The Poets’ Birds: Waxwings

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Four Tao philosophers as cedar waxwings
chat on a February berry bush
in sun, and I am one.
Such merriment and such sobriety–
the small wild fruit on the tall stalk–
was this not always my true style?
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Above an elegance of snow, beneath
a silk-blue sky a brotherhood of four
birds. Can you mistake us?
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To sun, to feast, and to converse —
and all together — for this I have abandoned
all my other lives.
~ poem “Waxwings” by Robert Francis

American poet Robert Francis lived for most of his adult life in Amherst, Massachusetts. In 1940, he purchased a half-acre of wooded land on Market Hill Road and built a small, one-person house in the woods there. He named it “Fort Juniper“ in honor of the common pasture juniper (Juniperus communis); it served as his home until his death. 

Photographer Bruce Myren, whose images of the house are simple and evocative, has recorded early encounters with the poet in the Amherst woods, and spoken of their significance for his later work:

While wandering in the woods as a teenager, I often encountered an older man in a cap, someone I assumed to be a poet but never spoke to. Many years later, I learned that the man who tipped his hat to me was Francis.
It was in this area of Amherst where I first forged my sense of intimacy with the land, and it was these same environs that Francis would walk for inspiration. Via Francis’s poems and prose, I am seeing my former hometown with new eyes and capturing the intersection of his understanding of this place with my own experience.

That Myren should have assumed the unknown man to be a poet is perhaps understandable, given that Amherst also was home to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and a host of other poets, editors, and literary academics. While it’s true that Dickinson and Frost have attracted far more notice than Francis, he was productive, and well respected in his lifetime. Amherst’s Jones Library, which hosted both his 85th birthday celebration and a memorial after his death, notes that:

His first book, Stand With Me Here, was published in 1936. The last book to be published during his lifetime was Traveling in Amherst: A Poet’s Journal (1986). Other writings include The Sound I Listened For (1950), Orb Weavers (1960), Like Ghosts of Eagles (1974), and Butterhill (1984). His Collected Poems was published in 1971.
Francis was also noted for his essays, many of which appeared in Forum, Christian Science Monitor, Virginia Quarterly Review, Atlantic Monthly, and Massachusetts Review.

From 1976 to 1994, Henry Lyman hosted Poems to a Listener on public radio station WFCR in Amherst, allowing poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, and Seamus Heaney to reflect on their lives and work.

When Robert Francis invited Lyman and his listeners into his wooded, one-story home in Amherst, reading selections from his Collected Poems as well as poems that would be published posthumously in Late Fire, Late Snow, it was a delightful occasion. You can listen to some of the readings here: merriment and sobriety combined, in Francis’s inimitable style.

Comments always are welcome. The photos of the waxwings — who only were passing through on their way to Elsewhere —  are mine.

Scraps and Reality

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Roger King probably wouldn’t have stopped to untangle this coil of rusty barbed wire, but if a fellow had dragged it into his salvage yard and offered it up, I doubt he would have turned it down. A stroll through the buildings on his property suggested he rarely refused anything. Piles of sheet metal, ceramic insulators, lengths of angle iron and rebar, old appliances, and Mason jars filled with fasteners huddled everywhere. Occasional oddities showed up as well, helping to keep things interesting: an armadillo shell; a set of paisley chair cushions; a bird cage painted green and filled with red plastic geraniums.
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After The Storm

What would you say to grief-torn birds,
anguished by life’s broken bonds?
Could you turn away, unmoved,
dismiss their cries as habit,
a bit of empty noise?
I saw it once, there on the spring grass–
not hidden in the human way
but public, painful as a slashing wound
that leaves the heart exposed.
The  frantic male’s flapping,
his heav’n-tipped beak and sharp-edged trill
I thought no more than courtship
until I saw his mate, keening
near their babe —
its helpless form  feathered but inert,
its life-song drained and pooling.
It was a kindness, I supposed,
to pluck the nestling, hold it close, and carry it away —
to claim the fallen home and end the desperate cries.
Nest in hand, I caught the signs
of growing  resignation —
the folded wings, the fallen heads,
the shared and tender glances
more intimate than death.
Soothed at last,  unfurling wings,
they lifted to the sky —
flying in silence against gathering clouds,
absorbed by the swift-rising sun.

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Published in: on May 6, 2016 at 8:06 pm  Comments (97)  
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This Merry Month of Maying

Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly.
Such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling—it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener.

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Rising, Falling. and Rising Again

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls…
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Children of the American midwest know little of tides. Theirs is a world of rolling hills and wind-tossed trees; great, dolloped clouds piled into the summer sky; tumbling, tassled corn stretching away toward an ever-receding horizon. Less impressive than mountains, less romantic than moonlit beaches, the very modesty of the land feels stable and dependable: a well-constructed backdrop for less than dramatic lives. (more…)

Published in: on April 22, 2016 at 8:05 pm  Comments (101)  
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