“. . . When that which drew from out the boundless deep . . .” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Sunrise at Port Orford, July 15, 2011

Sunrise at Port Orford, July 15, 2011

My first lessons in literature came from playing the card game, “Authors” as a child. I grew up knowing the names Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, and more.

In about 7th grade I decided to read something by each of them. Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island—wonderful! But some of them I could not wade through. I didn’t understand anything by Sir Walter Scott. His language was, simply put, incomprehensible.

Harp of the North! that mouldering long hast hung
On the witch-elm that shades Saint Fillan’s spring
And down the fitful breeze thy numbers flung,
Till envious ivy did around thee cling,
Muffling with verdant ringlet every string,—
O Minstrel Harp, still must thine accents sleep?
(The Lady of the Lake.)

Show me a 7th-grader who can understand that, and I’ll show you one weird little boy. Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, on the other hand, seemed like a Saturday-morning Roy Rogers movie at the Bluff Theater.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them . . .

When I was in 10th grade, I made a great literary discovery.

I had my first permanent paying church organist gig at Trinity Baptist Church in South Omaha. They didn’t use the American Baptist hymnal I was used to, but one of lesser quality, according to my dad and the organist at the First Baptist Church whom I was able, out of my organ-playing income, to pay for lessons (for which I am most grateful). The Service Hymnal, 1960—here on my shelf, embossed “Trinity Baptist Church, South Omaha, Nebraska.”

At number 468 I discovered one of the poems from “Authors” — “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). The music is by Sir Joseph Barnby (1838-1896), the through-composed rather than strophic tune composed specifically for this poem—words and music a marriage made in Victorian heaven.

I tried to get Trinity’s Pastor Weigel to schedule it for singing in the Sunday service, but he said since it didn’t mention God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus, it was not appropriate. I tried to argue that the “Pilot” in the last stanza means Jesus to no avail.

“Crossing the bar” is one of the few poems I memorized as a kid that remains even partly in my memory. Others include such gems as, “I think that I shall never see/ a poem lovely as a tree.” We were not into Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in Western Nebraska. I remember the Tennyson poem because I was mesmerized by that tune. My taste in both poetry and music has (perhaps) matured over the years.

Yesterday I was looking through pics on an external hard drive. Ocean scenes from Port Orford, Oregon, my favorite hideaway. I’ve written about Port Orford more than once and posted pics of the place here (in my previous post, for example).

Going through the hard drive led me to look up some of that writing about Port Orford. I recognize a subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 when I took the photos.

I must have 100 shots of sunsets and sunrises taken from the beaches at Port Orford. I remember taking the pictures because I was fascinated by differences in the appearance of the morning sky and of the evening sky. A couple of years before that in 2009 I wrote a piece about being on those same beaches.

[I] felt the hardened molecules under my feet and the molecules of and suspended in water. And out to the horizon, shrouded in fog. I knew the same molecules were pulsating together to make the waves, and the waves were conjoined with every other undulation of H2O, Ca, Mg, Na on the earth in one unbroken moving, life-filled, mass that seemed to my mind to be an enormity, but is in reality a speck in the eye of the universe. All one, including . . . my own body, and my mind somehow made up of the elemental universe undulating as far as I could see. And I was the focal point of the entire experience and at the same time unconditionally insignificant standing as an elemental part of the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep. . . I weep . . . for the joy I knew then and in the sorrow to know that one day I will simply be a part of the reality—not with a consciousness to love it and be sustained by it, but part only of the elemental structure.

A tad overblown, but in that writing six years ago, I found it necessary to nod in the direction of a belief that “God” or some other creative force was in charge of all of this. I was willing—no, anxious—to allow for the “hope to see my Pilot face to face” when I cross the bar (“a long ridge of sand . . . at the mouth of a river . . . an obstruction to navigation”).

Wonder wher the guy is--the only other person on the beach--who took my pic?

Wonder where the guy is–the only other person on the beach–who took my pic?

The subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 is that I no longer need to comfort myself thinking I will see the Pilot face to face when I cross the bar (I love the metaphor of death as “crossing” –and I don’t mean it as the nonsensical popular “transitioning”).

I am agnostic about whether or not my life will continue in some form after I die. I think not, most days. But I’m beginning to understand it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because, perhaps—and I don’t want to sound like a preacher or a guru or other sort of spiritual (or any other kind of) authority, sheesh!—figuring out in the few years I have left how to live simply as “a part of the reality” (to quote myself) is enough.

