Saturday, October 27, 2007

Murray Bodo

Sometimes, writing seems awfully silly. Reading, too, for that matter. I have been much preoccupied with all the mundane details of material life, from basement refinishing, to buying and selling automobiles, to financial planning, etc., etc. But I did get to see Murray Bodo last weekend. And he reminded me (us) of the power of poetry. He was quite vigorous, even with a cold. I had seen a picture of him on the 'net which made me think that perhaps he was getting on in years, and his visit here would be mainly honorific. But he is an exceptional teacher. He gave two longish talk/readings on Saturday, had two sessions with students Monday, followed by a dinner and readings Monday night.

And he is an excellent reader, at least of his own poetry. He read his pretty much as I would have read them. Which makes me worry less about how my poems would sound. Perhaps I fret too much over punctuation and graphics. Maybe we're all used to a modernist free-verse style, so mine would come out all right. Anyway, he encouraged us to write--not to have a literary career necessarily--but to write.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Back to work. It's September, albeit an exceptionally beautiful one. Sept. 11 was a trifle warm, but the next day-- cool, bright, and clear-- couldn't help but make one think of 9/11/01.

Well, change rears its Ugly Head. I will no longer work Thursday nights, my usual blogging night. I may have to confine blogging to the Saturdays I work. Even today my time was limited. I had a necessary, but stimulating, research job. As someone in the business has said, "Librarians like to search. Everyone else likes to find."

Just ran across another good line from Mark Steyn: "The invention of the faux-childlike faux-folk song was one of the greatest forces in the infantilization of American culture." And the infantilization of American Catholic worship, I will add. L. has re-joined the parish choir; she would love to have me join her, but I just can't. I can't sing that stuff on a regular basis. And--I'm not singing in the community chorus either. No more Christmas carols right after Labor Day!

Another good line: "Salt, with its lips of blue fire...Like true love and gasoline." Is that great, or what. It's from a poem by Leroy Quintana, of whom I know very little. Google him yourself. (I did take out a line in the middle, but I don't think I'm doing violence to the poem's meaning. Or its aura, anyway.)


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Following Francis

I had the pleasant experience today of looking for--and finding--an old poem. I couldn't remember how it went, even how it started, which is unusual. I looked for it a few weeks ago on some old disks, but it turns out to have been written on the back of a magazine. I found it in my desk at work. I remember writing it, in the main, on my lunch hour on a bench behind Old Main. Even more surprising, I still like the poem, so here it is. (It helps if you have some knowledge of St. Francis' life. )

(in late middle age)

I'm an old soldier, too,
And a failed one;
But lepers I don't hug,
Nor would I beard a pope or sultan.

Not for me the grand gesture:
Naked in the public square?
A whole life lived in thrall to one command?
I like to keep my options open...

But somehow my blind alleys ended here,
And for each good thing I get,
Truly I am grateful;
This feels like winter, but
strangely blessed--

So while I weakly ponder mysteries
Have patience, Saint,
And send me down that angel
With the holy violin;
Though I have started late
on noble pathways
Please remember, Francis--
You died young.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Enjoyable Day

It's been an acceptable summer so far. The biggest disappointment has been that I've not yet been to the beach. But I am living with it.

Thursday R. and I were on a workday junket. We arrange them now whenever we can. We have proved to be a couple of companionable old coots, and I have less of a conscience over missing a day's drudge work. Truly, it has been both enlightening and enjoyable to get out among my formerly unseen professional colleagues. It was a glorious Philadelphia summer's day, humid and hazy; moonroof and no A/C for us two as we tooled around. We managed to get lost in Montgomery County and I quoted Larkin--"lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace"--and R., a former English teacher, was pleased. All those years of teaching literature and now, at last, a poem-spouting prole! We were visiting art installations in local libraries. Best find was a Henry O. Tanner not 10 miles from here, "Jesus and Nicodemus," but not quite the same as the one here. This one was definitely a night shot. Very blue.

After our tour we went to R.'s and hauled his broken washing machine up the cellar steps. Quite an operation for two old f...ellows. I was thinking this morning if we had been unsuccessful, the day would have seemed a futile waste. As it was, everything turned out lovely. I cut some of R.'s flowers for L., and took them and him home for dinner. We spent the evening conversing on the deck. Most enjoyable.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


The shaded porch, the jewel-cut lawn,
The sidewalk baking in the sun;
The yellow squash, blue dragonflies,
The clouds where silver liners run.

The red, red rose, black bumblebee,
The fuzzy spikes of corn;
The daisy head across your lap,
With counted petals torn.

