Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Mark Strand on Lake Michigan fifty years ago

There was a girl, I remember, but I don't remember her. There was a girl, someone I'd met just that day--someone we'd met because I was not alone that night and neither was she. She was camping at the park where I worked. I'd returned that night because they were there camping--those girls. They were from Normal, Illinois. Strange that I remember, but I do. I knew no one from Normal, Illinois.

Those nights lit by the moon and the moon’s nimbus,
the bones of the wrecked pier rose crooked in air
and the sea wore a tarnished coat of silver.

Mark Strand's "Night in Hackett's Cove," this morning's Writer's Almanac selection, begins with the moon's silver face on an image that isn't at all glorious: the "bones of a wrecked pier" that rises "crooked" above a shoreline outfitted thoughtlessly in "a tarnished coat of silver."

It feels like a place that could be memorable but wasn't, or at least showed no signs of being a Damascus road. There's more:

The black pines waited. The cold air smelled
of fishheads rotting under the pier at low tide.

There was a girl from Normal, Illinois, that night, two or three of them as I remember. I haven't a clue what she looked like, any of them for that matter. But I certainly do remember there were a million dead alewives washing up on the beach just over the hill. During the day, at work, we'd rake 'em up by the thousands, dump them in a wagon we pulled behind a tractor, and bury them somewhere back in the dunes. They were disgusting. Even the seagulls wouldn't eat them, only peck out their eyes. There they'd lay, in windrows, all over the beach until we'd rake up another half-ton.

The moon kept shedding its silver clothes
over the bogs and pockets of bracken.

I don't remember the moon, and no clothes were shed. I remember only the darkness that night when we came back to the park. What I remember was one late moment when this faceless, nameless girl and I, in the darkness, were just talking along a road in the park.

Nothing happened. If you're waiting to hear me tell a great summer night story about me and a girl from Normal, I can't. Sorry. It was late, and she was interesting in the way girls you didn't know are when you're 19. And while we were talking a state park pickup came up, someone from the night crew. I don't know why, but I didn't want to be seen; so the two of us hustled off the road and got down beneath the outstretched limbs of a pine, on a cushiony bed of needles, which I remember as if all this happened just a few nights ago. The guy in the uniform went by, not fifty feet from where we lay there, giggling. Never saw me.

Had he seen us, nothing would have happened--I wouldn't have been arrested or lost my job. Somehow, at 19, it was just plain cool to be there at that moment, with a girl I didn't know, giggling beneath a pine.

Those nights I would gaze at the bay road,
at the cottages clustered under the moon’s immaculate stare,

There were no cottages. We were in a state park where I worked every day, a park I knew like the back of my hand. 

And here's the way the poem ends:

nothing hinted that I would suffer so late
this turning away, this longing to be there.

I think age plays a role in this poem's endearing epiphany. When I was 20 I'm sure I remembered that night better than I do now, but I didn't feel drawn to it, didn't feel "this longing to be there."

And it's not that I wish to return some night to the park and lay there under a pine and watch a state pickup drive blindly past. That night so long ago wasn't magical. I didn't emerge reborn. Nothing happened. There the two of us lay giggling under a pine, a hundred yards from a thousand dead alewives bunching up on the wet shore sand.

When I walked through Mark Strand's poem this morning, that perfectly meaningless moment in my life washed up with a poignancy it doesn't deserve, except that for no earthly reason it abides in some random drawer or cabinet of memory. There it was, this morning--an early morning moment and I'm 19 years old.

Yesterday, on a Sunday drive with my father-in-law, who'll soon be 97, we passed farms that long ago were home to people long gone. He named those families, one after another. "This was a DeHaan place--but that's years ago."

I don't know that his naming is some "longing to be there," a wish to return. I don't think so. But his country commentaries are full of the tender desire to relive an earlier moment in a life whose drama has passed, maybe even a moment of giggles.

He feels it too, the same odd vision Mark Strand opens up here in "Nights at Hackett's Cove," the unforeseen realization that some quiet morning years later I would so readily and happily relive a dark night of giggles under the spreading branches of a pine.

Out here on the emerald edge of the Great Plains, my father was a long way from Hackett's Cove. But I think he gets it, as I do, this poem of Mark Strand. Poetry brings us to odd places we somehow recognize.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is so true! What is this wonderful mystery of words evoking memories...but they do...with all the mix of sights, colors, smells, sounds, and emotions stored now only in the brain! Or are they stored in our hearts...and in our souls?