The Poets’ Birds: Waxwings

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

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.

(more…)

Published in: on May 6, 2016 at 8:06 pm  Comments (97)  
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Mr. Grumpy Gets His Bath

Mr. Grumpy (click image to enlarge)

If his verse is any indication, Ogden Nash met his own grumpy grackle, and wasn’t particularly impressed:

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow,
his heart is black, his eye is yellow.
He bullies more attractive birds
with hoodlum deeds and vulgar words,
and should a human interfere,
attacks that human in the rear.
I cannot help but deem the grackle
an ornithological debacle.

Despite Nash’s characterization, the grackle I came to know as Mr. Grumpy didn’t seem inclined toward bullying or attacks. Though loud, impertinent, and insistent, he wasn’t at all aggressive. He only wanted to be noticed: preferably by a female of his own species. That hunger for attention and approval appeared to lie near the heart of his aggravation. (more…)

Taught by a Heron’s Heart

In 1950’s small town Iowa, Mardi Gras was barely a rumor. We’d read now and then of the bead-tossing, the parades, the exotic French Quarter celebrations with their hints of unspeakable, masked misbehavior.  But we were midwesterners, with midwestern sensibilities, and gave little thought to those far-away customs.

Even neighbors who traveled to New Orleans seemed to consider Mardi Gras a purely native ritual, disconnected from their experience of the city.  Their souvenirs – long, gray-green sweeps of Spanish moss, Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s,  recordings of Sweet Emma Barrett’s piano and Willie Humphrey’s exquisite clarinet – were the stuff of any vacation.  As we listened to their jazz and looked at their photos, New Orleans’ life seemed normal enough, recognizable despite its differences.  On the other hand, Mardi Gras seemed odd, slightly degenerate, part of a world of drunkenness and debauchery best avoided by reasonable people. (more…)

Published in: on February 12, 2013 at 2:57 pm  Comments (95)  
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