That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

“Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

The musical setting by Joseph Barnby.

Sunset, July 12, 2011. Paradise Point, Oregon.

Sunset, July 12, 2011. Paradise Point, Oregon.

sum link for other blog

“. . . like a mammy bending over her baby. . .” redux

Griff's on the Dock - please don't come here

Griff’s on the Dock – please don’t come here

On November 15, 2009, I wrote about a day alone on the beach at Port Orford, Oregon. I must stop writing about Port Orford, or everyone will rush there to get a tiny corner of the mystical experience—or at least the catch of the day at Griff’s on the Dock (swordfish steak the last time I was there). Then I’ll have to find another (ethereal, lovely, pleasing, rare, incomparable—because I’m not poet enough to find the right adjective) place to go to “sing myself. . . and invite my soul.”

Is that the height of ego, to make a link to my writing in the same paragraph with a link to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself?” (But this is a lecture with hyperlinks in place of footnotes, so if you want the full effect, you should follow them. Please, however, if you don’t click on any others, read the poem at the last one.)

I reread what I wrote on that November day and wonder. How I could write anything so overblown. How could I possibly post for all eternity (or at least until the internet disappears) such purple prose?  As I reread my writing, I am reminded of one of the most successful poems in English—not of Whitman’s extravagant genius.

My poem is by Joyce Kilmer (1886 –1918). That I know it proves I’m in my senescence. We memorized it in second grade. No teacher since about that time has read it to her class (if by some quirk of history she knows it). It’s not on any standardized test.

“Trees” (1913)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

You can enjoy the poem best in the 1939 recording by Paul Robeson—a “parlor song” by Oscar Rasbach, published in 1922. I don’t mean to make fun either of Kilmer (he died fighting in World War I) or of Rasbach. I simply use their work as the background for what I need to say this morning.

Star Dust

Star Dust

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” That is one of the best critiques of poetry (perhaps art in general) I know. Kilmer’s poem works brilliantly because it goes on to prove that a poem is not as beautiful as a tree. I know, I know, that’s silly. But true. The musical setting (which I first accompanied on the piano when I was in high school—it was even then a popular vehicle for amateur singers) is commensurate with the success of the poem.

My posting on November 15, 2009, originated in my growing, and by now nearly overwhelming, understanding that I am simply part of whatever it is that makes trees. I wrote that day a somewhat confusing and confused (because it’s based in lack of knowledge of physics, chemistry, and/or astronomy) description of my body as part of the inter-planetary dust that makes up the earth. Star dust, apparently.

The day I was walking the beach at Port Orford I understood a kind of connection with the physical world that I’ve known a very few times in the last 68 years. I felt a kind of bodily peace that resulted in a slowing of my mind and deep awareness both that I am alive and that I will soon enough die. I have blogged about that experience before (surprise—I’ve blogged about everything I think before), seeing Wind Cave in South Dakota when I was a kid. About being submersed in solid ground, not water.

This writing began in my mind as a discussion of the healing power of water. (I am as sentimental as Joyce Kilmer.) No, really. For seven months I have been walking almost every day in the therapy pool at the Tom Landry Fitness center at Baylor University Hospital. I’m not going to speculate about that too deeply here because I don’t know how. This writing would have begun there it I did.

What I know is this. I have met a small cadre of old folks like me, many of whom have much more serious physical problems than I. But we all walk, work out, exercise, do Yoga—you name it, we do it. And the water helps us heal—or, perhaps, it heals us. Someday I will find a way to explain. Of course, there’s the actual physical phenomenon. I walk (forward, backward, and sideways) for an hour. The water buoys me up so I do not damage my healing hip. The water provides resistance so I strengthen my muscles without straining.

But I get into some kind of meditative state that I cannot explain, that I don’t understand, that I would rather not talk about. It’s the same sense I had in Wind Cave and on the beach at Port Orford. Yesterday a metaphor came to mind. I won’t even try to say why. It would spoil it if I did.

It’s from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation.” OK, so I don’t believe in God, and I have no idea how to put my experience of life and the sureness of death together. But I somehow believe and understand

Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image
.

Perhaps there are poems lovely as trees.

Then he stopped and looked and saw That the earth was hot and barren. So God stepped over to the edge of the world And he spat out the seven seas --

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas —

“You would think I was some good, old, decent Christian, would you not?” –Robert Louis Stevenson.

