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?
Above an elegance of snow, beneath
a silk-blue sky a brotherhood of four
birds. Can you mistake us?
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.