Years ago I spent a weekend clearing brush from a roadside embankment, then picked up the brush in both arms and carried it to where I was dumping the debris — and I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and my arms broke out in such ugly welts and gruesome lesions that I had to be prescribed steroids to counteract my skin’s reaction to what the doctor said was a combination of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.
Did I learn my lesson? Today I spent four hours clearing brush from the front yard of the house where I’m staying in the Berkshires. And I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. And I picked up the brush in both arms and carried it to the tractor wagon I was carting it in to be disposed of in the brush pile. And I’ve got poison ivy welts on my both of my inner forearms — although I was smart enough to realize and notice, and quickly washed my hands and arms with soap and hot water, perhaps minimizing the rash.
Anyway…apropos of nothing, really, except that it’s a song title about the vine that afflicted me, here are The Coasters singing “Poison Ivy:”
I’ve never met the poet Ruth Stone, but I know people who know her — as far as I know, at age 95, Ruth’s still writing her strong, beautiful, passionate poetry up there in Addison County, Vermont.
Mind you, I know that Ruth’s had a harder go of it than most, certainly including me. Her husband committed suicide in 1959 — she raised their children alone, and her beautiful love poems, as an anonymous writer on Wikipedia puts it so aptly, are all written to a dead man.
Lots of trouble sleeping lately…dozing off around midnight, but then waking up at 3 or 4 a.m., with such a whirring mind that I just cannot sleep…finally dozing off, thank you, as I look out the window of this room and see the sky is already brightening…as I hear birds already beginning their morning matins…So yesterday at 4 a.m., trying to distract my mind from memories and musings by reading myself back to sleep, I came upon this poem by Ruth Stone, the last poem in her collection “In the Next Gallery,” published by Copper Canyon Press in 2002:
The poem is called “Mantra.” Here’s the first stanza:
When I am sad
I sing, remembering
the redwing blackbird’s clack.
Then I want nothing
except to turn time back
to what I had
before love made me so sad.
Maybe that’s what I need to do to get some sleep…adopt this mantra…turn time back to what I had…when the sky began to brighten and the birds began to sing but I was asleep and I was at peace.
This is what can happen when your soul is battered to the point where your spirit is bruised — and the bruises never heal.
Listen to Rick Danko — young, hip, endearing, soulful, so talented — singing “It Makes No Difference” at The Band’s farewell concert, “The Last Waltz” in the late 1970s.
And now read him and weep as you watch poor Rick Danko — old before his time, overweight, weary, burned out from life — as he sings the song again in the 1990s just before he died from heart failure after years of drug addiction:
Rest in peace, Rick Danko, rest in peace…I pray you are in a place where you are no longer battered by the slams and slaps of love…that you are in a place where your bruises and wounds have all healed.
I’m sending you images of the moon. It’s dipping and diving between black clouds. I’m looking at a river. I’m telling you about a bridge that crosses the river. I’m telling you about the darkness on the other side.
But there are lights on the bridge that crosses the river. The lights on the river are floating stars. And the moon’s a half moon, leaning forward. Its reflection floats on its back, drifting in the river, surrounded by stars.
You think about the moon. A pond becomes a river. You think about lights like floating stars and you think about the moon. And then it appears, the very same moon, come to visit, at my behest.
Who would have thought you could photograph this moon?
Who would have thought it could inspire such a poem?
When you see
the half moon
you can know
at the other end
of the lens
thinking of you,
just as you do.
Half moon here. Half moon there. Together they equal a moon bright and full.
In the movie “Bride of Frankenstein,” ‘the monster is on the run, tramping through the dark forest, when he comes upon an isolated cottage — and hears music — and seeks refuge and comfort within.
It’s the home of a blind hermit who has been waiting for ages for a visitor — for a companion — for a human touch — for friendship — and especially for love . Lucky for the monster, the blind man can’t see that his visitor’s an eight-foot-tall monster with a really bad haircut and metal bolts coming out of the side of his head.
Both the blind man and the monster seek and need, more than anything else, someone to embrace them fully without hesitation or doubt or condition.
And they find it. The monster grunts his approval and joy as the blind man offers him a seat, then offers him a glass of wine, then plays on his fiddle as the monster sways and dances — rather clumsily and awkwardly, but let’s remember this IS Frankenstein’s monster.
But it all goes wrong when the old man lights a cigar and his friend gets too close to the flame and freaks out — the monster has bad experiences with fire, you may recall. So he swats away the flame, and the cottage catches on fire, and a passerby just happens to pass by, and he recognizes the monster, and he sounds the alarm, and he rescues the blind man, and the monster runs off into the forest, and the cottage in the woods burns to the ground.
I’m trying to decide. Am I the monster? The blind man? The passerby? All three? I don’t know. All I know is that warm and perfect place where my dreams so recently dwelt has somehow been left a smoldering ruin.
A song for future reference…gazing into a crystal ball and glimpsing the future …a lovely face appears all blurry yet so vivid…and it dances and haunts…even after all those years…
Spending a week in a small town in the Berkshires, at a writers retreat, I find myself wondering…”retreat?”
Am I retreating from life? No. Am I retreating from life’s pain? No. Am I retreating from life’s joys? No. No. No. Am I retreating from the having to worry about overdue bills? No — my cellphone is turned on and I check my email several times daily.
So what kind of retreat is this writers retreat? Perhaps it’s more accurately described as a refuge, a haven, a safe house. It’s a place where the rules are that there are no rules except to respect the solitude of others, to whisper, to tread softly.
And it’s a place where it’s OK to step into an empty church in this small town and sit and contemplate and pray in one’s own way of praying, to remember and cherish and wish and dream.
And it’s place where around a bend in the road blooms a field of wildly yellow wildflowers…
Where one road leads to home and another leads to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and I choose the road less traveled and stare up at Emily’s window and imagine her white ghostly beauty…
Where the home housing this writers retreat overflows with books including, of all things, a book of Korean love poems, including a poem called “Unforgettable:”
If you cannot forget,
Let it be unforgotten.
One day you will forget.
If you cannot forget,
Let her go unforgotten.
Some part, or all, will fade one day.
But you will answer still
“How can I forget
When this flame burns in my heart?”
There is no way to pull back or retreat, I say. A heart given fully can not be retrieved.