It all began with Opus. You know Opus, the naïve, accidentally wise penguin in Berkeley Breathed’s comic strip, Bloom County, published from 1980 to 1989.

This nonsense all began with Opus:

the family R

I loved Opus because I wanted to be as clever as he was. I didn’t understand, of course, that in order to be that clever, one had to be more innocent and at the same time much smarter than I was in the ’80s or at any time before or since. One’s mind has to be clear enough to make simple deductions from bizarre evidence.

My penguin collection began in the late ‘80s. I used to have about 100 stuffed, ceramic, wood-carved, porcelain, and glass penguins (and a T-shirt), not counting the set of 8 Christmas eggnog glasses a friend gave me or the life-size blow-up doll Emperor Penguin another friend gave me. (All of my penguins were gifts except my first. I have bought only one penguin, ever. )

I jettisoned most of them awhile back, but I still have a few, and the glasses and the blow-up doll. And the T-shirt.

Do you recognize the logo?

Do you recognize the logo?

Except for my penguins, most of what I have in my apartment I consider myself to be holding in trust for someone else. Just who those folks are, I am not sure. My grandparents, my parents, my ex-wife Ann, my partner Jerry. Well, yes. Except all of those folks are deceased. So I don’t suppose they are going to come and collect their things.

The penguins in the picture are sitting (where they always sit) in front of a set of books—the works of Robert Louis Stevenson—a nicely bound edition published in 1930. They are held in a carved set of bookends from, I would guess, about the same time. I am holding both the books and the bookends in trust for my late partner Jerry.

The other day as I was working out the syllabus for my fall classes, I noticed the Stevenson books and remembered his story, “The Body-Snatcher.” It’s a wonderfully Victorian kinky story that would, I think, fit our topic, “Writing about the Grotesque.” It would be far easier to manage than Frankenstein. Then my mind wandered to the movie, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (not the 1978 remake but the original 1956 cult classic—which I know). I thought, “What a great remake of my class; discuss the differences (or similarities) between the Victorian and 1950s understanding of the ‘grotesque.’”  I think I’ll do it. (Thank goodness it’s on DVD at Netflix so I don’t have to watch on my computer!)

My students will obviously think both the story and the movie are grotesque because they’re so old-fashioned, but that’s their problem. They will find it hard to believe that Stevenson tried to keep his story from publication because he thought it was “blood-curdling enough—and ugly enough—to chill the blood of a grenadier.” Posters advertising the magazine that finally published it were taken down by the London police because they were so ghoulish and chilling.

I remembered that not too long ago I took a picture of the penguins with the Stevenson, so I opened my folder of recent pictures, and ???????????????????????????????there it was. I may even have used it here.  I don’t remember. The position of the photo in the folder struck me as wonderfully odd. It’s between a photo of my one of my favorite places in the US—the beach at Port Orford, Oregon—and myself wearing a shirt with a logo that, if you recognize it, you are probably of great interest to the NSA.

And the position of those pictures led me to thinking about the bizarre twists and turns one’s life can take. The geographic shifts are strange enough. Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in the ‘50s. Salem, Massachusetts, in the ‘80s. Dallas, Texas, in the ‘90s. Ramallah in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2003. Port Orford, Oregon, in 2010.

And now, piled together, churning in my mind at—I began this writing at 4:15 AM (perhaps that’s why I so often lose the point I was after in the middle of my writing)—I have penguins, Stevenson, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, Frankenstein, Jerry, Ann, and Opus. I’m going to blame Opus. It all began with Opus.

Rereading Stevenson, I remembered why I like his writing so much. Of course, it’s old-fashioned. But what style! I want to be able to describe my getting old in language as clear as Stevenson gives to old Fettes in the story.

“. . . it’s the rum you see in my face–rum and sin. This man, perhaps, may have an easy conscience and a good digestion. Conscience! Hear me speak. You would think I was some good, old, decent Christian, would you not? But no, not I; I never canted. Voltaire might have canted if he’d stood in my shoes; but the brains”—with a rattling fillip on his bald head—”the brains were clear and active, and I saw and made no deductions.”

The brains were clear and active, and I saw and made no deductions. And a good, old, decent Christian I am not.

I know this is copyrighted. If the owner wants me to remove it, I will gladly do so.

I know this is copyrighted. If the owner wants me to remove it, I will gladly do so.