VERMONT POEMS



Vermont is a special place nestled between two ranges of mountains, bordered by a river and a lake, a visually beautiful place to live, and in many ways a Shangri-La of the mind. There is a high density of poets, musicians and composers, essayists, novelists, sculptors and painters, in this low-population state, where deer outnumber people. These poems came from the ambience of Vermont, I wrote many as I got older and more appreciative of the seasonally green or white world around me.

SUMMER SOUNDS IN THE VALLEY

They say there was nothing else in the July valley then
but the whistle of sharpening stones fine-tuning the scythe blades.
You could here that whirr everywhere in the hayfields long
before the Ford tractors came thumping onto the land.
To a scythe man,this was a prelude to his work,
work which you must have practice in since a boy,
and a natural talent for. Some men just whopped grass down flat,
while others with the hand for it laid the long grasses down
neatly in rows, each spike in its place. You could call it
cheap labor and hardly worth the pay. But I call it art,
a country style of dancing with a pole hooked to a razor blade,
the body swinging with unconscious ease, advancing just enough
at the right moment of the swinging pendulum of man and tool.
Tolstoy knew about this craft, yet you don't have to be
more than a country hired man to see the tresses of new laid grass,
smelling your sweat fragranced by the scent of hay.

The young virtuoso concertized, went back to his native land,
telling the press (if we translate aright) the others played wrong!
In art there are no kings, we all of us ---all--- peasants.

She fine-tunes her cello with what seems insouciant care,
Attentively hearing the minute changes which the screws make clear.
From the yard you can hear her testing the intervals again.
A few strokes with the bow just to see if ready, and then
Her hand swings the horse-tail instrumentum we call a bow
across the strings, in a single sweep from foot and floor,
other hand on the ebony neckpiece, quivering
in absolute precision. This was the prelude to her work,
work which you must have practice in since a child,
with a natural talent. Some just whop across the strings,
while other with the hand for it lay the long slurs down
neatly in rows, each note in its place. Endless practicing,
endless reaching toward some perfection which I call art,
but never paid in common coin, since art is paid in art.
Swinging slightly off the front of a chair, moving arm and hand
in different quadrants of the mind, making sound ring out
ordered and disordered, the right nuance of the wrist
bringing a touch of singing into the air.

I can recall his concert playing, and now I see
more clearly his cleverness, his wondrous mannerism,
his newness, those enchantingly well wrought sounds
that captured us all that evening in the concert hall.

By some odd chance my young son in the other room
this moment took his cello up and did once more,
in his slightly erratic fashion, the first Prelude, the one
his teacher mimicked yesterday somewhat cruelly.
Tonight he is tuning his playing more carefully,
and I think he is learning about the kind of care
which all in this world demands. The notes are slow,
he is thinking of the bow arm, it is all very tentative.
It is more listening tonight rather than doing.

Next summer we will go out in the hayfield, I will say
(putting my best scythe into his surprised hands)
Son let me see you mow. Do it the way you do cello,
and think of the Prelude as you sweep. To his surprise!
I'll bet he will be a talented mower, and I guess soon
he will ask for the sharpening stone, knowing that
you never start work without tuning your instrument.



REQUIEM FOR AN OLD FELLOW

The old man decided to take Hunter out for a long walk
Before going to the vet. Thirteen years was a good time
Dogwise, and the puppy who had come into the house
Frisking, pissing, licking, looking in everyone's eyes
Had slowly changed into a fine old gentleman- - -
Gentledog- - - who had enough sense to understand
Nihil admirari without translating Latin. He felt
All the same things, the wind, the new smells, the
Strange something in the area, unsaid, indefinable.
But he knew to keep it all in, there was so much already there
That this was just addition, stick it in on the rest,
And let it be because it won't really matter.

In spring he lay in the new grass, no longer rolling
But just lying there, smelling the freshness, and glad
To be there again, having made it through the winter
Again.
Now the evening was cool, there was wetness, somewhere
A raccoon had crossed the road. We walking together,
The man on his leash, just walking together.
A fast pickup truck swerved around the bend
And the trip to the vet was unnecessary. The leash
Had to be detached, and the crushed Hunter who was,
Was carried back to the spot he liked most and buried.
That's the end of it, from then on it would all be
Just memories.


Well, that's often exactly the way it always turns out. You see,
I had just fixed up the fast idle cam on the carb
Of the ancient 2.2 Aries station wagon, and had already typed
A list of its excellences to go in the back door window,
I was going down to the store to get a red
FOR SALE for the front door window. It was a $950 car
I had bought six years ago, a faithful servant, bearer
Of bags of cement and nails, puller of a trailerload
With sand for a chimney, long lengths of walnut overhung,
Its heartbeat still strong but some softening of the arteries
Which go to the brakes, lots of places where alchemy had turned
Steel into red powder.
Thirteen years is a good time for a car, which had come frisking
Home from the dealer's, shining in everyone's eye, then
Slowly sinking a little in the springs, the paint spotting,
The carpets rotting, the floorboards disappearing, it was all
"- - -old- - -" suddenly. I had worked
Endlessly on it, with new parts from the Depot,
A timing belt that took two days to install when the old one split
Leaving us hopeless in a drenching, blinding downpour.
But I persisted more from habit than from love,
Until this morning I decided to take it down
To the highway and get a sign, put a sign on it and sell it off.
I listed all the good part, thought I would tell
A buyer about the weaknesses before I took his cash.
She was hard starting that morning, as if unwilling to go,
Finally coughed into action, went down the road
Unwilling. Something felt wrong. I later thought
I should have known, having had her around for so long.
Down the long hill after Senecal's Oil on the hill I felt
A crunch like a kneecap splintering, she went down on one side,
I grabbed the wheel to hold her still, but she stopped herself
Groveling on the roadbed. A man I knew somewhere
Was following, stopped, and told me the left wheel
Was sticking out, lying like a fractured leg on the road.

