Tuesday, December 11, 2012

From the Thoreau Project

Apology To Henry

Your were, you claim, born in the very
 nick of time. Time being what it is,
my distant friend, your proposition will
be difficult to defend. What clues did
Past give you that marked Time's passing ribbon,
so you'd know this was your day, July, twelfth,
eighteen seventeen? What had you heard beyond
your mother's heart beat, family voices, organ
music muffled by her flesh? What had you felt
beside your mother's warmth, the womb, your first home,
that had convinced you Concord would be
the most estimable place in all the world?
In retrospect you could renounce past events
through which you would not have to suffer but
those I fear don't count, nor events to be
for you'd not claim to foresee nor control
the Future. But I'll accept what you said
this same day. Friends! Society! I have
an abundance of that I rejoice in 
and men too that I never speak to, and since
what most call bareness and poverty 
you would say is to me simplicity
you'd ignore what you could and with the rest 
"make do", so any nick would do. But for place,
if city bound, I think you would have moved soon.

And I add to this a few lines young friend, Edward Emerson, gave us at the end of his book of remembrances: lines from "your early prayer".

Great God I ask no meaner pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself;
That in my action I may soar as high
As I can now discern with this clear eye,
And next in value which thy kindness lends
That I may — greatly — disappoint my friends
Howe're they think or hope that it may be
They may not dream how thou'st distinguished me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


I visit so seldom I have trouble even entering my own blog and just entered three poems then wiped them out, apparently, trying to preview them. I'll do it once more. Hope Google doesn't keep changing its system!

Answering Reznikoff

Yes, I know it's true
the mower's no poet
who deflects his scythe
to save the flowers for
he knows they all are.
Yes, it was after years
somewhere else some other time
post-me/post mortem
when I read those lines — and yet
Reznikoff knew
about John Baker and I how we'd
manned a most improbable
aircraft observation station
in a vacant field
in a Maine town with nothing
anyone would bomb.
Where the only enemy planes
were on a wall poster
just a year before John even with
a metal plate in his hip
in the infantry lay open-eyed
having seen
his first German planes. I write
after long years but
there is no forgetting — although
long years may turn
forget to accept. Where planes
like meteorites 
flown by men like John and I
still fall 
from the innocent sky. Fall to earth
where all flowers die.

Inadequate Portent

Suddenly for no reason beyond
the molecular fire that burned
in my brain in that moment more
than sixty years ago I recall
the first time I saw even a picture
of what was called in earlier days
a woman's private parts on
the inside of a locker door
in our barracks in Fairbanks
facing me legs drawn back
spread knees up the lips of
that vertical mouth the names
of which I'd eventually learn
bare but not smiling in that
sudden patch of pubic hair
the school-yard expressions 
of pussy and muff-diving
not understood suddenly
having palpable substance
as the locker door slammed 
the whole affair no longer
than it takes to read a line
of this and I was twenty yet
I remember this sixty-seven
years later so it must have been
a hot little glucose brain-blaze
and I should have started then
to learn more not waited till now 
to know lips can show soft
curves that say I'll smile soon. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Well, someone reminded me , again, that I have a blog. I've been busy scribbling on the new project, a  MS to combine poems I've written with references to or influenced by Thoreau — combining them with autobiographical entries in prose. To let you know (you faithful few) that I'm still here, here are two poems which have nothing to do with that project. They're just poems recently written or revised. Seasonal: autumn's end a distant hope of spring.

Free Fall

Every snowflake is unique, we're told by
those who can not possibly know — "every"
being an infinite term. But a perfectly
safe contention since error guarantees
results will vary even in repeated measure
of the same, the real shape the average of
repeated mistakes.
But lets leave knit-picks aside
for, on this mid-October, sunless, windless
morning there is as yet no snow, I stand
and watch oak leaves fall. Each leaf, bent, stiff,
in dying, falls uniquely to a common fate —
well, a singular end — and each seems free
to fall its own way: glide, twist, tumble, spiral .
Each pathway of descent, inscribed, would add
another fiber to a random woven screen
to shield us from regrets of the season's
  I turn to science and propose my
hypothesis: that, as no two snowflakes
share the same shape, no two oak leaves ever
follow the same path in falling —  and my excuse
for standing here is testing my hypothesis.
My paper will be titled Free Will Falling.

Maple Syrup Season

"What's worth more — or was it less? — Uncle George
would ask, "a fart in a wind storm, or a
piss hole in the snow?". It's odd what's recalled
when it might be just as well forgotten.

For several days of maple tapping weather
I've stepped outside at dawn. The sun has inched
its way north to clear the notch in the eastern
hills across the frozen pond by dawn which

makes us think of spring despite the snow
piled along the walk where I stand in robe
and slippers near the wood pile. The sun's light
gives only light as I watch the piss hole grow,

remembering today how unaccountably
we recall some silly childhood phrase or joke
like the title of an imaginary book,
The Yellow Stream: the author, I .P. Freely.

