Grandpa and Sam McGee

Opa grew up dirt poor in northwestern MN, one of a large family of Swedish immigrants. He was more or less orphaned when he was sixteen, so he persuaded a couple of buddies to see if they could winter off the land up along the Canadian border.

Whenever the temps and wind chills dig into the minus twenty, minus thirty range, I wonder how they pulled it off back around 1923. It’s no wonder that one of his favourite poems was The Cremation of Sam McGee. He knew it by heart and needed little prompting to recite it to you.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

BY ROBERT W. SERVICE

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

The Three Goals

By David Budbill

The first goal is to see the thing itself in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly for what it is.

No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing as unified, as one, with all the other ten thousand things. In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals, to see the universe and the particular
simultaneously.

Regarding this one, call me when you get it.


An Echo

The first goal is to show that the individual has agency and free choice.

The second goal is to show that the individual is also a part of kin and kith, without fail, with no exception. These groupings are varied and vast and remake through time.

The third goal is to demonstrate an interaction between the individual and their communities such that there are private and communal benefits in a consistent fashion, operating under predictable forces.

Regarding this one, I’m working on it.

Emily Dickinson, measurer

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes – 
I wonder if It weighs like Mine – 
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long – 
Or did it just begin – 
I could not tell the Date of Mine – 
It feels so old a pain – 

I wonder if it hurts to live – 
And if They have to try – 
And whether – could They choose between – 
It would not be – to die – 

I note that Some – gone patient long – 
At length, renew their smile –  
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil – 

I wonder if when Years have piled –  
Some Thousands – on the Harm –  
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –  

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve – 
Enlightened to a larger Pain –  
In Contrast with the Love –  

The Grieved – are many – I am told –  
There is the various Cause –  
Death – is but one – and comes but once –  
And only nails the eyes –  

There's Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –  
A sort they call "Despair" –  
There's Banishment from native Eyes – 
In sight of Native Air –  

And though I may not guess the kind –  
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –  

To note the fashions – of the Cross –  
And how they're mostly worn –  
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like my own – 

Poets.org

Thinking of friends who have experienced some out-of-the-natural-course-of-things deaths in recent years. Wishing them peace in this holiday season.

Unknown Bird (1999)

by W.S. Merwin

Out of the dry days
through the dusty leaves
far across the valley
those few notes never
heard here before

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

and is gone before it
goes on fallen into
its own echo leaving
a hollow through the air
that is dry as before

where is it from
hardly anyone
seems to have noticed it
so far but who now
would have been listening

it is not native here
that may be the one
thing we are sure of
it came from somewhere
else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for
no one who is here
hoping to be heard
by another of its own
unlikely origin

trying once more the same few
notes that began the song
of an oriole last heard
years ago in another
existence there

it goes again tell
no one it is here
foreign as we are
who are filling the days
with a sound of our own

W. S. Merwin (September 30, 1927 – March 15, 2019) received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for The Shadow of Sirius. His many works of poetry and translation included Present Company (2007), Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005), and a version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2004).

From The Atlantic

Haunted Houses

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – 1807-1882

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapoursdense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.

Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star
An undiscovered planet in our sky.

And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,—

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

For C.W.B.

Elizabeth Bishop

                           I

Let us live in a lull of the long winter winds
      Where the shy, silver-antlered reindeer go
On dainty hoofs with their white rabbit friends
      Amidst the delicate flowering snow.

All of our thoughts will be fairer than doves.
     We will live upon wedding-cake frosted with sleet.
We will build us a house from two red tablecloths,
      And wear scarlet mittens on both hands and feet.

                          II

Let us live in the land of the whispering trees,
    Alder and aspen and poplar and birch,
Singing our prayers in a pale, sea-green breeze,
    With star-flower rosaries and moss banks for church.

All of our dreams will be clearer than glass.
    Clad in the water or sun, as you wish,
We will watch the white feet of the young morning pass
    And dine upon honey and small shiny fish.

