condo colors of brick,
taupe, cream and mocha
in the cool kaleidoscope of sun and snow.
Theme: The Greek letter Pi
The Body and Its Desires
For Matthew Arnold
The gods consume nectar and ambrosia on Olympus
and amuse themselves by looking down on us
dispassionately. Cool detachment is a sardonic business.
Hellenism insists we see things as they are.
For right thinking, the body and its desires are a barrier;
we are cautioned to keep the mind completely clear.
Hebraism counters that the body and its desires
are a barrier to right action. The Lord requires
clarity of thought chastened by strictness of conscience.
The principal rubric of the Law is studied obedience
to the will of God. The Lord has a vertical presence—
aloof except to chastise with corrective fires.
In the time it takes a Sierra redwood in the ageing
of two thousand rings, many gods have come
and gone in the public square. Further, we become
weary of our own fungible ground of being—
the dreary march of certainties by which we cling—
as we amble toward the dust from which we came.
More crucial over the years than definitions of the divine
are behavioral tendencies toward either thought
or action when it comes to the body and its desires.
The tension between Hellenism and Hebraism defines
every age, and will continue, like it or not,
to shape our every outcome of action or thought.
Herod the Great
A popular belief was abroad in the kingdom of Judea.
Scholars concluded that seventy-six generations
had passed since the Creation, and that the next,
the seventy-seventh, would gift to Israel the Messiah
who was destined to deliver the nation from foreign rule.
A child born in Bethlehem would be the king
of the Jews—as foretold by the prophet Micah.
The Magi spoke these words to Herod the Great.
Herod was frightened, but he feigned excitement.
He said to the Magi, “Go and search diligently
for the child; and when you find him, bring me word
so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
At the time, he was terminally ill with a hideous disease.
His career was one with many bold accomplishments;
it was also one of cruelty, vengeance, and paranoia,
traits in overdrive at the time of the birth of Jesus.
Herod was thoroughly Roman in murdering each
and every rival to his rule, including his wife
and three of his sons. He murdered hundreds more
real and perceived enemies in his final years
as he assured his lasting legacy in the line of succession.
In the end, nothing happened to the child of Bethlehem.
No one mourned for Herod, a converted Jew—
the son of an Edomite father and an Arab mother—
who did the dirty work for the hated Roman state.
“I love you and I will always be faithful to you.”
No doubt he meant it on the day and the year of the postmark.
So little time from moon to rising moon;
in his need for novelty, the eye was wandering by noon.
What is the harm, he reasoned, as he kindled a spark
by texting the identical promise to someone new.
July 15 to August 3, 1966
I entered the fictive Mall of Great Accomplishments
clutching my youth like a lottery payoff
ready to spend my years,
but there was a war going on at the time
and I needed a good place to hide.
I signed up for OCS.
Better than being an infantryman.
Fourteen months removed from the Berkeley campus
with its Free Speech Movement
and the daily rallies between Sproul Hall
and the Student Union Building,
I was stationed on an 888-foot aircraft carrier
with an admiral and a Marine general onboard.
I got to work in air-conditioned spaces
as the division officer of the radio gang.
The ride was comfortable even in a typhoon.
“If I am going to be in a war, this is a good place to be,”
I thought to myself.
Chief Van Gee managed the 42 radiomen.
I was smart enough to let him run the show.
My job was to process all the messages
that came through Main Comm.
I was there to shuffle papers.
Serving on the ship was my first real job.
The USS Princeton was a smooth operation,
a well-oiled machine.
I grew up on Dad’s stories about the FUBAR Navy
of World War II; it was nothing like that!
We entered the combat zone on July 15th.
On that day, I wore my dog tags
for the first time in months.
In case I was killed, someone could wedge the tags
between my teeth to identify my body.
Starting on day 2, I never wore my tags again.
I put them away in my Instant Ensign kit.
Princeton was business as usual
at the start of Operation Hastings.
But soon the real war came to the ship.
