Pale in winter black –
Rapid drum blasts open up
A path for her voice.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Oregon rain. More specifically, about the rain and a folk song it led me back too.
I’d previously written about music and rain. Back in Ireland, one particularly wet December led me to draw up a list of rain songs.
Write what you know, they say. And as an Irishman who now lives in Portland, I know rain – from the anticyclonic squalls that tear over Ireland in the winter to the 1.7 inches that fell on the Rose City in a single day this week.
This morning, as the rain fell on the window and the coffee brewed, I pulled a book from a shelf – a collection of poems by Raymond Carver.
Carver knew rain. Born in Clatskanie, Oregon, about 60 miles north of Portland, he spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest. Along with his stories, some well known, and screenplays, he also wrote poetry. Inevitably, as an Oregonian, one of these poems features precipitation.
“Rain” is a short work about risks and the need to make mistakes, about giving over to chance. The weather may just be a framing device but, like an Oregon winter, it’s all around.
In lieu of songs about the weather, then, here’s a poem about it. Let it rain, without regrets.
Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.
Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.
Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.
Nothing speaks of mortality more,
Than a 2000-year-old body laid on the floor.
Or the brevity of our earthly years,
Than a hammered cavity where once was an ear.
Strangled and stabbed, though a princely rake,
Gallagh Man didn’t get much of a break.
Killed to appease his enemies’ hatred,
He’s now wound up in tourists’ gazes.
Yet his somber lesson speaks plainly still,
Of life and death, of good and ill.
But for all sober thoughts of mortality,
I’m mainly glad it’s him, not me.
(In memory of Elva Looney)
We will light a candle for you tonight,
Though we’re apart.
A light that will shine across the short years,
That will light the days and nights
When we couldn’t turn to you, see you, or hear your voice.
And we’ll know that, from somewhere peaceful, looking on,
Your light shines back.
My mental image of the poet Robert Frost is of an elderly man shuffling through autumn leaves on a New England laneway, staring over a broken fence, or picking an apple and dropping it to the ground.
His work has always struck me as dense and a little too didactic, with life lessons deeply embedded in every stanza. I’ve long since passed him over in favor of other poets whose writing on the natural world seemed more attuned to my own ear.
Two of these are Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. To my surprise a joint work of theirs, the 1982 anthology ‘The Rattle Bag’, led me back to Frost this week.
Cometh the hour, cometh the curators. ‘The Rattle Bag’ is a collection of Heaney and Hughes’ favorite poems, and among the 350 or so are seven works by Frost.
One in particular spoke to me, and speaks to anyone undergoing changes and dealing with the occasional adversities that accompany them.
‘On A Tree Fallen Across A Road’ is a reality check, a sonnet which reminds us that, regardless of the circumstances, people will always find a way past. “The only thing I knew how to do was keep on keeping on,” Bob Dylan once advised. From one of those autumnal New England laneways Frost says something similar.
‘On A Tree Fallen Across A Road’
The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are
Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an ax.
And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole
And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.
Lights, crowds, families,
”Tis the season’ they sing.
Winter watches on.
I am walking with my family after Sunday lunch, along a pathway running through pine trees and around low, swampy ponds. The air smells like the sea, mixed with the scent of eagle fern. The sun is bright and high.
As we walk deeper into the woods a view of the North Slob – the mud flats at the entrance to Wexford Harbour – opens up through the brambles. Eventually the path gives way to the open dunes of the Point itself, an expanse of low grass, sand and an immense, wide sky, framed by the Irish Sea on one side and the town of Wexford, distant on the other.
Returning to Raven Point last weekend it was re-assuring to see the same pine trees over the path, the same heavy green water in the ponds. Amid the changes of 30 years Raven Point stands constant.
Stopping on the edge of the water, at the tip of the Point and surrounded only by sea, sand and sky, it could have been 30 or even 100 years earlier.
The view shared something of the “beauteous forms” praised by William Wordsworth as he looked upon Tintern Abbey:
Oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet…
While the forms remain the people have changed. The six-year-old who came to Raven Point three decades ago lives on only in the memories of those who shared the walk that day. The years since have been full, often happy but not without sadness.
But Raven Point is not a place to re-live memories. It is not frozen in time. The Point was formed as a spit, and its sands are moving all the time – new flats, lagoons and dunes form and fade. The path across the sands is never the same twice.
Nonetheless at moments there is a connection here, in the light and the wind, to people who’ve gone – my younger self, the loved ones who walked the path and are no longer here to revisit it.
And so I was grateful to visit once more last weekend, to stand on the shore with my wife and think of another line from Wordsworth’s poem, thankful for this place, my past and my family.
Sometimes he sits in a small studio and sings –
About old wagons, booze, work, justice and its absence,
Pain and fear and retribution,
And joy too.
About the real stuff that keeps us awake in the night.
Dave Van Ronk brought the message.
Others took it but he carried it out before them – a small, constant light.
He held it in basements, coffeehouses, on Village streets, and he passed it to others.
Such small things – one man’s life, one man’s talent – rarely register.
The song ends. The world moves on.
But those who knew, knew. Some then and some now.
Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. Cocaine Blues. You Been A Good Old Wagon.
He Was A Friend Of Mine.