Sunday, May 29, 2005

Recently, I photographed a high school band practice. One of the musicians was a quiet-looking, proper-looking young woman who seemed as if she, all her life, has done what she was told. (That may or may not, of course, be true.) She played trumpet. My mind wandered from the trumpet into jazz and into the biblical end-of-time stories. This poem came from those wanderings, first the jazz, then the young woman. I wondered if, in the poetical situation I put her in, she would do what she was told or if she would finally refuse.


Jazz trumpet
through a window
during mid-day sun

over and over again,
each time new,
never losing
the basic feel of sadness
mixed with anger

sounds of
hail and fire
mixed with blood
hiss of fire
cast into the sea
of a shooting star
twilight coming
to question mankind
bottomless pit
of a heroin haze
desperate notions
of a final revenge

pale angel
in black cotton;
quiet, she trembles,
a small book
open in her hands

on the low curb
of a rundown street
on the edge of a city
at the end of time

to the trumpet
as thousands of stars
slowly push the sun
below the horizon

she has
a new face, untouched
by the aging trumpet's
earthly anguish;
eager to appease

at her feet,
in the wind's swirls
of the street's trash
and broken glass,
is her small purse

the purse holds
seven golden vials filled
with the wrath of her god
who considers us all
to be his own children

Grace be unto us all, and peace

Jazz trumpet
through a window
during midnight's cool,
the basic feel of sadness
mixed with anger

of a shooting star

Grace be unto us all, and peace

pale angel
in black cotton;
quiet, she trembles,
on the low curb
at the end of time

Grace be unto us all, and peace
Songs, Salt, Dragonflies, Roads, and Water

June 05 email newsletter
No. 013

My straight-backed grandfather - the man who married a Pearl and then a Rose, the man who farmed for all of his 94 years - recorded a Sacred Harp song, "Sweet Rivers of Redeeming Love," in his purposeful, steady baritone sometime around 1960. He sang:

Sweet rivers of redeeming love
Lie just before mine eyes
Had I the pinions of the dove
I'd to those rivers fly
I'd rise superior to my pain
With joy outstrip the wind
I'd cross oer Jordan’s stormy waves
And leave this world behind . . .

My dad made the tape, and gave me a copy years ago. I just got it transferred onto a CD and made a couple of copies to help preserve it.

"The voice on the CD sounds just like papa alive," my dad said.

The song comes from an 1844 hymnal called "The Sacred Harp." The singing is, according to an online source, the largest surviving branch of traditional four-part, a cappella American Shape Note Singing "handed down since Colonial times and still practiced at hundreds of annual singing meetings, conventions, and local singing groups throughout the country." Shape note singing is traced back to English Reformation psalmody and beyond to Renaissance polyphony.

My grandfather farmed the land where I find myself staying right now. My father grew up here. There is comfort - a certain sense of continuity - in having a CD with that song on it.


I stopped at a man's office to try to sell him an ad. I don't often sell ads, but the money when I succeed comes in handy. The man apologized to me for wasting my time, saying he doesn't believe in print advertising. I was about to stand up and leave when we finished a short chat, but he said something that held me.

Describing some people, he casually, without venom or thought, used the word "nigger."

I didn't challenge him; it wouldn't have done any good. I stayed in the chair and talked with him for nearly two hours about why he should buy the ad. Eventually, he bought it; using that word cost him $300 he didn't intend to spend.


After lunch one recent Wednesday, the only things left in my refrigerator and pantry were two individual packets of oatmeal, half a packet of crackers, half of an old onion, a few very old jalapenos, most of a crock of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, and what might be a lifetime supply - nearly 10 ounces - of Morton Salt. (The salt is mined maybe 10 or so miles from here in Grand Saline, and could be mined for hundreds of years still. As a child, I toured the mine, which is no longer open to the public).

I was writing about groceries, though, and whatever they represent. Basically, empty refrigerator and pantry. No Blue Bell. No caffeine-free Diet Coke. No money, although a check was due in the mail the next day.

There is truth in that emptiness, and humor in that truth.

An hour after I closed the refrigerator door, I visited one of the artist's shops in nearby Edom. I sold a poetry chapbook, "Jolene's Dragomon," and a CD. Enough money for gas to get home, and to drive to and from the next night's poetry open mic in Tyler.

Within minutes, after a too-long dry spell, it began to rain. Lightly at first, then hard. When the rain peaked a little before 3 p.m., falling sideways in the wind, I stood outside for a few minutes, soaking wet, enjoying the splatter as much as the coolness. Exhilaration. Joy in the wind and water.

The rain, easing, continued for a couple of hours before moving out of the area. Thunder shook the castle twice; the last raindrops eventually found their way down through the leaves of the trees.

In the magical castle, idle, I thought of Pendrift for a while as he would make long, slow, satisfying love with a lesbian friend, as he would walk on river water, as he would weather another storm when he crawled inside a star. I read some of Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," sent to me by a friend, in the dim storm light, which improved for half an hour or so before twilight. I read until the last real light of the day left the very top of the nearest trees.

Dillard wrote, "At the time of Lewis and Clark, setting the prairies on fire was a well-known signal that meant, 'Come down to the water.' It was an extravagant gesture," she wrote, "but we can't do less." And, "I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames."

Sweet rivers of redeeming love.


Humpbacked dragonflies, mostly green and blue iridescence, fly around my magical castle casting myths. Dragonflies are among the oldest of creatures, dating back 300 million years or so to the Carboniferous age - 100 million years before the dinosaurs and 150 million years before the birds. Dragonflies consorted with Freya (the Norse goddess of love, fertility, and warfare), and are associated with transformation, adaptation, and insight. Had I the pinions of the dragonfly, I might to the water fly . . .


I have no wings. I plod along the proverbial, cliched road on foot. Sometimes I wonder about people I pass along the way. I wonder about people who trudge along the same road so long that they wear down and begin to think another road would have been better, then begin to preach about how that other road - whatever road they envision - is the answer to a question they don't even understand. People who suddenly shout, with just as much fervor, the opposite of what they once believed.

I appreciate the weariness and the seeking hope in these people, but the answer is that the road - whatever road - eventually just ends.

We don’t have to stay on the same road. We can choose to turn at a crossroads or even to wander off into the wilderness. Perhaps, when we preach, we need to preach questions, not answers.

There is a road of sorts behind the magical castle that leads over the mythic mountain through the ancient forest to where it ends at the endless sea, the first water where life, including the dragonfly's, began. Infrequently, I go to the water's edge and stare into its depth.