The great Bill Holm died last week. Today the Star Tribune reprinted Minnesota poet Barton Sutter's wonderful poem
"Not Sleeping at Bill Holm's House." I'm going to take the liberty of copying it here:
Not Sleeping at Bill Holm's House
In the corner of my narrow room,
There's a double-barreled shotgun,
Which will not go off in this poem.
Reclining on the bedclothes:
A small stuffed bear and pink flamingo,
Which I set aside. Turning back the spread,
I am greeted by red flannel sheets
Bearing a Frosty the Snowman motif.
This bed is too loud to sleep on, and I am
Too wired with coffee and wild ideas to dream
But settle in, anyhow, with a volume by Sandburg,
A poet far better than I had remembered,
Who talks of the tombs and the grass
And passengers rocketing into the dark
Toward strange destinations, like Omaha.
What could be stranger than Omaha?
I'm a passenger, myself, in this crooked old house
Full of books and the ghosts of hot arguments.
Where are we going? The clock says two,
And, out in the yard, a barred owl asks, Who?
Who are you? I answer that I am
A passenger on the Minnesota Express,
Bound for points west -- Canby and Mars.
I can hear, in the next compartment, my comrade,
My host, the polar bear of American literature,
Cough and hack and growl in his sleep,
Which I envy. I can't count sheep
Or the number of books in this house.
In the outer room, a harpsichord waits
As patiently as a horse-drawn cab
In a story of Sherlock Holmes.
Who done it? Who knocked me out?
And how did it get to be daylight
And Bill banging out hymns
On the downstairs piano, just now
That sweet Shaker tune
"Tis a Gift to be Simple"? Tis! Tis!
Tis also a gift to be complex and ornery,
With a house full of music,
Cigar smoke and whiskey,
And Icelandic sagas
Preserved by farmers
For nearly a thousand years.
The poem appears in Sutton's most recent book of poems, "Farewell to the Starlight in Whiskey." Isn't it wonderful? Like his other writing, it is simple, direct, and particular.
Here's a favorite, "The Life" from Sutter's
Pine Creek Parish Hall and other poems.
We've done a full day's work
And feel no need for talk.
We sit outside, enjoy the view,
And listen to the crickets
Turn their tiny ratchets.
The mourning doves repeat
Their soft, persistent prayer:
Who? Who? Who?
There's a not of sadness in it,
But you couldn't say despair.
The moon comes up like the host
In the hands of a priest.
This is the resurrection.
The sun goes down, the moon
Comes up. I crack another beer
And hand it to the wife.
Isn't this the life?
In a chain of poetry, this reminds me of James Wright's
"Lying In a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota." These poems of cowbells and mourning doves, chicken-hawks and the rising moon sound exotic to city ears, but they are the quotidian, the daily, the humble, observed with a poet's eye.
I don't know a tremendous number of poems. Most of them I came upon when I was much younger, more daring. It takes great daring to read poetry, and after life has beaten on our heads for a while, many of us lose our taste. But like the atheist who clings to a small remembrance of god when she wants someone to thank, these poems and poets straighten my spine, put the gleam back in my eye, and give me someone to thank. Or at least to nod my head in agreement as they say Thanks, to life, to the Great Mystery. These aren't the Best Poems of All Time. They are the best poems of my time.
In fact, I have to laugh, and tell you some things that will temper this all with humor: to find some of these favorites I turn to a book of poetry I hand copied in 9th grade for a school project. Hand copied because I didn't have a typewriter -- though some additional poems are tucked into the booklet, typed on Corrasable Bond (the poor typists's salvation, erasable typing paper) and a few -- wait for it -- dittoed collections of poetry; two or three pages of dittoed Emily Dickenson, Edgar Lee Masters, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dylan Thomas. I am so old! I know what ditto meant before the dittoheads! Crikey, and I don't think they teach those poets any more, so this has really become my own little trip down memory land. Excuse me. Allow me a moment to drift forward from 1970. . . And true confession, along with the aforementioned and John Masefield and e. e. cummings, there is one -- only one! -- poem by Rod McKuen. Those of you who don't know who Rod McKuen is, never mind. Those who do -- hey, I was young!
I was a young person with a heart wide open. I needed someone to thank, and I still do.
So finally, just one day too late, let me add another poem that has straightened my spine many times: Carl Sandburg's "Potomac Town in February." A strong poem for a hard month.
Potomac Town in February
The bridge says: Come across, try me;
see how good I am.
The big rock in the river says: Look at me;
learn how to stand up.
The white water says: I go on; around, under,
over, I go on.
A kneeling, scraggly pine says: I am here yet;
they nearly got me last year.
A sliver of moon slides by on a high wind calling:
I know why; I'll see you tomorrow; I'll tell you