The Princeton’s team of doctors
cared for the wounded Marines.
Hueys bearing the bodies of the dead and wounded
were landing on the flight deck at all hours.
The wounded were rushed to surgery.
The dead were zipped into body bags
to be lined like cordwood on the hangar deck.
Offloading the wounded—
the lucky ones were still able to scream.
The reports of the Marines killed in action
and wounded in action trickled in at first.
Days went by without reports.
Near the end of July,
Radioman Second Class D.L. Crowley dropped
a 2-inch stack of papers on my desk:
the KIA reports for over 100 Marines.
Each red-blooded Marine was reduced
to numbers and letters on a page:
country (South Vietnam)
province (I Corps)
date of birth
I remember thinking, “Each of these young men has a mother.”
I was the intelligence officer for ship’s company.
I read the after-action reports that claimed
the NVA was pushed back to North Vietnam,
but later I learned that was not true.
The NVA continued to move around in I Corps.
The brass put a positive gloss on Operation Hastings.
The domino theory—
the last domino to fall, the theory.
Translated from the Latin:
How sweet it is to die for a theory.
As a Rose Unfolds Itself
For my daughter
Stunned to hear your marriage is falling apart,
I look to see you sad, defeated, but no!
You are energized—fired up and ready to go.
The unencumbered life gladdens your heart.
As a rose unfolds itself,
there is always an exact time
when beauty is most compelling.
For you, that time is now.
I wrote these lines when you were twenty-one.
Society believes that beauty will have its say
briefly before a long denouement of decay.
Wrong. The unfolding of beauty is never done.
Unlike the athlete whose turn on the stage is short,
beauty draws from character to counter age.
A woman’s poise and wisdom keep the page
from turning; they keep the book from snapping shut.
Character powers the engine that drives the train
along a set of tracks uniquely yours.
This time belongs to you. Enjoy the years
to come as your own master of heart and brain.
Theme: Letting go
Without a Thought
without a thought,
the neighbor’s backyard
~ W.J. Higginson
Without a thought
the sea-green rhododendron
suddenly sprouts pink blossoms
in the emeraldness of May.
Hot pink fronts the green
until the gardener snips
the summer-roasted buds.
It’s a show for the higher brain.
Plants don’t know
the meaning of words
like pink and green
or note the nanosecond
when spring arrives
or understand the importance
of timely pruning.
The rhody does its thing
without a thought.
Without a thought,
the sweltering sun ambles across
Seattle’s cloudless sky
like a super slow-mo
on the silent strip overhead.
Do you like the classics?
Apollo’s wingéd car
cleaves the Ionian dome.
Still, our clueless star
knows nothing whatsoever
of chariots or charioteers,
ancient or modern.
It does its daily thing
without a thought.
Without a thought,
the uncarved block reveals itself
to the carver.
The carver, a thinker,
is keen to see
into the true nature
of the uncarved block,
though truth can only be known
without a thought.
That annoying pedagogue consciousness
is chased away
and carver and wood are one.
Carving starts when thinking stops;
thinking stops when carving starts.
and only this
without a thought.
Their lyrics sealed the promise
of August of ’59,
There goes my baby
movin’ on down the line.
I had a brown-eyed sweetheart
when I was seventeen.
Our worlds were far apart
and the Drifters fell between.
The mournful whine is silent;
the booming drum is dead;
the song has lost its power
except inside my head.
Would I be very different
from others turning gray
who marry good companions
and never rue the day
when I riffle through my files
where the dead events belong
and turn aside discretely
to touch a treasured song?
Theme: Small town
The people come and go,
but Carey is used to the churn.
Time is a daunting flow.
Pioneers long ago
let the church run the town.
The people come and go.
Roads and railroads come slow,
and water is a grave concern.
The town withstands the flow.
Some children come to know
they need to leave to learn.
The people come and go.
Others choose to go
on missions and then return.
The town weathers the flow.
Carey continues to grow.
The seasons take their turn
while the people come and go.
The town welcomes the flow.