So there was no proud selling, but quick call to Willie's junkyard.
He came in half an hour with his truck, took her off the road,
Paying me forty dollars for what remained. I went home
Glad it was no worse, no accident, no rolling in the ditch
Turning and tumbling. No recriminations from an incensed buyer,
Pointing at the broken wheel and telling me he had hoped
I was an honest man.

It was all over, and I was glad. But I remembered the days
We had got up early morning and loaded her up with tools,
Going to build the new house two towns over. Even
The radio worked, and I could hear Bach mornings
Or Strauss. She was gone now and I was relieved. Glad.
It was a little like a divorce. It was time to go, couldn't go on
Forever. It was the right time, it was OK, and I was relieved,
But in the back of my mind I missed her, actually
I thought of her a lot, and the fact that she was no long there
Gave me more thinking than I had thought, tied to her still,
By that odd contraption, the leash of memory.



IN SILENT SYMPATHY

Wa..ll, we was going down the road, and I says to him
"Henry". You see his name was Henry, or at least I thought it was.
"HENRY" and he don't say nothing, just driving
Squinting down the road like he was looking for a squirrel
Or something else to shoot. 'YOU mad?" ~Nope".
"Then why you don't answer when I talk to you, Henry?"

He don't say nothing again. I'm getting annoyed
Thinking that it is a long road down to Troy, it could be
Damn sight longer if he don't talk at all. Sure
There are some silent types in Vermont they just live
Minding their own business. Don't do no harm
I guess, just a pain in the butt if you want conversation.
Looks like he might be of that persuasion.

Then he says "Joe...." out of the blue. I'm looking out
The window down toward the meadow, wondering why
He's saying "Joe". After a while he says "Joe" again,
And I think this is a pretty peculiar kind of guy
Driving a 1973 Chevvy pickup down Rte 149 saying "Joe".
Maybe he sees something odd and is saying "By Joe!".
But there's nothing odd. You know, he's damn odd,
This Henry keeps on saying "Joe".

Then he says "You mad or something?" looking right at me.
"ME? Not at all. Why you ask?" "Waa...ll, I keep saying 'Joe'
And you never says nothing. Thought I might have said
Something that offended you."
"But my name ain't Joe." "And mine ain't Henry."
Waa...ll, whatta you know, he can actually talk, and then
He starting telling me everything about his wife's illnesses,
And what a fuck off his son is, and how that guy
Down at the Ford agency cheated him on this truck,
Saying that it was an antique, but it was just an old
Piece of crap. Gotta watch out for those city guys,
They'll try to sell you anything. Flatlanders. Ugh!

After a while I began to wish he'd shut up. Henry, I said
"How 'bout a little quiet, I might take a nap." He kept on
About something the vet said about his herd. And what the bank
Wanted to do with his mortgage. And his stomach ailments.
"0K! if you ain't Henry, what the hell is your name."
"George. And yours...?" "It sure ain't Joe! I'm Hector."
What I'm trying to say, George, is shut the hell up,
Will you?" "OK, Hector. I hate talking about nothing,
I was just trying to cheer you up."

The rest of the way to Troy we sat in comfortable silence
The way two Vermont men should, and when we got there,
I got out of the truck and gave him a nod, he inclined his head
Slightly to show he noticed my nod. Saw him again later that year,
He looked me right in the eye and said nothing.
I guess we both had learned our lesson, although I still
Take great pleasure talking to the dog. He listens well
Cocking his head from side to side, in silent sympathy.



AND A MERRY CHRISTMAS...

We live on narrow dollar margins, which is what I thought
Waking early up on Christmas eve. My wife was waving an oil bill
Before I was awake, it showed the date
The oil came last. O My God,
It was back in October, we're running out.
And the propane too? Which first?

I unscrewed the plug on the oil tank and slipped a stick
Into the bottom, "FOUR INCHES" is what it said.
The oil people thought that would last a few days more
Even with the cold snap. But this was Christmas eve!
We have wood for the house, but what about the stove,
No propane means no turkey! Imagine trying to fry
Pieces of the dismembered bird on the woodstove top,
Smiling and telling ourselves it was part of country life,

[Son hating the charred meat and saying inside "What a fool
My father, is letting this happen to us, now!".]

It was just dark when the propane truck came, I went out
To talk with the man as he poured the liquid gas in.
Talking about the tank, I found there is always a trick
To everything. The day had warmed up, so there was a line
On my tank where the cold liquid lay, above that sweat.
"That's how you tell if the tank is empty " he explained.

I reminisced as the gas pumped in, about how they used to bring
Small tanks in a small truck, wrestle them into place in the snow.
But here he was with a monster truck, he easily ran
The liquid gas with a red hose over the white snow. Smart,
Saving all those extra cans, the mileage and the labor too!

"I own the truck, subcontract to deliver. It has a Cummins diesel,
Lasts ten years or so. I was a diesel mechanic, rebuild it myself,
Big garage, lots of time to go over it summers.
If I take care, I can get fifteen, twenty years out of her yet.
If I had to go to the dealer, it would eat up all the profit.
I work on a narrow margin.

"Merry Christmas." I repeated,
Put out my hand, his glove was off, we gripped a second,
As I felt three missing fingers. Everybody asks
How you can tell a real Vermonter, is it accent, walk, job?
I can tell you. A real farm boy Vermonter is always short
Fingers, happened when he was eight or ten,
He thinks nothing of it, wears it like a Purple Heart,
A sign of service, something lost in action, no big thing!




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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris