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A Piedmont Pilgrim’s Progress


1. Rivanna Ramble

 

Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,

Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.*

—Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock


On wooded earth we make our way

On pathways opened since the day

Of Anna “whom three realms obey.”

Men fell the trees, brown cows appear,

Black milkmaids churn the butter here.

Citizens fight for freedom where

In a confused pharaonic time

Its slaves embank the railroad line.

Life and liberty love the sun;                        

Soon Civil War and Custer come.

Then golf shows up, and kudzu shoots

Along the track—aliens sink roots,

Much like the lot who came before,

And stop till time can care no more.


 

*Pronounced “tay” in the eighteenth century.



The Rivanna River, or River Anna, named for Queen Anne (r. 1702-14), a tributary of the James River in central Virginia, has its source in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. On February 29, 1864, Union cavalry under General George Armstrong Custer (of later Little Bighorn notoriety) crossed the Rivanna near the Earlysville–Charlottesville road, leading to a skirmish extravagantly called “the battle of Rio Hill.”



2. Going too far, but not really meaning it*


“Say the word, straight I unstop the Full-Organ, / Blare out the mode Palestrina.”—Robert Browning


I often went too far and usually

Meant to mean it. If impossible

I’m surely not to blame! And you,

Girls and women, known or unknown,

Did you not really do the same?

You may well admit it, now grown!

“Down it dips, gone like a rocket!”

“Do I carry the moon in my pocket”


*This title is the definition of “Exhibitionism” in Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do by James Thurber and E. B. White (1929).


A nod to Robert Browning for the quoted double entendres, lifted from his poem “Master Hughes of Saxe-Gotha.” He surely didn't intend them to be risqué but can hardly be embarrassed by my robbery, having died in 1889.



3. Iterative Imperfect

Fortune might haply in his case

Have granted him Tom Stoppard’s race:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Are as dead as the dumb can get

And so they cannot beat Hamlet.

For much as imitators may strive,

Metatheater's mostly just jive.

Failing an oeuvre to produce

While editing a myriad books

Was a mistake you may deduce.

He’d squandered charismatic looks,

And then they let him go, the snooks!

Bewildered by the way his chances lagged,

He zigged when he should have zagged.



4. The Why of How


“It is equally undesirable to think oneself a poet and to think that one is not a poet. That is something that we never find out.”—T. S. Eliot, Letters, 7: 333

«Le Pourquoi du comment» is how they put that in France,

Where it’s the name of a radio program.

Desirability is surely not the mistress of our thoughts,

and I have mixed feelings about Eliot,

a monument to his own genius, trapped in his age, as we are trapped in ours. He said new things, but weren't they what we already knew?So it's always been, even for Shakespeare.

He said new things, but they were what we already knew?

I think I might be a poet and think at the same moment that I'm wrong,

hope that and don’t hope it—for being a poet is a very serious matter, something like being, not the captain,

but the very junior officer on the Titanic who gets to hand the ladies into the lifeboats. And then drowns.

Envoi

“A cook they hadde with hem for the nones / To boille the chiknes with the marybones.”—Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Prologue


5. Certitude


Few minds will come to this.

The poet’s only bliss

Is in cold certitude—

Laurel, archaic, rude.

--Yvor Winters, “On Teaching the Young”


I’ve never had an IQ test;

And never shall—it would, no doubt,

Expose me as another fool,

Whom I could gladly live without!

 

Poetry leads me to suspect

What I might sensibly suppose;

Loving silence is my rule,

The best of tactics no one knows!



6. The Red Maple


Spring 2022


You’re green, tree,

you’re green, and leaves

will hide your wound;

that broken branch


storm severed, now,

snagged topsy-turvy

on a nearby bough,

will drop somehow.


And we, green also,

in this refracted “all,”

spy the selva oscura

and coming fall:


our fractal futures

pierce the sky;

some part may live,

but part will die.


Green, Lorca says,

I wish you to be:

green the mountain,

green the sea.


Envoi


"What is it that Eliot says, Fare forward? So we must.”—Robert Lowell to Allen Tate, May 13, 1974



Notes: The selva oscura: Dante, Divine Comedy: Inferno 1.2: “mi ritrovai per una selva oscura” (I found myself in a dark wood); “Lorca”: Federico García Lorca’s “Romance sonámbulo”: “Verde que te quiero verde. / Verde viento. Verdes ramas. / El barco sobre la mar y el caballo en la montaña.”



7. Imitatio Housmanii


Winter 2023


Opening views of the rail line,

Clad in sweet-all for wintertime.

Acer platanoides,* nude now,

Front the “back forty” anyhow,

 

Of these my fourscore years and four,

A bonus after threescore and ten,

The fourteen past are, too, no more.

I need to know  when to say “When!”        

 

So, tho’ to gaze on railway trains

Consoles bemused archaic brains,

Toward the library I haste;

Finding words won’t be a waste!

 

*Acer platanoides = Norway maples—invasive aliens like everything else in this backyard.



Tip o’ the tablet to the Shropshire lad A. E. Housman (1859–1936).


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