What is worth more, the certainty I assign
the sun's slow ascension. the will with which I
act out the ritual of seasons, or the
lemon-custard yellow flowering on snow?

And why just these random, seeming useless
memories? Why indeed, to paraphrase
Thoreau, should these things make up my world
as I stand here, glad the wind's not blowing?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


WELL, NOT REALLY. I just forgot about it again. Too busy putting together a combination prose and poetry construction in anticipation of Thoreau's 200th in 1017, if I live that long. Here is a sample.


When did I first experience the writing of Henry David Thoreau? I can't be precise with date or even year for it must have been nearly eighty years ago, as was my first experience with poetry — poetry beyond the not to be depreciated nursery rhymes. Both experiences occurred in the one-room school where I had the luck, the blessing, to spend seven years with the guidance of that most remarkable teacher, Miss Pitts, Miss Ruth Pitts. So a book of poems and prose celebrating the influence of Thoreau's writings, I now realize, should begin with this one-room school and Miss Pitts. You should have some sense of what that school was like. This poem may help although it was not written for this specific purpose,.

                The School
One room, eight rows of desks, a wood stove.
Boy and Girl entry-cloakrooms right and left.
Boy and girl shovel-out back-houses right
and left rear: Naples school number seven
in the old county atlas. When I went there, 
age four and a half and a bit more, green
as a summer grape, it was The Lord School.

Named for the family that had settled there.
From the window by the sub-primary row,
a short row behind the wood stove, I could see
the Lord place across a frost glazed pasture.
We were pretty much on our own there, Miss Pitts
and maybe twenty kids. There was electricity 
but no running water, no telephone. If someone 
fell or was sick Miss Pitts dealt with it.

I was alone in the sub-primary row. We lived
a mile away but I didn't know anyone there.
Where I sat is all I remember of my first day
of seven years with Miss Pits at that school —
except that I wet my pants. Too shy, I suppose,
to raise one finger, walk past those strange faces 
all the way to the back-house door, past
all seven rows. It must have been a long day.

The poem, as a piece, fits, and that's how this book will be built. Put together with mostly existing pieces, poems, blended with bits of bridging prose, not wholly planned and constructed. I do not claim, nor do I desire, to be a Thoreau scholar. There will be no pretense of an adequate biography of Thoreau. Those who know Thoreau's work and life will realize I have  failed to mention many aspects which they may feel are significant.  I hope they will accept my word that this is not due to error or ignorance,  I am only including  what I feel has a specific and memorable effect on my work.  It is a record, as memory serves, of my personal response to Thoreau's work with such biographical notes I thought interesting or relevant. Just my responses with only my word to serve as validity — which you may find not always dependable — as no memory is.
It was in one of Miss Pitts classes that I first remember meeting Thoreau. Was it 5th or 6th grade? I'm not sure but we were assigned a section of Walden, the section in the chapter titled Brute Neighbors generally referred to as "the battle of the ants". A good choice to engage country kids in reading. 
The Pitts farm was about a mile north of The Lord School on the same road which, a mile south, passed my home. Miss Pitts's brother, Loton, was a Bowdin graduate, a rare item in our town at that time, and was the postmaster. And, it was said, he wrote poetry. He did, for I have on the shelf his book, Wild Mad Acres, which he presented to my mother when it was published in 1939. A critic, I assume, would say it shows the influence of Robert Frost. The poems must have been written, and others as well, while I was a student in his sister's classes. Which may explain why, in addition to Longfellow, Whittier, and Poe, we  met Robert Frost at the Lord School. In, probably 5th or 6th grade, a girl class-mate and I were assigned an oral presentation of the dialogue from Frost's Death of the Hired Man. I must have been terrified. All my life I have avoided, denied opportunities to take part in a play. Even as being just the voice of a puppet in one of John Tagliabue's plays, even though completely out of sight, I suffered serious stage fright.
I visited Miss Pitts, then a retired school principle, when she was in her eighties, about the age I am now I suppose. "I remember you, Robert," she said sharply. "When you finished you work early I'd give you a jar and you'd go down to Wiley's swamp behind the school and collect things." 
So the outline of my future life appears  in those seven years in that one-room school with a wonderful teacher: poetry, biology, an interest in  and feeling for Thoreau. Perhaps even my freedom from alleges also, those  years in school with no running water, eating off my desk, in the yard, the embracing woods with an mix of equally unwashed class mates. Ants or course, through not necessarily battling, show up in my work from time, as in this poem, slightly modified from my book, Reading Nature, published in 2006.