The fireflies, the glass of wine,
Your voice softly in the dark;
The orange moon ascends the sky,
The end of day to mark.

Eternal question, love or not?
Your languid form allows no clue;
But your eyes, my love, your merry eyes,
Betray your secret longing too.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Belated Memorial Day Thoughts

So, walked over to the Methodist cemetery next door to the college last week. It was very beautiful up there where I stopped--a perfect site for the dozen benches placed there. They're set up pew-like facing a cross, so I imagine one could hold a prayer service right there in the cemetery. There was a strong, warm breeze whipping up all the flags placed for Memorial Day. "The famous dead, hard honors won, see they their pennants fly?" I would rate a flag, if there's anyone around then still doing those things. I want Psalm 138 on my tombstone, "Forsake not the work of Thy hands."

L., for some reason, thinks that's awful. She had a tough time around her father's death. Perhaps she thinks my interest in funereal details macabre. Or dilettantish-- her father was a real veteran. Patton's Third Army. One shudders to think what he saw. He never mentioned his service, but he would take L. as a child to war movies. Maybe he was trying to convey something of his experiences to her. He would have nightmares, she says.

When I see young men acting in their heedless or arrogant ways, I try to feel tolerance for them. They may be using that energy and rude elan someday to fight for me. As they are, now, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I am grateful.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


Last night was the last official academic event of the semester. Today is summer. The few students taking summer courses--I bitterly resent their very presence on campus. L. and I had planned to go to Clamtown this weekend to visit my sister, but the trip fell through. I wanted to do summery things--now I feel thwarted. I guess I'll survive, though. (I'm so pathetic.)

Well, I like summer. L., not so much. We have a Labor Day party every year--a sad passing for me, a celebration for her. I thought L. liked warm weather, hiking, and the outdoors. What she really likes is not sweating, flower gardens, and romantic strolls. CR told me it was the false advertising endemic to courtship. She has a boyfriend whom she met six years ago at a dance. They haven't been dancing since.

Well, I love L., so I don't hike as often as I used to. It's ok. My sister and I like the beach. Her husband, who has lived all his life in Jersey and the last twenty years at the shore, has, in my recollection, been on the beach exactly once. And he considered it something of a humiliation. (He sails.)

Well, we all love each other. It's not those quirky little choices that define us, but the big ones. It's whom you choose to love and how faithfully, not whether your partner shares every one your idiosyncrasies. That would be marrying your self.

I'm glad I wrote this. You see, it is because of L. we're staying home this weekend. But, I feel better about it now. Now the question is, How did this blog get so high-minded?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thomas Blackburn (1916-1977)

I wanted to mention Thomas Blackburn, the English poet. I have often sought "the honey of peace in old poems," and, about ten years ago, when I was working for Encore Books in center city, I visited South Street Book Trader, and bought a copy of 45 to 60: an Anthology of English Poetry, 1945-60. Found a few nice poems in there, and one that struck me was "The Lucky Marriage," by Thomas Blackburn. I wasn't married at the time, but it struck me. A year or two later, I met L., and when I proposed, I read her that poem and gave her the book to keep.

I mention all this because L. and I celebrated the Anniversary of our Engagement last Saturday. Yes, we do that. (I once mentioned to my mother that L. wasn't sentimental. "Roc," she said, "all women are sentimental." She was right.) Anyway, we read the poem again and I was reminded how good it is. Technically, quoting Contemporary Authors New Revision Series quoting a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, Blackburn's work had a "restless and nervous but, at its best, peculiarly and awkwardly alive verse surface." Peculiarly and awkwardly alive I certainly was that day, so it fit the mood. But even more we both appreciated the sentiment of the poem, praising the "cunning eye of the rejected," the goose-girl and the kitchen servant, who choose their partners adroitly and wind up with the perfect marriage, which "lasts forever, it is often said."

Another line from the poem: "They learned to see because they had no light." Blackburn had a difficult life, marked by a traumatic childhood, alcoholism, and depression. Yet he was also an educator, and a poet who gave me a voice when I really needed it. So thank you, Thomas Blackburn. R.I.P.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

La Forza del Destino

We got the good news yesterday that Murray Bodo will be visiting the college this fall. Bodo is a Franciscan monk and a very good writer. He will be leading a retreat on poetry and prayer. By "good writer," I mean more than clear or concise or even colorful. I mean he is a literary man. The writing stands on its own. It is done for its own sake. It isn't in service to an agenda. The words in a sense don't accomplish anything; but they do lead somewhere.

