"For fifteen years we lived against the seaIt is my most significant poem to date. And at five pages, it's also the longest poem I have ever published. I wrote the first version of the poem over 40 years ago. The idea came from a fantasy game my first wife and I played when were dating. It was about a woman who had thrown her childen off a cliff. The idea didn't gel as a poem, and although I kept writing it again and again throughout the years, I couldn't make it work.
Below Ogunquit where the surf marks time
And tide, and days remained unchanged, and each
Of us learned to watch the seasons silently.
He needed me. I cared for him. He wrote.
I listened when he read to help him find
A voice. But otherwise, we seldom spoke."
Then about seven years ago while I was living in Birmingham, something happened on a trip to Maine that changed the whole concept of the poem for me. I knew the poem was not about a mother who murdered her kids. It is about what happened to a couple after their seven-year-old daughter was lost by being caught in a rip current, and it tells the story of the next 15 years of their life. Once I realized what the poem was really about, it took me a couple of months to actually write it. And it wasn't easy. It's a formal poem with a difficult rhyme scheme. But once I started, once I wrote the line "For fifteen years we lived against the sea," I had no doubt where it was going or that I would complete it.
I finished the poem shortly before that Christmas. It's a funny thing about writing poetry. I know I've said this before. It's hard work to write a good poem. It's even frustrating work, and you have to love -- not the frustration -- but the work itself. And you have to simply know it's going to come together.Then when it does, you look at it and say, "Of course. This was where I was going all the time." And you immediately forget the work. It just feels natural, as if it always was that way.
I included the poem in a reading I did at Keuka College in Finger Lakes district of New York a few years ago. At the reception after the reading, the poet Bruce Bennett, who had been in the audience, came up to me on his way out and said he thought there was something epic about the poem. That was the greatest compliment he could have paid me. I spent nearly my entire adult life writing it. It feels good to have it recognized.
I can't post the poem here, because it's in the current issue of the magazine. And it's also not on line there. If you want to read it before my next book is done, you'll need to buy a copy of Volume 8 Issue 2 of The Raintown Review or else look back here on the blog in about six months. But since I can't post it, I'm going to repost a poem I first put up here last May. I only got one comment on it, so maybe you missed it. Or maybe you were just being polite.
From the Choir Loft
Singing is twice praying.
On alternating days we sang the Mass
At seven, boys, then girls, then boys again.
Sometimes the only ones who'd show
To sing were me and Hal the organist,
And I could barely hum a note. Refrains
Eluded me, so Hal would sing it solo.
Now Hal had music in his hands and feet;
The organ's pipes were a part of him.
But when he tried for music from his throat,
Well, Father said it sounded kind of sweet
If sweet meant scratchy, hoarse, and thin
And not unlike the bleating of a goat.
From Kyrie to Agnus Dei, Hal
Sang all the parts, sang treble, alto, bass
And never worried what the music said.
The words were all that mattered. Still somehow
He'd hit the final note then turn his face
And wink at me and proudly raise his head.
Hal quit the church when Kyrie became
The simple English Lord and anyone
Who wanted stood and strummed communal chords
For Masses where the singing was the same
As elevator sap, and Hal seemed stunned
To learn that music is in deed the words.
Originally published in Birmingham Poetry Review, Summer/Fall, 2005.
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