Entry for February 04, 2006

SHANNON WAMSLEY TALKS ABOUT THE  SAGO MINE DISASTER

 

When the lightning strikes I shatter Elton’s coffee cup.

Venus visible this week, the moon  new, 

I’d been staring out across the black, rinsing breakfast dishes.

I’d never seen the likes of such, this time of year.

I race down to the mine, my mind a-swirl like

the Buckhannon River. Lightning’s queer in January here.

 

Elton stands there, face black, but safe and sound.

I’m bound to joke,  say some trite thing

about our lives cheating the blast,

when Anna, last of the wives comes up crying

Elton’s face goes slack before trying some

comfort,  sharing some word of hope he’s heard.

.

I realize her Randy’s still trapped and my own heart

goes cold inside my quilted vest, Christmas plunder

Elton’s coal wages bought. “The wages of sin”  comes to mind

I try to shake the thought, but how?

I have my husband. The others wait.

How can you sort happiness from guilt?

 

Guilt and thanks–what if it had been a normal day?

His crew waited ten minutes for a buggy big enough to take them in.

Ten minutes, I hear Elton say, he’d have been round that turn.

Ten minutes,  he’d been trapped inside.

Ten minutes, I’d be waiting with the other wives

Ten minutes, if it had been a normal day.

 

Elton says when it starts getting hot, he never does see fire.

Just hears this roar and feels a rushing wind.

Heat and soot, dust and smoke  keep coming

clammy air where you can’t make out your hand or breathe.

Monitors beep and blink and men fear they’re fixed to die

and all the time, this rushing wind. He says you feel your way along.

 

Sitting in his truck holding vigil, I can’t help but fit my pinky to the hollow

of Elton’s cheek.  At two a.m– I must have nodded off–I wake a-shiver

not from cold, but from how long the other wives must wait and wonder..

In the dim light a sliver of moon provides,

I stare as Elton snores, for a moment deep in sleep.

I used to fret his noise had woke me up.

 

#

 

The illustration is from the Farmer’s Almanac.  That’s what the moon looked like by January 3, 2000.  The poem is the one I sent yesterday to Verbal Events, the quarterly compilation of poems in progress by those of us who studied with Bill Stafford back in 1985 at Atlantic Center for the Arts..  Francine Sterle had kind things to say about the poem when she received it and since I admire her work,, I thought I’d go ahead and post the poem, along with the discussion I sent her.  Feel free to chime in on the discussion.

 

#

 

I tried to capture a sense of the protagonist  from the interview she did, along with her husband, with CNN.  “Plunder” is an old-time regional usage, she didn’t use.  Nor did she use “fret”.  Hope the perfect iambic pentameter of the last line didn’t go over the edge.     Had to imagine a few details–the kitchen scene, the truck scene, of course, which makes me wonder about using her name.  On the other hand, not using seems like theft.  Your thoughts? 

 

*

 

Of course, Eliot would have recommended theft, I suppose, but, he’s not such a nice fellow.  As Virginia Wolf said of him to Roger Fry, May 18, 1923  

That strange figure Eliot dined here last night. I feel that he has taken the veil, or whatever monks do…Tom, though infinitely considerate [of his wife], is also perfectly detached. His cell, is I’m sure, a very lofty one, but a little chilly. We have the oddest conversations: I can’t help loosing some figure of speech, which Tom pounces on and utterly destroys.  

Another curmugeon than Eliot, but one who wrote more plainly, said something funnier about him.  This from Robert Frost, as reported in The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer, pg. 321 (1940)

 

Eliot and I have our similarities and our differences. We are both poets and we both like to play. That’s the similarity. The difference is this: I like to play euchre. He likes to play Eucharist. 

Here’s a story about Frost’s dark side in  the lengthly article which our loved Bill Stafford wrote August 18, 1974, entitled “The Terror of Robert Frost, which the New York Times republished April 25, 1999.

 Lesley Frost has told about a midnight scene when she as a child awoke to find her father waving a revolver toward her mother, and threatening: “Take your choice. Before morning, one of us will be dead.” 

Bill also recounted the “Eucher” story, but attributes it as follows: 

Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant in her “Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence” reports one such utterance: “Know what the difference is between me and T.S. Eliot? I play euchre. He plays Eucharist. We both play.”

Bill also has something to say about Frost’s teaching, which might be of interest to those of us who studied with Stafford or read his books on creative writing.

 

Frost’s poetic unorthodoxy had a direct link to his unorthodoxy in the classroom. “Don’t work — worry,” he said to his students. He dreaded grading. He often urged students to buckle down less. He tried tagging students with their grades on the first day of class, an then allowing them to come in to persuade him, if they could, to change the grade. He asked if students wanted papers returned, and if they hesitated he swept the papers into the wastebasket. When forced to give a final exam at the University of Michigan, Frost simply asked his students to write down what they had got from the course. Later, he reported to a friend that one student said he hadn’t gotten a damned thing out of the course and that the student had received a B. Asked why not an A, Frost said the student misspelled “damned.”

 

In his book “Robert Frost Speaks,” Daniel Smythe cites many Frost utterances that revealed the poet’s cavalier attitude toward teaching and toward “the rules.” For instance, Frost did not believe in investigating something in order to write about it: “You know, we don’t need to be original or inventive. You don’t need to find new things. Just take the old things you find about you, the things people have known all their lives, and say them with your style.” Nor did he believe that poetry should be studied: “You go to school to learn to read. The further you go the more you have the attitude that everything is to study. That is the danger. Once a person has learned to read, once he has gotten the flavor of it, he should just let it rest.”

 

Years earlier when he had begun to teach, he had written on the board what identifies that attitude:

“To be read — to be enjoyed. Not studied — not skimmed.”

 

 

 

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