Cultivating a receptivity to literature used to be an important part of education. I think I was on the cusp of the change. Formerly, education was literary-historical-theological; now it is sociological- psychological-legalistic. A certain outlook has been lost, a certain emphasis on the person, on their individuality, on the particularity of things and events. I sometimes think to myself, in a sort of mental shorthand, "I don't believe in fairness--I believe in destiny." I'm not exactly sure what I mean by that, but I think people of a certain age and background will understand.

[Try "A Feeling for Hierarchy" by Mary Douglas in Believing Scholars: Ten Catholic Intellectuals edited by James L. Heft.]

Thursday, April 19, 2007

John 21

Even after the irruption of his divinity
He still had his body.
The wounds, sticky and healing
Beneath the clean, rough cotton;
The muscles stiff, but strong again.

He felt so good in the clear morning air,
Away from men contending in the synagogue,
That he dug his toes deep into the formless sand,
And decided to make them breakfast.

They came, dulled by fear and fatigue,
Except for Peter. Who could not love Peter?--
In up to his chest,
Made all the more alive by his shame.

So in love, he knew that
Eventually he would say it:
Yes, by all means, go

Teach all nations.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Revved up. I would take my blood pressure if only I could find my machine. No sooner had the need for basement waterproofing been triumphantly validated, than L. has a car accident. She's OK, physically. Had a bad dream or two, but had to get over it quickly and back to work. She mentioned she misses her Volvo, and it's not like her to complain. I guess it's displacement. She is tired and freaked out about how close she got to being really hurt.

A bit of running around there, doing auto body things, and Monday Mom will be having a hysterectomy. A lot of running around there, I'm thinking, though my wonderful sibs will be doing a lot. L. is upset. Sounds like a pretty safe procedure, but Mom's 87! And the Mother of All Anti-patients. That she agreed to the operation makes me realize how much she has suffered over the past year or so.

I feel beleaguered. Mustn't panic. Must talk to myself in the optimistic way I talk to the womenfolk. Well, the soul is feminine, isn't it?

"That which does not kill me, makes me stronger." Nietzsche. Well, don't believe it. I think that that which does not kill outright, kills slowly, ineluctably.

We must remain clay in the Potter's hands. He, the conqueror of death. Thomas Merton says, I think in New Seeds, that without Christ, human suffering is just misery. Stress usually makes me feel resentful or hurls me back on my own devices. Either way I'm mindless, Godless. I should practice prayer, faith and acceptance now, before even worse times.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


My Easters are often like my Christmases--I'm utterly uninterested till they actually happen. So I am anticipating Holy Week, now that it's here. I remember some affecting Holy Thursdays: living in the Port, in the city, with the old immigrant churches cheek-by-jowl, all gorgeously decorated. A fair number of people keep up the custom of visiting churches through the night. Once, in St. Adalbert's, at 10 o'clock in a nearly empty church, four strangers walked in, lined up in the back, sounded a pitch pipe, and proceeded to perform a Renaissance motet. The effect was mysterious and magnificent. Then they walked out.

Some good Good Fridays there as well. I remember Fr. Moriarity, the jolly, garrulous Irish priest at Nativity, silent for once and prostrate in the center aisle of the cavernous stone church. One year I went downtown to St. Mark's Episcopal. That was a liturgical workout. Very long service, with the Passion chanted in a peculiar, rhythmic style. Sort of a Church English, like Old Slavonic, maybe. I don't much like Good Friday at my current parish. Too many kids, for one thing, I don't much like the whole post-Vatican II service. Not much goes on and there's a lot of standing in line. Maybe that's why I often feel thoroughly exhausted and righteously holy at the end.

What I do like at St. Thomas is the Easter Vigil. Our reserved, intellectual Fr. Williams stands in the sanctuary and sings the Exultet to us. Could there be anything more thoroughly pastoral? The Resurrection announced by our own shepherd, the gift of faith transmitted personally. Better than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in full throat.

The music of belief. I'd rather hear "Were You There?" sung by a group of believers than the St. Matthew Passion with a cast of arteestes. One Good Friday at St. John the Evangelist in center city, I marveled at the throng of movers and shakers at worship and had an epiphany similar to the one Annie Dillard describes, commenting on a Presbyterian communion service in An American Childhood: People really believe this stuff.

