Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Readings As Prompts For Poetry

Early in my reading to become a better citizen of the earth, I read one of the cornerstone writings in the American conservation movement, Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac. Leopold lived in what are called the Sand Counties in Wisconsin and wrote about the damage man had done to the environment in his quest to "tame" the land and make it profitable.

One passage that stuck with me for its poetry and imagery was a chapter called "Goose Music." In it Leopold almost cries over the destruction of the natural landscape to make farms that mostly failed anyway. At the end of this chapter he asks this question:

"And when the dawn-wind stirs through the ancient cottonwoods, and the gray light steals down from the hills over the old river sliding softly past its wide brown sand bars—what if there be no more goose music?"

One morning as I walked at the Plains Center where I volunteer as a naturalist, I saw skeins of geese rising from fields to the east, flying toward me and over me. In the prairie quiet I thought of "Goose Music." And this is the poem that came from that memory.

 Goose Music

I walk the faint warmth of a November morning.
A breeze stirs the grass with a soft
hint of sage. The far off honk of geese calls
my eyes to the northeast. Dark lines appear,
skeins of geese, rising  from the lion-colored grass.
More and more lines form, stretch
across the sky, touch the horizons.

They fly low, the swish of blue sky
rushing through their wings,
blends with their calls and the sigh
of sere prairie grass.

The cold and snow of a winter storm
squalling in from the north, pushes them south.
Their Vees, though loose and shifting, show
purpose,  a journey to warmth and life.

I stand wrapped in morning light …
            watching …
                        listening …
                                    feeling …

the lure of goose music.

First published in Distant Horizons, WyoPoets 2009 chapbook.

Another time, I was shepherding a group of visitors up an arroyo at our West Bijou site when I saw and then heard a small flight of a dozen Sandhill Cranes flying toward us. I stopped the group and asked them to be quiet to listen to the haunting calls of the cranes as they flew a few hundred feet over our heads. As I watched them row past us, I remembered another passage from a chapter in Sand County Almanac, "Marshland Elegy."

"Some day, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions, perhaps in the fullness of geologic time, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the baying of the phantom pack, the tinkle of little bells, and then a silence never to be broken, unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way."

That memory of Leopold's elegy for the cranes and their haunting calls as they flew over us and a recent trip to the Bosque del Apache in NM inspired me to write this poem about the cranes.

Phoenix Rising from the Marsh

The setting sun etches the blue-black
ridge against a turquoise and coral sky.
From the dark in the east comes the calls
of sandhill cranes returning to the marsh.
They become silent, set their wings, glide
to smooth landings, and take a few steps
to stretch graceful legs.

This morning, these same cranes flew
from this marsh, rising like phoenixes
from the ash and mud of the Cretaceous,
the spirits of dinosaurs that died millions
of years ago as that era ended. They lifted
slowly into the dawning sky, like Adam
reaching to the hand of God in the Sistine.

A few weeks earlier, these cranes warbled
high in a prairie morning into the sight
of an old warrior walking there, looking
for peace and solitude. He heard their calls,
like the simple notes of a Beethoven adagio.
His soul wanted to fly with the cranes.

As with emotions he felt in the Sistine Chapel
or when he listened to the adagios of Mahler or
Beethoven, he could find no words to express
the joy he felt in their ancient music.

First published in The Weekly Avocet, Dec 2013.

And so we can find poetic inspiration in readings of long ago and their memories as some simple incident in an ordinary day brings back those memories. A piece of poetic prose becomes another man's poem. The poet must be ever observant.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Wonders of Science are Poetic Material

Although my graduate school work was done in English Literature, my undergraduate degree is a BS, unspecified. That's because I graduated from the first class at the Air Force Academy and the Academy then offered no majors. We all took lots of science courses, which gave me a forever interest in science. And this interest has provided topics for some poems I really enjoyed writing.

I read an article about scientists doing genetic research on the coloration of horses based in part on the coloring of horses they found on cave walls at Lascaux and Altimira. I used some of the text from the article as an epigram for a poem about their work.

Spotted Horses

     Scientists studying DNA to discover the colors of horses
     painted on cave walls 25 to 30 thousand years ago found
     that "… there were really only these three color patterns
     — spotted or dappled; blackish ones; and brown ones ….”

The leggy Appaloosa colt first walks
then trots a lazy path around his dam.
He gallops off through tawny prairie grass
and finally finishes his head-long charge
to nuzzle lovingly his mother’s face.
They're two white horses kissed with leopard spots
who seem like mirror images or else
that they have floated off the walls of caves
in France to drop into this sun blessed field.

The scientists who study DNA
have found those leopard spots have been around
for thirty thousand years; they've found a gene
that inks those spots. Do you suppose they'll find
that pony's genes for spirit, grace, and joy?

(Published in Golden Words, 2012.)

As a student at the Academy, I studied celestial navigation, navigating by the stars, much as sailors have done for centuries. I learned the names of some stars and suffered through the mathematics needed to use the altitude of three stars above the horizon and their relative azimuth to the airplanes heading to come up with a small triangle the center of which was the location of the airplane at the average time of the celestial observations. So, I have had a sense of wonderment and delight in looking up on clear nights and identifying those stars and constellations I can still identify.

And I remember looking at the Milky Way and other nebula through binoculars and telescopes to see some of the individual stars and the celestial dust that may some day form other stars. So I have been fascinated by news of the universe around us in the NASA Science News. One particular article told of scientist finding something extravagant in a dark space no bigger than a grain of sand held out at arms length.

To See A World In A Grain Of Sand

A small dark hole at the edge of space
no bigger than a grain of sand held out
at arms length. Curious scientists point
the Hubble telescope and let it watch
that dark for ten days, then for eleven.
It searches thirteen billion light years out
and finds that the darkness, that grain
of sand, holds three thousand galaxies,
each with hundreds of billions of stars
like our Milky Way. The human mind
cannot begin to grasp the magnitude 
of that discovery. How then to grasp
the wonder of the God who flung 
those galaxies and stars for us to find?

(Published in The Weekly Avocet, Jan 2014.)

These two poems are ones I really enjoyed writing and were inspired by science, not art. I like to think that poets are inspired by wonder and there is as much wonder in the discoveries of sciences that unlock nature's secrets as there is in nature herself.