These desert ants didn't have the wealth 
of neurons homing pigeons draw on,
yet they knew where they had been and
came home again by different ways
from the ways they went (if you'll
forgive the awkward phraseology).

Each ant apparently retained a map
of the rocky, rough terrain where any pebble
blocked their view. Following their map
and not their nose (or more properly,
their antennae or their tarsi) used
their little heads to find their way home.

Those tiny ganglia we're so reluctant
to call brains can read the maps and then
tell six legs which way to go, and when.
To leave us wondering how many transistors
could dance upon brains smaller than
the heads of those proverbial pins.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012



Poems generated through visits to my wife, Vicki, at Clover Health Car may explain the forgetfulness.


Pressing the green button
while pushing 
the right wing
of the wide double door 
I gain entry
to the next unit
which seems to be
a four-way intersection for 
wheelchair traffic
at the rush hour
although almost no one 
is moving
as if I happened into
a still photograph.
Apparently there's no penalty here
for being asleep 
at the wheel
and nurse pedestrians move freely
ignoring cross-walk restrictions.
I came as a taxi man to put
my wife's chair
in motion.
As usual she knows exactly 
she wants to go
but as usual
neither of us has the fare.


In the Dublin Place common room
several women sit silent, sagging a bit,
perhaps asleep, in their wheelchairs.
One smiling lady follows her walker
aimlessly around the room. One woman
calls loudly for help, another, sunk
deep in an over-pillowed chair cries out,
repeatedly, and an unwanted analogy
crowds into consciousness: triage.
My wife sirs silent, uncomplaining, but
admitting to me her pain. On the wall
the TV plays endlessly, tuned too low 
for me to hear, ignored as are the birds
singing vainly beyond the window. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


A note about the relation between Henry Thoreau and Emerson's second wife based of her daughter Ellen's memoir.

Ellen Emerson Remembers How Her Mother's
        Chickens Came Home To Roost

When winter's frigid weather first set in
mother thought of her chicken's featherless feet,
found cotton waste which she wound tight around
the slender beam on which her chickens chose
to roost. When spring came she found she could not
tolerate her hens held captive in pens
as she could not tolerate enslavement
of humans. They were set loose to find their
own way back to roost. When the hens, following
their natural inclination, scratched up seeds
in her garden, she called on her good friend,
Henry Thoreau, who made for each hen a pair
of neat leather boots, gently disarming
  • the offending feet. And when, in the end 
  • it came time to slaughter the innocents
  • she decided to give up raising hens.

We are told, when a neighbor's barn burned, Mrs Emerson comment shocker the onlookers: "At least the rats escaped."

There have been academic speculations that Henry may have been falling, or had fallen in love with her. Those notes suggest they might have made a match.  If I remember I have a bolo I'll have some comments on their correspondence later. Summer is hear. A very large snapping turtle just dug up all the softened ground by the shore where I had just planted seed.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What's Happening When Nothing is Happening?

Here's a poem set in motion if not inspired by an article in Nature. If nothing else it sup pests neurobiologists have a sense of humor.

Default Zone

    Here, said the guard, is the speech center.
    We were touring the brain. Through the open
    door we peered in but did not enter
     the suddenly cavernous hall
    where all the worlds answering services
    could be poised to respond with all
    words waiting to be expressed. As we
    passed a narrow, unmarked door, I pointed,
   asked, and the guide said, it's just the
   default zone for introspection.
   Not concerned with the world out there,
   active when we're not paying attention.
   It works best when it's left alone
   as it has a mind of its own.

Are we approaching the neurology of meditation?  Meditation as a goal, an objective, a phenomena in its own right? We're certainly not just unraveling complexes of words, not a time to call for Wittgenstein. We can't get there by trying to think hard about nothing.

Genuine meditation, if there is such: would it correspond to a state in which the default zone/system would be maximally active? Is the next question: is thai a state to be saught, to be desired? To be aware yet perceiving nothing?

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Tie That Binds Us Stretches Thin But Is Holding Still


Death was not supposed to be like this.
A stroke or seizure, a fall into unconsciousness.
A bed-bound patient, compassionate shadows hovering.
These alternatives we could, almost, accept.

But not this unadorned, undignified diminishment.
One day you're an unmanned sloop cast adrift.
The mist thickening, the fading figure on the shore
so familiar it might once have been you.

Life should not have been like this. Diminishing
if not afloat, afoot, as you walk without sound
down an endless corridor of doors, all open,
all identical as perspective disappears.

At least that's how it appears to us whose
footsteps still resound, who can yet turn around.
We hope you're unaware you cannot turn now.

Monday, February 27, 2012

From Time To Time I Read Some Poetry

But, I confess, not often that by others. Not, I suppose, as often as I should but time is limited. What I read often depends on a citation in some review, maybe in The New York Review, one of the few such journals I see. In one not many months ago I ran not a reference to Louis MacNeice and  his Autumn Journal. Off went an e-mail order to Amazon. Yes it should be read. It stirred the following from me.

