poetry drafts

Poems for Labor Day

Poet, scholar and my mentor, Van Brock, wrote of my book Salt and Iron "every poem may be prefaced by 'Farewell to Lincoln Square,'  a poem he offers as a translation of the painting by Raphael Soyer, whose full foreground bulges with people of leisure, while Byrd, reading the painting, focuses on a small, remote man . . . ."  It makes sense that Van would see that connection in my work because I grew up in a family that was first working class and I worked and sweated with men who knew how to use tools.  I learned what it was to go home tired, sweaty and dirty . . . and then to get up the next morning and do it all again.  The title of the poem links to a youtube video of me reading the poem.  This poem originally appeared in the journal College English.

Farewell to Lincoln Square

                        after Raphael Soyer


Who is that man in the background

who bends over into nothing?

He bends to work,

running the cruel jackhammer

that will have his wife

laying hot washcloths on his back

and rubbing his shoulders with alcohol.

He breaks concrete for no good reason.

In the window behind him,

a shape—chiaroscuro—

not fully drawn, a ghost image,

looks out at him,

observes the measured jail

that work makes for him.

Or is it his angel

who looks over blue collar

and blue jeans

who is with him as he works

and when he eats pimiento loaf at noon?

I can’t see if he is sweating,

but it must be an Autumn day.

The girl in blue in the foreground

wears a sweater and a long skirt.

This is weather a working man gives thanks for:

a few degrees of coolness.

He works hard in the background.

Everyone else walks away from him.


                               [please be encourage to comment in the section below!]

Inner and Outer Storms

Last night, a powerful thunderstorm rolled through Hillsborough and northern Pinellas counties.  Shawna and I saw it building as we were pulling grass out of the fogfruit in the front yard.  By the time we were having dinner, thunder was cracking and lightning was flashing and a warning banner ran across the bottom of the TV screen on the Weather Underground  channel.  On the table was a copy of Pinyon's 20th anniversary issue, with my poem, "Late Trail" in it.  I reread the poem and then passed it to my wife, as it had been a good ten years since she'd read that poem which I wrote at the Hambidge Center in Georgia.  That poem had been making the rounds for at least that long.  We had been talking about our daughter, Carly, who is playing her cello at the Philadelphia International Music Festival for the next two weeks.

I lay out all of the random stuff in the above paragraph as a way of charting the genesis of the poem below.  As usual, a poem comes from a variety of ingredients that seem to come together at one place and time: storm, poem, daughter, father's death in the background.  Rereading "Late Trail" probably had me thinking in terms of myth and symbol so the storm was likely making some sort of connections beyond just the concerns listed in the TV warning.  Discussion about my daughter had me thinking about her and stuff we'd done together, and that led to the memory of sitting on the tailgate of my pickup with her watching a storm.  As I tried to remember the details of that day, I remembered that the truck was in the garage of the house we rented back then because the timing chain had eaten through the timing cover and coolant had forced its way into the cylinders.  I'd called my dad and he'd agreed to come down to help me diagnose the problem, which we both figured was a cracked block or cylinder head.  So Dad came down and we tore the engine down, figured out the problem and Dad left when it was clear I knew how to reassemble the engine.  Ten years later,   I would find that failed timing cover when I went through my father's stuff after he'd died.  I'd put a clock in it and a note thanking him along with a picture of the project.

 So, I had the connection of the memory of my dead father with the experience of watching the storm with Carly.  As I drafted, I began to be aware of the connection of the father-child relationship in the poem.  My dad had come down to help me understand something (the engine) as he always seemed to know something about engines even though we never really worked on cars when I was a kid.  When Carly sat on the bed of the truck with the storm raging outside, she did so with a confidence that if her dad was doing it, it must be okay.  Further, the experiences I had with my dad and with my daughter were both silent experiences.  So here's the draft.  Y'all hear?  Draft, draft.  My wife says it's good, but she's kind with my drafts and I know it will need work.  But I think it has good bones.   (It should be single-spaced but I'm having problems pasting it in that way).

Prospero as Mechanic
The pickup was in the garage and the tailgate was down.
Parts of the engine were arrayed in the bed:
intake manifold, cylinder head, timing chain.
The block was still where it belonged.
My father had driven down from Pensacola
to help me tear it down and diagnose the problem.
None of us knew then that he would be dead
in another ten years.  We had found the cracked
timing cover that let coolant into the engine,
not unlike his bad heart valve that would do him in.
All I had to do was reassemble the engine
so he left again for Pensacola.
But here is what I remember:
a thunderstorm came in late one afternoon,
when it should have been sunset
and I sat with my own daughter, who was maybe three,
on the bed of the truck.  She looked up at me
standing there at the kitchen door
while wind blew and thunder came after
lightning and the rain came down in heavy drops
just outside the open door to the garage.
She and I sat there, as if tempting something
dangerous and terrible, and I knew
that sitting next to me she feared neither
electricity nor thunder, as if my own spells
could keep the deadly world at bay.