                         III

Let us live where the twilight lives after the dark,
    In the deep, drowsy blue, let us make us a home.
Let us meet in the cool evening grass, with a stork
    And a whistle of willow, played by a gnome.

Half-asleep, half-awake, we shall hear, we shall know
    The soft "Miserere" the wood-swallow tolls.
We will wander away where wild raspberries grow
    And eat them for tea from two lily-white bowls.

Every Word Leads to Every Other, and No Spaces Between

We do not speak of geography,

so shortcuts cannot affect our way.

I cannot even permit your saying “No shortcuts,”

because the blackbird must sing three notes

before it sings a fourth,

because there are (movements

to be passed through)

no shortcuts,

because the bubbles that rise to the pond’s surface

must work their way through the lily roots,

and each concentric circle touch the shore.

 

This is not geography,

because we cannot foretell

where we are going,

seeing as how we are carried,

and know only where we have come,

recognized if we are lucky

by where we were last.

The rose leaf has no destination

when it drops through the trellis

and could not land on the bench

without drifting by the hedge

and does not after all stay

 

anywhere. A breeze lifts it

beside the cat who comes round the corner

of the hedge to find the lizard,

a surprise impossible to fall upon

by crawling through the hedge

with any idea of shortcut.

I find myself

in a garden of no geography,

and could not have come another way

when I did not even know

this as a place where we would arrive.

Judith Lee Stronach (1943–2002) was a journalist, poet, arts patron and social activist. A leader in numerous human rights and peace organizations as well as Buddhist groups, she was also a great friend to Inquiring Mind and served as poetry editor for the past few years.

Praise for Emily

The brain is wider than the sky, 
  For, put them side by side, 
The one the other will contain beside.
  With ease,and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea, 
  For hold them, blue to blue, 
The one the other will absorb, 
  As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God, 
  For, heft them, pound for pound, 
And they will differ, if they do, 
  As syllable from sound.

Emily Dickinson’s mind was so much her own that there is nothing in literature quite like her unpredictable twists of thought and her trick of changing cryptic non sequiturs into crystal epigrams. She is inexhaustible and inimitable.

Lives of the Poets

Tired

Dream Variations
Langston Hughes – 1902-1967



To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

Charlotte Mew, a poet you never knew

Monsieur Qui Passe

A purple blot against the dead white door
In my friend’s rooms, bathed in their vile pink light,
I had not noticed her before
She snatched my eyes and threw them back to me:
She did not speak till we came out into the night,
Paused at this bench beside the klosk on the quay.
 
God knows precisely what she said—
I left to her the twisted skein,
Though here and there I caught a thread,—
Something, at first, about “the lamps along the Seine,
And Paris, with that witching card of Spring
Kept up her sleeve,—why you could see
The trick done on these freezing winter nights!
While half the kisses of the Quay—
Youth, hope,-the whole enchanted string
Of dreams hung on the Seine’s long line of lights.”
 
Then suddenly she stripped, the very skin
Came off her soul,-a mere girl clings
Longer to some last rag, however thin,
When she has shown you-well-all sorts of things:
“If it were daylight-oh! one keeps one’s head—
But fourteen years!—No one has ever guessed—
The whole thing starts when one gets to bed—
Death?-If the dead would tell us they had rest!
But your eyes held it as I stood there by the door—
One speaks to Christ-one tries to catch His garment’s hem—
One hardly says as much to Him—no more:
It was not you, it was your eyes—I spoke to them.”
 
She stopped like a shot bird that flutters still,
And drops, and tries to run again, and swerves.
The tale should end in some walled house upon a hill.
My eyes, at least, won’t play such havoc there,—
Or hers—But she had hair!—blood dipped in gold;
And there she left me throwing back the first odd stare.
Some sort of beauty once, but turning yellow, getting old.
Pouah! These women and their nerves!
God! but the night is cold!