Death Without Cause

"...take it...on trust that living is
The only thing worth living and that dying
Had best be left to take care of itself in the end."
Louis MacNeice╦ć
Death just happens, it needs no cause. Being born
parents tried to explain by
displacing myth with analogies about bees,
flowers and, sometimes, birds
whose eggs needed seeds. But apparently
death needed no cause. 
One day your brother came to your school,
said "Father has died and
I'm taking you home."Home where the event
must have ben mentioned.
I don't remember. Someone may have cried
but I don't remember. There
must have been a funeral, I must have been there
since I was fourteen. I know
where he's buried: the name and date in stone.
I've stood there alone
and wondered why I don't know. Death just
happened, needed no cause —
at least I don't know it. You might ask why
I didn't ask. Perhaps I did.
It's the answer that's missing. How would I know
when I didn't know he'd been ill?
Back at school I do recall someone saying: "He
took 'it' remarkably well."
I didn't know what else to do. Dying took care
of itself in the end.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What! Two In a Week? And From Last Night?

I seldom offer poems spontaneously, more often working on a revision of something written two years before. So why not be different now and then? Vicki hasn't been sleeping well recently and we often find ourselves up in what most consider the middle of the night This is an impression from last night, with only typographic changes. (Well. almost only!)

  Idea of February

Viewed from the sofa at four-thirty AM
on this mid-winter day the picture window
is as blank and black as the turned-off TV.
The outside world has gone away, what once
was a frozen pond, a ridge-top deckled
ragged with trees, just isn't there. Nothing is
except a few lights which may be the suns
of some other worlds. But every time I raise
my cup to take a sip the lamp beside us,
the cup itself, the window pane, conspire
and send me a message, just a flash that could
be from "out there", hopelessly sent
from some other beings desperate to know
if they are alone. I suppose I should be suddenly
encouraged, but knowing the inflexibility 
of time and the speed of light, they'll never know
so what does it matter how many other worlds
there may be?  We still feel alone here on this
old settee. We doze for a while and when we wake
the sky is suffused with a pre-dawn cream
which the ice on the pond glows in echo. Only
the ridge line still holds night''s black Those lights
which might have been stars resolve to street lights
dimmed by the trees. A fingernail paring
of the dying moon, hanging over where we know
the water tower will be, seems neighborly. 
We doze and we wait for the promised sun.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Birthday Month

     My granddaughter recently asked, "Why do you think there are so many presidents born in February?" Ignoring for the moment that I too was born in this month (and just survived to be 86). As a biologist the answer came easily: "BECAUSE ABOUT NINE MONTHS AGO IT WAS SPRING."

Born just between Lincoln and Valentine, my mother said I just escaped an even odder name then Robert Maurice (pronounced Morris) Chute (pronounced as chew, not shoe).

Being personal, here is a personal poem. (And, S.P., I will try to post more frequently.)

Remembering What You Don't

How much do you remember
     of that year
when you were little more than four
     and how much
is what you've been told by
     someone older?
There's no call to feel guilty even
     if it was
that year, that summer, your last
     grandparent died.
If you'd been older I'm sure
     you'd remember
not only her death but her — her
My brother Phil did but
     he was ten
and I'd always been six years
     behind him.
Was she sick, couldn't hold me,
     as grandmother's do?
In memory, which can't
     be true,
why do I feel her
     cold disapproval,
her arms stiff, her bosom
Had I told myself this or
     had someone older?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Forgotten Again!

Yes, once more I totally forgot about this blog. No need to treat you to a list of the distractions nor do I have a convincing explanation of my lack of concern. So here is a poem that recently appeared in ECHOS, that elegant journal from "the county". It purports to portray an aspect of my personal history. As most such ventures much of it is fictional. I have ice fished. Once with Uncle George. Once with my son David (now in California) but the details: what George said to me, men pounding their knees, my seeing them now, floated in with the wind to enhance my memories.

Past Is Present

I tell my son about ice fishing as
my uncle told me before the days
of the power augur, snowmobiles,
thermal boots, insulated underwear.
Telling him, as Uncle George told me,
to always tie a cord to your chisel
or lose it in the mud twenty feet below.
You let your bait kiss the bottom, then
raise it a true king's yard — that's
the distance from your nose to
finger tip, arm stretched wide. If your feet
get cold, George said, raise you knee,
pound it with your fist: one — two — three,
then do the other one. I tell my son
but he's in California, a continent away,
and I'm standing on the ice watching
strangers, for I don't fish anymore.
Far down the pond I imagine I see
a man, leg raised, pounding his knee.