Take Two Poems, and Call Me in the Morning

The path forward

Anxiety. Astonishment. Anguish. Anger. The cross-currents of emotion swirling through the nation as we await the coming Presidential Inauguration are easy to identify, but difficult to navigate.

Ill at ease and confessing to exhaustion, a friend may have spoken for multitudes when she said, “I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of the nastiness; sick of conflict; and sick with worry that, on January 21, we’ll find the real struggles have only begun.”

Despite the seriousness of her concerns, I couldn’t help smiling at her references to sickness. My mother, a consummate diagnostician, mastered the art of separating true illness from  childhood excuses before I reached first grade. I always knew when I’d been found out, because she’d dismiss me with a saying far more common in the 1950s than it is now: “Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning.” It was her way of saying, “It’s not serious, and you’ll be fine.” She always kept an eye on her little excuse-maker, but in almost every instance I was fine, and life went on.

Recently, I found myself thinking that a slight revision of her advice might be useful in these tumultuous times. “Take two poems and call me in the morning” does have  bit of a ring to it, but the phrase also raises a question: which poems should be prescribed? 

I often turn to a pair of poems from Wendell Berry: one quite familiar, the other less so. His poem titled “The Peace of Wild Things,” first published in 1968, is often quoted because of the comfort it offers:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

My favorite of his poems, titled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” is sharper, with more of an edge. The sharpness makes it especially appropriate for a time marked by edginess; what it lacks in gentle comfort, it makes up for in wisdom.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Comments always are welcome.

Free the Oxford English 47,156


I’m not a rabid football fan – I always feel badly for the team that loses – but this year I had an invitation to a Super Bowl party, a Terrible Towel to wave and a new recipe to try. It seemed the perfect time to make my way to a friend’s home, settle back and watch the fun. They had a new, super-sized tv guaranteed to make watching the game enjoyable no matter which team you were cheering for, and I appreciated Al Michaels and John Madden in the broadcast booth, even though no one seemed to listen to their coverage unless there was a disputed call or an especially noteworthy play.

No one listened, that is, until sometime in the second half, when a strange thing happened. A player took off for a medium-sized run of perhaps 15 or 20 yards, and Michaels said, “Well, he ran that one with alacrity”. Suddenly, the entire room fell silent as everyone turned toward the television and three people demanded in unison, “ALACRITY?”

It was an appropriate word, properly used and perfectly in context, but it was pretty darned strange to see that wonderful four-syllable team doing its own version of broken field running through a maze of simple, declarative sentences and spare, one or two syllable phrases. That single word stopped an entire party in its tracks, leaving it scattered and stunned at Michaels’ audacity.

The response reminded me of people’s curiosity when I used the word skry in my latest poem, The Grammarian in Winter. I had several publicly posted comments about it, and even more emails, all from folks who essentially said, “SKRY?”   When I was writing the poem and the word came to me, even I wasn’t completely certain of its meaning. I looked it up, found alternative spellings, confirmed the definition and plunked it into my poem, where it serves it purpose beautifully. It’s an unusual word, perhaps even archaic, and it’s no longer heard in casual conversation unless you’re running with a crowd that casts entrails out behind the garage or takes three day weekends to attend Wicca conventions. But it’s a good word, and I was happy to give it a home. Continue reading