Their faith moves me forward.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Small Victories

So we had the basement waterproofed. That was ten days ago. After they cut away the drywall, they found a leak in a water supply line. At first, I admit, I thought they must have busted it with those jackhammers they were using. But it was way up, just under the kitchen floor. When they finished installing the system, they rigged a trash bag to direct the drips into the drain. The system works great--I think it's quite spiffy, actually. But that leak--it was coming down behind the wall, only three feet from where I thought water was seeping in. Could I have mistaken it for a rising water table? Did I just spend four thousand dollars to fix a drippy pipe joint? Only time would tell, once the pipe was repaired.

Which was done on Tuesday. Wednesday night my wife came home from work and remarked how dry the outlet gutter was. (She was trying to compliment me for taking care of the leak.) I awoke at four a.m., worried about money. Why is it so damn hard to make one's economic way? Why am I so stupid as to buy an whole, completely unnecessary waterproofing system? But I went out once it was light, and there it was--a beautiful puddle of water, shimmering in the sun.

Should I invest so much emotion in such trivialities? I can't seem to help it. But it doesn't bother me as much to be bothered. Bothers can be small builders of wisdom. As I've gotten older, and especially since I've gotten married, I've sort of given myself up to them. Imagine if I had children, all the "trivial" problems I would have to solve. So...they're probably not that trivial. The daily and domestic really do form us. Didn't the Church Fathers say we encapsulate all of salvation history within us? We all must deal with our personal Egypts. James V. Schall says our lives are "theologically dramatic." I smile at my feelings of triumph at this small victory, but I am also reminded, once again, to trust, to learn, and not to feel so desperate when things seem dark.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

With My Wife on Retreat

Where There Are No Rooms for Married Couples

Please bless us, Lord, your simple pair,
Who seek our spirits' resting here,
Two flesh in one apart tonight,
Protect us both from harm or fright.

Protect this house, this gentle school,
Help us to keep its holy rule;
It teaches love by keeping us apart,
A wholesome tearing, heart from heart.

Though you are some way down the hall,
It's really not that far at all,
And all around these sacred places
God's love descends and fills with graces.

Someday sick or dead or dying,
We will in separate beds be lying;
But know, my dear, in that dark hell,
God's love and grace are there as well.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Off on Retreat

Going to Wernersville, the Jesuit retreat house, for three days next week. I was looking forward to it last week, now I'm feeling a bit of unease. Very normal emotion--each retreat is a journey, after all. ("Journey" with all its material, spiritual, and psychobabbly overtones.) I'm not a great traveler to begin with, and anything can happen on a retreat. The physical journeying itself so often jolts the soul's inertia. One can imagine what a medieval pilgrim felt the night before shipping out to Jerusalem.

But I like Wernersville. I felt such a sense of relief when I drove through those gates last year. It's an old novitiate house, a huge one, with plenty of room for retreatants to rattle around in. And plenty of outdoor space, too, for walking. Good art and a good library. A dedicated, engaging staff. And a giant stone of a chapel that resists modernizing.

"Resists modernizing"--Catholic antennae going up! OK, in the interests of full disclosure, my sensibilities are pretty conservative. But Wernersville's is not, so...if you're liberal Catholic, you can go jauntily, and if you're conservative Catholic: don't cheat yourself, it's very welcoming and not at all over the top. I'll just say I've very rarely gone there when somebody at some point hasn't whipped out a rosary. Non-Catholics are welcome, too, and, if they are also wondering what Catholics are fussing about, try A People Adrift by Peter Steinfels, which I thought was pretty even-handed, accurate, and, frankly, quite dispiriting.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Lawns and War

Today I decided to cancel the lawn service and cut my own lawn. For several years now, I have felt alienated from my lawn. Sad to say, but true. Now, the vegetable garden--that is mine, for I dug it myself. Many pleasant hours have I spent there, reading or soaking up the sun. Part of the reason for my alienation, I think, is that L. was here already when I moved in, so the lawn was just the ground around the house, serviced by men who evidently traveled hundreds of miles--from Mexico!--to do just that. But as we've worked on little projects and planted memories, those mysterious bonds to house and land have been growing. And now I feel ready to embrace the property in its entirety, to experience it more fully. I'm speaking lightly, of course, but I know I will be loving it more--whatever it means to "love" the land.

Once when I was making a month-long retreat at a dharma center--now this is nine or ten hours a day sitting on a cushion meditating--three of us went out during work period and put up fence posts. It's hard to convey everything I felt when we were done, looking at those posts spaced out across the expanse of meadow. The beauty of the setting, feelings of work well done, and even more, the sense of territory, the sense of marking out or claiming--conquering, even--made for a heady mix of emotions.