And Paris, with that witching card of Spring Kept up her sleeve,—why you could see The trick done on these freezing winter nights! While half the kisses of the Quay—

Two Races

I SEEK not what his soul desires. 
  He dreads not what my spirit fears. 
Our Heavens have shown us separate fires. 
  Our dooms have dealt us differing years.
Our daysprings and our timeless dead 
  Ordained for us and still control 
Lives sundered at the fountain-head, 
  And distant, now, as Pole from Pole.
Yet, dwelling thus, these worlds apart, 
  When we encounter each is free 
To bare that larger, liberal heart 
  Our kin and neighbours seldom see.
(Custom and code compared in jest-- 
  Weakness delivered without shame-- 
And certain common sins confessed 
  Which all men know, and none dare blame.)
E'en so it is, and well content 
  It should be so a moment's space, 
Each finds the other excellent, 
  And--runs to follow his own race!

by Rudyard Kipling

Romancing Infrastructure

City Union Bridge spanning the River Clyde, Glasgow, Scotland

River Clyde

The Glasgow people do take pride
In their river both deep and wide,
In early times the youth and maid
Did o’er its shallow waters wade.

But city money did not grudge,
And dug it deep with the steam dredge,
And now proudly on its bosom floats
The mighty ships and great steamboats.

No wonder citizens take pride
For they themselves have made the Clyde,
Great and navigable river,
Where huge fleets will float forever.

Dunbarton’s lofty castle rock
Which oft’ has stood the battle’s shock,
The river it doth boldly guard,
So industry may reap reward.

But more protection still they deem
Is yet required so down the stream
Strong batteries are erected,
So commerce may be safe protected.

Old ocean now he doth take pride
To see upon his bosom ride
The commerce of his youngest bride,
The fair and lovely charming Clyde.

James Mcintyre

Chaucer’s henpecked husbands

The husbands portrayed by Chaucer are uniformly unromantic and pathetically unheroic. Rarely in literature have males been so roundly ridiculed, so easily cajoled, and so blandly cuckolded. Chaucer’s married men are regularly henpecked, humiliated, beaten, betrayed, and exhibited as objects of defenseless servility. In a few rare instances-“The Knight’s Tale” and “The Franklin’s Tale” are two of them-Chaucer allows that marriage and love can flourish in the same bed. But the poor husband is at peace only if he relinquishes the role of master and remains a servant to his termagant spouse.

Lives of the Poet’s, Louis Untermeyer

Apparently the macho male, master of his family, is a more modern creation. From the 1300’s to today, something changed in the power structure of marriage. Domestic power in the Middle Ages swilled around the women. And Chaucer didn’t mince words on how its influence appeared in the fairer sex.

Women as women, however-and, in particular, women as wives were terrible realities. They were not merely shrewish but shameless, garrulous, greedy, disloyal, and licentious. Worse, they were united in an un written but universally recognized conspiracy to subject their husbands to every possible indignity. The husband of Philippa cannot be definitely identified with the creator of The Canterbury Tales, but it is unlikely that a happily married author would speak so scurrilously of the marital state and take obvious pleasure in so many humiliating incidents, grimly detailing the triumphs ofSo wifehood and the ignominious capitulation of the woman’s miserable partner.

In the 600 years since Chaucer is thought to have wrote The Canterbury Tales (around 1380) household power dynamics made a mighty shift. Now that women have come back into their own, maybe it’s time to be on the watch once again for the hen pecked husbands.

The Butterfly

The Butterfly

by Alice Freeman Palmer

I HOLD you at last in my hand,
— Exquisite child of the air.
Can I ever understand
— How you grew to be so fair?

You came to my linden tree
— To taste its delicious sweet,
I sitting here in the shadow and shine
— Playing around its feet.

Now I hold you fast in my hand,
— You marvelous butterfly,
Till you help me to understand
— The eternal mystery.

From that creeping thing in the dust
— To this shining bliss in the blue!
God give me courage to trust
— I can break my chrysalis too!

Robert Louis Stevenson weighs in on Shadows

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Source: The Golden Book of Poetry (1947)