Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Big Poem: stanzas one to three

Last week MT and I went for lunch - in the middle of a six mile walk - at a restaurant that lies at the north end of Nelson's famous orange bridge. The bridge was up and carrying traffic by 1957, replacing the ferry that shuttled the half-mile of water between the north shore and Lakeside beach, just downstream from the old tug ways, and a motel and restaurant to go with it were erected not long after. I had eaten in the restaurant only a couple of times before 72, but in the autumn of that year, once I realized that it didn't seem likely that anyone was going to publish the fourth draught of the yacht novel, I set to work on my first attempt at what is now known as "The Big Poem".
By that time, we had pretty well ceased to operate our house as a home for young adults with various needs that can be met around a stable family, and were in the process of creating the more definitely monastic community that has functioned ever since. Marianne had moved in, although also attending the college, and I was in the final months of analyzing and experiencing the spiritual life as defined by the Carmelites, thus in the psychological position to be able to look back fairly objectively at a life I now felt ready to be described through the form of the long narrative. Wordsworth's "Prelude" or "Growth of a Poet's Mind" was my intended model, due to a not-so-little ecstatic experience I'd undergone while looking into some early lines one rainy April morning in Vancouver, in 1957.
One of the greatest things about being a modern poet, at least in English, is that it is all but impossible to conceive of making a living writing only poetry. Thus it must be done for the sheer joy of using words, and in the spirit of poverty. It is much like going for a walk, in that sense, simply for the pleasure of putting one foot in another and having a look at the landscape. When I was at work in my scribbler, on those November/December afternoons in 72, I felt those benefits keenly, gratefully, sitting a table in the room on the lower floor, which, with the younger set up and away, had become the study. And I also had the walk, because after a good session with the Muse I would stroll across the bridge - the south end was only two blocks from the house - to the restaurant for a cup of tea.
I was remembering those pleasant hours at our lunch last week, most keenly, and with a great deal of satisfaction, because I was at that position, so longed for by writers, of knowing I finally had the write beginning for the poem I'd begun work on 36 years earlier, to the month. The first stanza had not only been set down in the current loose leaf binder, but it had been emailed to my youngest, a writer herself of no mean ability, and gained not only her approval, but a request for more. I think it was the day after the lunch that I came up with two more stanzas, and thus have enough to post on the Ranger. Here we go. (With such memories rolling in from the West Coast, I ordered an oyster burger.)

The story telling started with my Grandad.
By nineteen-forty, when I was a little boy,
Athena was dead and gone, royally snuffed
By the conversion of the last pagan Greek,
And no one yet had talked to me of Homer.
My Iliad came in the Saturday comics,
Read to me on his lap by my bachelor uncle:
Prince Valiant, Orphan Annie, Little Lulu,
And Popeye too, though I had no war with spinach.
Thus, oh, how the world was my oyster when I learned to read!
But books are books, and men, God bless, are men,
And before I could read my Grandad told me a story.

You should have seen the set for this performance.
My grandparents' house was a castle in a forest,
With a yard as big as a field and barn full of chickens,
Sheds all over the place and apple trees,
Berries and grapes and all that stuff from Paradise,
Plus Grandad kept the Bible by his bedside,
And every time I came to check him out,
The Lord who ruled his life had time for me,
You felt it in the walls, you heard the Father in his kindly voice,
Old Walter moving slow, waiting on my catching up,
And then one day he came up with a memory.

My Dad was with me, we went there together,
Some morning before he had to go to England.
We sat in the dining room, with the antelope head on the wall,
And I on the couch they'd covered with wolverine skins,
Grandad had come to the Coast from the fields of Ontario
By way of the Yukon gold and a farm for foxes,
With, fore and after, brothers in Montana;
The head of a Yukon ram in the living room
Stared down on all my days in the house;
My Grandma had shot two grizzlies in her time,
Wore lumps of solid gold around her neck,
I would see them every time she poured my tea.

No comments: