Letter to Ron Atkinson

Dear Ron,

You are gone. I knew that you were gone, but I did not know when you left. My attempts to find you over the years were insufficiently calibrated. I could have found you. That I did not is one of my life’s deep regrets.

This letter is in part an apology. And in part, it is a note of gratitude.

Ron I’m sorry that my efforts to connect with you while you were alive did not lead to a meeting. They could have, and they did not. I think you would tell me “so it goes,” and you would be right, but also, I would have enjoyed talking to you. I thought about you and your poetry a lot in my life. I have not connected well with my teachers in this life. Late – and possibly too late, truth be told – I feel it as a real loss.

When I was about sixteen I started sharing my poems publicly. In high school, in English class, we had to share and analyze a poem with the class, and I chose one that I had written. In response, the teacher gave me two of your chapbooks. She told me you had visited the school years ago. I had no concept of what a poet was, outside of history; the picture of you in tie dye with your daughter felt oddly familiar to me. You looked happy and clear. Later I learned that you had lived in Worthington around the time I was adopting all kinds of psychological survival strategies in response to the ongoing crisis of family, many of which strategies involved the local hippie and back-to-the-earth culture in which you were embedded.
You were kin to me; I knew this early, even if I lacked the words to say it.
Your poems frightenened me and the fear fascinated me. I couldn’t stop reading them. Prior to your example I thought poems had to rhyme and be otherwise formal, include reference to God and nature, all of which reflected a kind of psychic distance from life and the world. Your poems blew that model up. I hid the books because I knew if my parents found them I wouldn’t be allowed to read them, and I was terrified of going without them. I didn’t realize how hungry I was for an intimate language until I read your poems. I didn’t realize what poetry could actually do until I read them.
Because suddenly, the world was changed – suddenly anything and everything could go into a poem. No idea or image was unwelcome. Whatever I felt, no matter how scary or disturbing, no matter how dramatic or nonsensical, could be put into words and onto the page. It was a way of being engaged with life that I had not known was possible, and it literally saved me. It was like I’d been in a straitjacket bobbing in the sea, expecting to sink and drown at any moment, and suddenly I could swim. Suddenly there were all these islands, all these currents. Suddenly there were benevolent whales,  take your chances pirate ships, and multi-lingual octopuses.
It was hard to believe this world was real; my hunger for it was instantly legendary.
Your poems were mystical, profane, argumentative, irrational and beautiful. They declared their love for the cosmos and they celebrated that love. They were sexual and messy and comic. They were drunken ramblings, psychedelic hymns to gods so far outside the familar as to look like devils.
They were (as for me, in this life, all poems must be) a map to survival – notes to the lost and forsaken about how to remember to be happy, salvage connections, really see the world in all its complex beauty, and how to remain true to your own truth, no matter how violently your family and community and the world at large tried to strip you of the grace, creativity and freedom that are inherent in all creation.
Suddenly I knew what the art was, and I swore myself to it forever, and the art and the vow saved me.
And Ron, I wish to holy fuck I could have let you know this before you died. You taught me that writing would save me, and I believed you and I was saved. You took the vow – the vow was evident in every line you wrote – and I took it as well. This life was never easy – it still is not easy – but in it I was able to be companionate, religious, and wordy. I gave myself – however ineptly – to the way of truth and love. I am a poor pilgrim and a crappy priest but I did not break faith.
I did not let our shared gods down, and I did not let you – my first real teacher, my first real poet – down.
You said yes to living – despite the great pains and tragedies you faced, especially the death of your beautiful daughter – and your “yes” became the model for my “yes.” I am more grateful than I can say but still. I would have liked to try.
I understand that at a nontrivial level, this failure to meet is ordained by the cosmos, because in the deeper way we did meet, are forever entwined as teacher and student, as brothers even, and that that level trumps by far the shallower level of appearance and experience. I get that. I know that we are talking about something here that in the ultimate sense is not personal but cosmic, that is in truth Love Itself.
And I know, too, that you might not see it that way. My path turned towards a form of spiritual healing, and the healing owned both an epistemological and a theological component that were Christian, New Age-y, and often imitative, especially of Hinduism. The language I use now, with which I have some basic fluency, and through which I am able to share my “yes” – albeit clumsily, falteringly – with the world may not have been your language. I never found any other poems by you; I have no idea how your work evolved, what it became. I accept that. Students move on, teachers let them go. It doesn’t really matter.
Anyway. This blog post stunting as a letter is not enough, but we both know what is enough, and we both gave – both give – our hearts to it. Our shared bodies of work – mostly anonymous, mostly minor – are enough. Little lights will do, everybody forgets this. Thank you my brother, my teacher, my fellow traveler for letting me know the way forward. No darkness abides.
Thank you. A thousand times, thank you.
Categorized as Exposition

December Poems

December writing happens mostly in the dark, after prayer and before work. Liminal, lumious, labial. I thought there would be eight poems but was wrong. It’s okay. The season, not the holiday. Writing, not the writing. 

I thought often of those who share the way with me, some of whom want more than I can give, most of whom I want but cannot find a way to remain congruent with. Chrisoula and I got clear, then clearer. There is always another level of fear, always another error. That too is okay. Knowing where to lay one’s tongue is all the heaven a body needs. Act and adapt accordingly!
At night in the hayloft I gazed east across fields of stars gazing down at fields of snow, all of it terminating in a mutable horizon. Winter gazes back, it always has. Love undoes our fear of the void. Beyond the one who gazes, God, and beyond God, Love. No big thing, also the only thing, et cetera.
I remember the suffering of those who share my body, and in this way reach the end of time. Or rather, the mutability of time. Somebody somewhere wants me to learn something. Lean into something? Reality is a story telling itself to itself over and over is not the worst way to understand reality. There are others of course but sooner or later you dance with the one who brung ya.
Aunt Muriel said that. There’s a time to play and be a child, there’s a time to work and be an [elder brother or sister] or [whatever]. Family was the way but isn’t any longer, don’t lose the thread. No sooner does Jesus comfort you then you remember he isn’t here to comfort you but rather someone else through you. Give it up woman! I wish I could extend to you the gift you give me in eternity but I’m at the beginning still, a child still, I’m learning how to tie my shoes and butter my own toast. Still. 
My mother read Wordsworth to me when I was little. Wordsworth and Keats and Ladies Home Journal. Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and Grey Sprite the Silver Knight. Nobody was happier when I began to try my voice. Nobody ruined my body harder in order to point beyond it. In the presence of the snake, one learns quickly to be charming. “You can’t handle the truth,” and other bromides that may or may not be helpful on your knees behind the church.
And poetry, always poetry.
Categorized as Poems

Welcome to the Anthology

Waiting on snow, nothing left to do. In Advent we study homelessness, the condition of the one who cannot help but seek God.
Sighing alone and with others.
In the attic sweeping bat shit, studying briefly the knife my father’s father gave him, which he gave to me, which has not been sharpened in decades.
We name our lovers, we grow our own food, we buy nothing new.
We are not afraid of each other.
Making coffee in morning darkness, going outside with it to say goodbye to the stars, carry hay to the horses, gaze at frozen gardens, and remember – or forget to remember – to pray.
Alert to what communes with us in order to be brought forth through us.
We make love in early darkness, the world a husk, the whole world floating away, oh Lord make me worthy of your daughter.
Beyond all promises, beyond all vows: beyond all beginnings. Forgiving the child in me who became the young man treasuring hurt and anger in me who became the husband who refused all plowshares in me, who is forgiven in me. Alleluia, alleluia.
Melanie says I should publish more and I laugh, what’s so funny she asks, I tell her the truth, the cosmos is publishing me, it publishes everything, welcome to the anthology I say, welcome to the shared sentence of life, rejoice!
Categorized as Poems

The Goddess of Snow Flurries

Forehead to the window, promising myself I won’t indulge yet another crucifixion, which posture is only necessary because of this ongoing self-deception. How bright the stars become when one is confused about where and how else to look for God! Yet all lost dogs find a home, or so I was told and yet choose to believe. Turning in all directions a long time to confirm that direction still exists. Is there in fact another way? Stumbling happily past trimmed-back raspberries, early December, the Goddess of Snow Flurries masturbating in moonlight, coming all over me. Family is the nightmare from which we must awaken, sex may not be the answer. What happened to everything not being reduced to a single image? Why are all the screens suddenly filled with local adaptations queering a great love in order to more broadly disseminate it? We open out into the cosmos, the true monastery is the heart, evangelist convert thyself. We learn to hold each other by opening our arms and leaning in. The other is always you. These are ideas yes but ideas are made of light and light is love. Flake upon flake advancing a storm we cannot help but open to as Christ. 
Categorized as Poems

Eloquent Bones

Prismatic frost, praise these old eyes praising the new morning. The familiar adage needs a minor edit to be correct, beauty is the eye of the beholder. Shivering in sneakers and no jacket, the old trick of facing winter unadorned works yet again. How still the morning is, and how cold! A crow calls to another crow on the far side of the river and it’s like the whole twentieth century crying out for forgiveness in me. What breaks, what cannot, ever. What breathes. The heart a bell, the body a steeple wandering back and forth across the earth, our shared church. As later we touch gently in the pantry, leaning into each other to warm each other, remind each other we are not alone, cannot be, ever. Advent is for crumbling, letting go of seeking, and rethinking altogether Bethlehem and its famous manger. Yeats in his grave is eloquent bones. Between a tree falling in the snowy forest and its decoration hours later, a single inhalation, and this: this this.

Categorized as Poems

A Generous Extension of the Original Contract

Lucifer is complicated, and you are complicit, stop pretending otherwise. Stop doing this to yourself, do something different with yourself. Thoughts in a diner, writing by hand, a part of the country I know exists but don’t recognize – when did this happen? Driving below the speed limit through moonlight alone in the Smoky Mountains. This is pushing sixty. The ones who allowed, the ones who didn’t and the One Who is Here, always, teaching me.
What is the story your therapist is telling? Is it a story you could tell yourself or a story that teaches you that you are the teller? Remember poems when all that mattered was writing them down and that was all that mattered? Moonlight slipping through striating pine trees in a nearly silent forest. The river rushing its banks and falling back all the way south and east to the sea. Secrets. Seasons? Well, healing anyway. It matters – what matters – if you have to ask – .
Equal and the same are subtly different designations, they produce different worlds, study the nomenclature carefully. Praxis arises from theory, theory from belief, and belief is a response to fear. There is less time to screw around than you think. Your grandmothers knew things you didn’t, they tried to teach you, you mostly forgot. It’s not a crisis but we do seem to need to know, who owns failure? Waiting for Chrisoula in the car while she shops for yarn, praying a rosary. Sunday again, in the Church of the Quietly Joyful again. Church of the Foolish? Well, doing what works again. Not settling so much as consenting to a generous extension of the original contract. Four a.m., moonlight in the toilet, pissing anyway, happier than once seemed possible.
Categorized as Poems

How Hope Enters the World

Snow falls all night and into the morning. I’m going to die soon. It feels like a competition, who can outlive who. Why did so much in this life have to be so hard? Listening to Chrisoula breathe while the light changes. She shifts, pulls the blanket closer, her leg grazes mine: this is how hope enters the world. Murmuring hosannas, forgetting the words. In the end all that’s left to let go of is the idea that letting go is valuable. The flakes drifting, not driven. Hemlocks stirring in slight breezes like whispering in church. Will it hurt? Be traumatic? I remember deer in glades in the forest, trout suspended in the glassy pools of Bronson Brook. I remember my father’s exasperation with me hunting and how seductive my mother could be when it was only the two of us. Even Advent will be gone. Even Christ. What is the world when you are no longer in it? Remember confessing and the puzzling absence of absolution after? Snow through afternoon, deep into the night. The heart refuses all caskets, what else is living for. Holding open the book a little longer, grateful and happy, in a way that like dying is not at all mysterious. 