Battle of the Somme 100 years ago

A British soldier carries a mortally wounded comrade to an aid station.

A British soldier carries a mortally wounded comrade to an aid station.

The Battle of the Somme began a hundred years ago today at 7:30 a.m.  The British soldiers fighting there included many who had enlisted in "Pals" regiments--those made up of football clubs, civic clubs, coworkers.  Many who went to France did so in a spirit of excitement and righteousness of purpose.  They would drive the Germans back and rescue France..  The reality of the battle was that 20,000 men were killed in the first minutes.  Many more died charging into German machine guns which were supposed to have been destroyed by a weeklong artillery bombardment.  After the Somme, any sense of optimism, of purpose, was destroyed as well.  Many felt the war would go on forever.

Three days ago, while I was reading about the Somme Offensive, a student of mine stopped by,  He's a veteran of fourteen years in the Army, including several combat deployments to Iraq.  He's told be about battle.  He's told me about some of the people he had to kill.  About the friends and troops he's lost to combat or suicide.  I have learned to mostly listen.  So, a first draft, a fragment:

for M.A.,   U.S. Army

My darkness is not like yours, though it is darkness.
My father died alone in a travel trailer
a big bottle of Bombay Sapphire half drunk
in the cabinet, a note pinned above the sink
about how all his exwives were there with him
though he knew they could not be.
The operation was a simple one: insert a valve
to replace the one in his heart
that had never worked quite right.
And they put him under and he woke in another world
where daughter and son and brothers scattered everywhere
were in the same room, where the vein cut from his leg
for the double-bypass was a strike from a bandit's knife

I could not help him. The last thing he told me
"stay home and take care of yourself"
and he never knew I had outlived my own cancer and chemo.
Around me now, his tools.  Tape measures with his name
circular saws.  Each time I reach for a screwdriver
I wrap my hand where he had gripped
so I go out into the garage and find myself
standing there for how long I do not know
with a screwdriver in my hand
rolling the loop of my father through my head
passing him tools when I was four
hoisting air conditioners when we both were hale
remembering once again that he is dead.

This is a part of my darkness.  It is not the part
where I faced death at three a.m. and realized
one day I would be an absence.  But I know you, too,
have thought about something like that.  
This darkness is those young ghosts
who hold us in place, 
stunned converts to mortality
until we turn and face the living again.

Drafting of a Poem. Post 1

My friend, artist Kevin Grass, does a wonderful thing by showing his work in progress on his artist Facebook page.  That's brave and generous of him, as it's sort of like taking your clothes off in your front yard and saying "this is what I start with!"  While I promise not to disrobe amongst the Shepherd's Needle and Beach Sunflowers, I will start a poem here and see what happens.  I imagine you'll see all the old scars and unsightly bulges as well as muscle and bone in the process.  I'm hoping the poem will end up well-clothed and trim before too long.

I was working on an air cleaner for my '66 Ford pickup when these lines came into my head:

          It is not because we are afraid of losing
          It is because we know how much there is to lose.

Those sound like they may make the last two lines of a poem.  Or maybe they're overstated. Or maybe they say rather than show.  Or maybe the idea is good, but the lines are not.  I know that the "we" I'm referring to is middle-aged men (I'm 51).  And I'm thinking about how younger men are comfortable taking chances, how they will look at old guys like me and misunderstand the caution one develops for tenuousness or cowardice.  But it's also what makes older guys ready to fight harder for certain things.  

Well, that's a lot of ideas and, as Stephane Mallarme said to Edgar Degas, "poems are not made out of ideas, they are made of words."  So, rattling around in my head are early thoughts of what words and images might fit the ideas here.  But I'm not going to try to purchase them from the Image Store, but just wait and see what comes up.  I'm pretty sure there's something concrete and mythic hiding in the shadows that fits this, and when it knows I'm receptive, it will come forward.  I hope so, anyway.  I'm also thinking a little about the meter in those lines I wrote.  I won't trouble it much now, but I have my eye on it.

And what does the air cleaner for the '66 F100 have to do with this?  Probably nothing.  I like working on my truck, doing carpentry, going for long rides on my bike, fishing, lots of things that are fairly solitary and physical, I guess.  Sort of like Wordsworth's going on long walks.  Or Clint Eastwood (among many) who says "you get your best ideas in the shower."  I've learned to let an idea take hold and then to concentrate on something kinesthetic and non-verbal to let those ideas come together on their own.

More later!  I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.