"Earth is good / but land is better / And best of all / a land still fought for / Even in retreat." Donald Davidson, one of the Southern Agrarians. Land is better than earth, because it carries the notions of human activity, law, and culture. Not a way of looking at nature we normally encounter today, with our romanticized ideas of Earth as Peaceful and Benevolent Mother.

I once read about a British officer of World War I. He had fought with the infantry, and then had been transferred to the new tank outfits. The movement and speed of the tanks opened up a new world of tactical maneuver to him, so used to the static misery of the trenches. And it was gratifying, so much so that he said he suddenly understood how warfare could so absorb men's energies.

Well, "War is the natural activity of man--war, that is, and gardening." I am led to believe Churchill said it. And he knew a thing or two about both.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ash Wednesday? Spring Training!

The day started out like Ash Wednesday, gray and raw, but the sun came out later, the temp went up to 50 degrees, and I suddenly recalled that spring training had started. My thoughts, I'm afraid, turned quite abruptly from repentance. Grant me this slippage. The last few weeks have been hard, with L. in the flower shop all day and night, the cold, the taxes, and the soggy basement. Somewhere--it's warm, there's the "life of muscles, rocking soft" (Frost again), the smell of new leather, and hope.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Nearly killed a guy

Friday evening, along Route 1. I was on my way to the Y after work, heading straight into some awful sun glare. There is a marked right turn lane into the Y, really just the shoulder of the road, and I cut over just where the lane begins. I saw the guy, an 18 or 19-year-old, out of my right window as I passed by him. If I had cut over six feet earlier, I would have hit him at 35 mph without a touch on the brakes. Clearly my fault. If I had been driving a little faster and gotten there two seconds earlier, he would probably have still been walking up the turning lane. If I had killed him there--not so clearly my fault. Frail consolation, but not my fault. But he also might have edged along the roadside weeds, then stepped onto the shoulder past the marked lane, where he felt he was safe.

Painted lines. And the social agreement to follow them.

Every once in a while, the local police set up a roadblock at the main intersection in town and ticket people who get in the turning lane too early. Only when the township needs some quick cash, we say cynically. A couple of years ago I got caught. I was pretty steamed, but I paid my $92. But funny thing, ever since, in a low-level Pavlovian way, I am loath to cross any painted lines. In the light of Friday's experience, I consider it $92 well spent.

Never be too old to learn. Never be too proud to accept instruction. As my guru used to say, "Humbleness is the dwelling place of the forefathers." Zen mind is beginner's mind. The Psalmist too praises the old who are young. "If a good man reproves me, it is a kindness" (Ps. 141) and "Since my youth, o God, you have taught me" (Ps. 71).

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Literary hiking?

Roc here. Had a fine day yesterday. I called in sick because my stomach hurt and I hadn't gotten much sleep. But I felt better about ten, and went hiking instead of worrying about the 12,001 things that need to be done around the house. "When you feel like you can't get away, that's when you need to get away." One of my rules for living that I've not followed very well the last few years. And you all remember my essay in Galen Smith's Upsouth, the one that began, "For the office-bound I heartily recommend the mid-week hike." (I'll have to post some of that old stuff.) Anyway, the temp was 15-20 with a stiff wind, but I have some good gear and I was ready. I wasn't really hiking hiking, I just had in mind a two hours' walk up a trail in the local state park, a route that I call "The Active Senior" (an hour in and you pass right by the picnic area bathrooms). The Alberta Clipper had come through during the night, so a clear blue sky and a half-inch of powder provided a fine backdrop for the stately gray trees. It's a very nice trail, lots of up and down, crosses a number of small streams, and ends in a stand of tall firs. Good tall trees all the way, too, and--there's those bathrooms.

But what I was getting at: When I stopped and listened to the streams, I heard I'm going out to clean the pasture spring and Watch the water clear, I may. Whole, apropos phrases from the aforementioned essay sprang unbidden to mind. I recalled a poem I wrote thirteen years ago, when I was very unemployed, and writing and reading a whole lot. I've been very nostalgic the last few weeks and I'm sure that's part of it. But it made this old Buddhist realize--thoughts and associations don't necessarily "cover over" experience. Maybe they intensify it. At least literature does. Maybe that's why John Updike wrote, "Reading is the best part of life" (Bech: a Book).

Even better, when I got home I felt like reading poetry. And I discovered a poem that was new to me. The poem was Galway Kinnell's tribute to Robert Frost, which I had never read before, in a book I've had for twenty years. Kinnell gratuitously uses phrases by Frost throughout the poem to illustrate how deeply Frost has entered into and deepened our American consciousness. It was an eerily perfect ending to the day.