I write poems, at least in part, because of my father, a veterinarian who began his education in a cramped one-room schoolhouse in Bucknersville, Kentucky, during the 1930s. His teacher, a young woman fresh from a two-year teacher’s college asked the students to memorize and recite poems, an activity my father adored and continued to practice throughout his long life.
When I was a boy growing up in Elkhart, Indiana, while my father and I hosed down the kennel runs or he performed surgery to repair a dachshund’s perforated colon or a Doberman’s shattered femur, he’d deliver up a Shakespearean sonnet or a few lines from Keats, Wordsworth, or Longfellow, all the time giving brusque and urgent directives. (There wasn’t a moment to waste in a small animal practice, so poetry was braided into the everyday bustle.)
Everywhere around the clinic, poems were declaimed as he moved from one chore to the next, his quick strides nearly impossible to keep up with, although he expected me to be at his side as he offered instructions in the art of using a fecal loop or taught me to identify a particular kind of worm that might live in some Rottweiler’s intestinal tract.
I imagine many of the dogs and cats were sent home richer for the verse that washed around their ears, especially if he had to clean out ear mites or some other parasite making a home in one orifice or another.
His voice, as he recited, was rich and soothing, full of the passion (and often compassion) the poems he most loved possessed. Sometimes as he spoke his eyes would slowly shut, as if he wished to be transported, not only in spirit but in body as well, to that open field or orchard the poem conjured out of words.
The other place that poetry seemed to descend from the air, like leaves or a gentle snow, was in our woods. We owned forty acres of maple, ash, beech, and oak near Jones, Michigan, and we used wood to help heat our house in winter. That meant hours with a saw, an ax, and a splitting maul. In these places, my body tried mightily to imitate my father’s movements, to learn the same efficiency, the same strength, the same skill he had. Unbeknownst to me, my mind was also gobbling up the cadences and sounds of the poems that he spoke and that I thought were exceedingly boring at the time.
In those settings, he uttered lines from Frost, or from one of his favorite poems, “To a Waterfowl,” by William Cullen Bryant. Steam would trail from his mouth, his face sweaty despite the November cold, as he put down his saw and waved his hands to the meter he heard in these lines:
He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright.
My father’s been dead for two years now, and his absence still looms. After I discovered such contemporary poets as Galway Kinnell and Maxine Kumin in my senior year of college, I began to try to write my own poems, and for nearly twenty-five years, I’d call my father several times a week to read to him drafts of the poems I was working on. He never seemed to tire of listening.
We also recited for each other poems by writers whose books we happened to be reading at the time. These acts of shared prosody helped to dissolve the 500 miles that separated our two homes, even made it seem like we were in the same room, basking in the warmth and light of the fire he kept burning in the fireplace, smiling at each other and at the skill of the writer, the perfect turn the language yielded.
As you might guess, Wendell Berry was one of those writers we shared and returned to often. Berry’s love of the earth and his background as a Kentucky farmer made him an ideal poet for the two of us. When my father was dying of pancreatic cancer at the age of 81, it was poetry that offered a degree of solace, even humor. Berry’s poem, “Seventy Years,” was cited too many times to count:
Well, anyhow, I am
not going to die young.
I’ve written many poems about my father’s dying and his death. I suppose they help me cope with my grief while I’m writing them, although grief returns with heavy steps when I realize I cannot pick up the phone and read him the draft I am working on.
I do wish he were here to read my next book, In the Kingdom of the Ditch, which Michigan State University Press will publish in 2013. I’ve never published a book of poems without my father, and I’m not sure what to do with this next book without him.
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