Categorized as Poems

The Ninety-Nine

There are neither curses nor promises, only poiesis. I was a boy when they asked me to enter the forest alone. Trout strangling on the river bank, deer pausing on the ridge above the clearing. It matters, knowing how to make a fire. Crows everywhere, beautiful and terrible. “You fix this,” said Dad because his mother had lost her youngest sister, who was a child, to a hurricane and said to Dad when he was a boy, “you fix this.” You want peace, learn that only violence, not peace, can be personal. All this suffering, all this conflict. Where the river parts the distant hills, light appears. What did the ninety-nine think when the shepherd left to seek the one? All morning writing, translating body into mind, and mind into a prism, yours. Ten thousand years after the wedding we find the marriage bed and rest in it together. What is beautiful, what is terrible. What happens when you reach the prohibition on naming Her? Together we make a forest, together we are a trail. The found are a lantern unto those who believe in loss. It’s not silence but stillness, and it’s not stillness either, but still. Praise unto the one who showed me how to lay this body down. Chrisoula whispering here, Chrisoula whispering now.

Categorized as Poems

What to Make with a Body

Always the belief that something was missing. Later the unanswerable question what do you lack. And then this stillness, both terrible and beautiful. 
What is haunted, what is no longer.
Icicles melting on the back porch roof, cardinals preening in the side yard lilac. 
For a long time I thought that knowing something was missing meant it was here in the form of knowledge which I possessed and could use but the error now is clear. 
We made love under apple trees at the end of summer, under the watchful eyes of the blind Appaloosa our daughter serves. I am warmed by this in early winter. 
Bronson brook flowed through a dark forest, cool and damp. Even in hottest summer it was hard to make or sustain a fire. 
I’m confused about fathers again but don’t worry, it’s good to have something familiar to write about. It’s not a crisis, not knowing what to make with a body, this or any other.
Upper Highland Lake, given. Fitzgerald Pond where we walked together to the Country of Turtles, given. 
The Country of Turtles, given.
Owls in winter alone in the deep forest, given.
Learning what comes after fear, given. After what the dogs knew, after what the calf saw, tangled in bracken at midnight and, later, choking to death on brandy in the basement. 
What is given, gifted, what cannot be, ever.
The boy who is often hurt, always scared, the men that boy becomes. 
After grace. After samsara.
After liberation. 
I was stranded in Vermont, I see that now. Vermont was not my home, I have no home. 
I see that now.
I am here with you now, that is all I want now. 
What promises in me is taken in the dust behind the church of what is holy in you. Made briefly perfect in you. 
What cannot be transgressed or transmuted in you.
What is answered in you, what cannot be, ever. 
Categorized as Poems

The End of Threads

In Advent owls come out of the forest to rest all day in maple trees behind the pasture. Sentinels, emissaries. Revenants. Language is no longer the answer nor even especially helpful. Irish Setters from childhood, nobody suffered more. Sunday afternoon in the hayloft, potatoes and grains stored everywhere, books everywhere. Ten thousand prisms. She removes her clothing gazing out a north-facing window, full of light. The end of seeking, the end of threads, but not the end of being given to her giving herself. Bethlehem and its famous manger are not the condition of peace to which they point. It took me lifetimes to understand this, I’m sorry. Moving gently in each other, the many mountains in us moving slowly to the sea. Earlier at dawn beside the river dark water flowed between ice-covered stones. I was here once and knelt. I was here once and left, wandered a long time before stumbling back, wingless and poor. From a distance now I watch the one who bends toward her thighs, whispering “almost there, almost there.”

Categorized as Poems