Clearing poetry’s house

Published : Saturday, April 02, 2011 | Label:

Two bald eagles—an undignified name for so handsome a bird—sit companionably side by side and look upon the slaty river carrying winter away under the bridge on E Lake Street, and I drink a second coffee in Dunn Brothers coffee house. Robins hop the sidewalk. The heavy sky looks like it’s trying to break, and that seems to me like an idea worth pursuing. It’s the first day of April, and it’s Minneapolis, and spring appears to be an old joke the twin rivers tell the twin cities here each year about now. The lyrics of “Winter in America” are playing out of tune and out of time in my head. And home is two worlds at least away.

My friend, the poet, Kim Stafford just sent me an email with a link to a small film he’s put on U-tube. The film is a poem in text and photographs and music about emptying out his childhood home in Portland, the house of the poet William Stafford, his wife Dorothy, who lived there until a few months ago, and of Kim’s three siblings. One day two weeks ago, I helped Kim box books from a couple of the rooms of that small suburban house, and, with Kim’s son and two sisters, to help carry boxes to the car and haul them to storage nearby. The first book my hand fell on, when I kneeled to my work in the master bedroom, was an seventies paperback of The Hobbit. This moved me because that book was a small fable forty years ago, a prefiguring, of my calling. And when I published books at Allen & Unwin, I once met the man, Raynor Unwin, who, as an eight-year-old boy, had read, for his father, Sir Stanley Unwin, founder of the press (George Allen & Unwin) the manuscript of The Hobbitby the unheard of writer and Oxford don, J R R Tolkien. He told his father he thought the book was pretty good.

One thing that book taught me was that there is more to each of us, and to just about everything, than meets the eye. Each of us has more courage than we mostly feel.

Two nights before I found myself in the Stafford house, packing into boxes the domestic life of one of the great poets, I had read in Powell’s Bookstore, downtown, and had mentioned then, how like a burglar I still felt, standing to read my work in one of the great bookstores, beside Barry Lopez, my elder and my friend, one of the great writers. Bilbo, you’ll recall, was the burglar in The Hobbit—a man called suddenly and against his will into adventure, a man who had no idea then, though others did, just what it was he would find himself called to take from the wild world, and how much of his settled self he’d be forced to lose along the road.

It was moving for me, a poet and a reader, to share with the poets’ children the work of packing away their past, and the books and things among which and about which the poet wrote. Bill’s study, when I saw it, was more or less the way he had left it when he passed.

Look at Kim’s short film, and you’ll feel what it felt like. Kim has turned the moment into a beautiful poem, told in sea and tree and photograph and his own tender words:


Search this site