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Nee Nej 2, from a new series of paintings I worked on this winter

I’ve posted this poem here already, several years ago. It resurfaced in me this morning and it feels like a perfect fit for the mood of my mind and spirit, heavy with the events of the last week. But that undeniable connection happens frequently for me with William Stafford’s words since my love of his work runs deep. I hope it speaks to you too.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

–William Stafford


The flying foxes (bats) in Sydney’s Hyde Park. They are an extreme statement of wildness very close at hand.

It is not skill, knowledge, intellect,
good luck or bad, but choosing
to feel the strange notes
of our wildness,
for there is not nothingness
despite the easy magic
of despair.

Another moment spent in the company of Terrance Keenan (along with a few others I’ve had in the past, here and here.) The “strange notes of our wildness” as well as the “easy magic” of our darker days—these are both zones I know well.

I am coupling this with another deep dive poem by the good and gentle William Stafford. He speaks with a sage’s measured gait, cutting right past everything that is moving so fast that it stays on the surface of things and can’t get seep down into the root system. I just love this man’s point of view.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

A painter and a poet. Martin and Stafford have been (and continue to be) elemental influences on me.

***

Agnes Martin (Photo: Charles R. Rushton)

To discover the conscious mind in a world where intellect is held to be valuable requires solitude, quite a lot of solitude. We have been very strenuously conditioned against solitude. To be alone is considered to be a grievous and dangerous condition.

So I beg you to recall in detail any times when you were alone. You will find the fear that we have been taught is not one fear, but many different fears. When you discover what they are they will be overcome. Most people have never been alone enough to feel these fears. But even without the experience of them they dread them.

–Agnes Martin

***


William Stafford

For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot – air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there.

–William Stafford

A Message from the Wanderer

Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occured to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.

Inside, I dreamed of constellations—
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as—often, in light, on the open hills—
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then—even before you see—
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.

Now—these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.

–William E. Stafford

This poem speaks to an exquisite kind of redemptive hope, one that is akin to the feelings I am carrying after a weekend spent with friends who have been with me for most of my adult life. Stafford’s image of a form in the grass is such a redolent metaphor for that moment “when all we have said and all we have hoped will be all right.” Blessed be that day.

Oh, and be sure to just remember your name.

groupw
Jack’s Place Gang

jpgang
After felling a tree

jp
Jack’s Place, 2009

WIP
Inside, it’s a work in progress (like all of us)

viewfromJP2
Stream view, from the rear of the house

window

Just Thinking

Got up on a cool morning. Leaned out a window.
No cloud, no wind. Air that flowers held
for awhile. Some dove somewhere.

Been on probation most of my life. And
the rest of my life been condemned. So these moments
count for a lot – peace, you know.

Let the bucket of memory down into the well,
bring it up. Cool, cool minutes. No one
stirring, no plans. Just being there.

–William Stafford

His work just keeps speaking to me, over and over again.

For a sampling of other poems by Stafford that I have posted on this blog, click here.

Thank you to Whiskey River for bringing this one to my attention.

white_fin

Wind Gift

For you, something not put
even in prayer.
Like broad wings that swim thick
under your fall
And won’t let you drop
through the air.

Or the same thing under the sea
where your boat goes.
A teeming companionship
of life too full for a hollow
—the way a canyon’s alive
when it snows.

That’s the way, under and over
and all around—
Miraculous out of the void
All for you—
so wild the eye roves
wing, fin, flake
nor touches the ground.

–William Stafford

water
Coastline south of San Francisco, March 2008

Security

Tomorrow will have an island. Before night
I always find it. Then on to the next island.
These places hidden in the day separate
and come forward if you beckon.
But you have to know they are there before they exist.
Some time there will be a tomorrow without any island.
So far, I haven’t let that happen, but after
I’m gone others may become faithless and careless.
Before them will tumble the wide unbroken sea,
and without any hope they will stare at the horizon.
So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.

–William Stafford

Stafford’s work has been speaking to me deeply for years. This one feels particularly poignant right about now.

Biography of William Stafford from Poets.org:

William Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1914. He received a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Kansas at Lawrence and, in 1954, a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. During the Second World War, Stafford was a conscientious objector and worked in the civilian public service camps-an experience he recorded in the prose memoirDown My Heart (1947). He married Dorothy Hope Frantz in 1944; they had four children.

In 1948 Stafford moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College. Though he traveled and read his work widely, he taught at Lewis and Clark until his retirement in 1980. His first major collection of poems, Traveling Through the Dark, was published when Stafford was forty-eight. It won the National Book Award in 1963. He went on to publish more than sixty-five volumes of poetry and prose. Among his many honors and awards were a Shelley Memorial Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Western States Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry. In 1970, he was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a position currently known as the Poet Laureate).

Stafford’s poems are often deceptively simple. Like Robert Frost’s, however, they reveal a distinctive and complex vision upon closer examination. James Dickey, writing in his book Babel to Byzantium, notes that Stafford’s “natural mode of speech is a gentle, mystical, half-mocking and highly personal daydreaming about the western United States.” Among his best-known books are The Rescued Year (1966), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation (1978), and An Oregon Message (1987). William Stafford died at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, on August 28, 1993.

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