A Man's Life: Gathering the One Great Song
by poems by Samuel Green
August 24, 2011
An ongoing conversation about what if means to be a man in the 21st century.
Sam Green was living in the Seattle area in 1978 and struggling to find his writing voice when poet Carolyn Forché asked him to consider this: “If you want to write a certain kind of poem, maybe you should consider living the sort of life from which such poems might come.”
“It was an amazingly astute statement that would not go away,” Green, the former poet laureate from Washington, told a Wabash audience in February. “It forced me to ask myself, ‘What kinds of poems do I really want to write, and what sort of life might bring them into being?’”
The answers Green found led him and his wife, Sally, to remote Waldron Island in the San Juan chain north of Puget Sound. There he found not only his poetic voice, but also a life among others and, as he writes, stories that “gather as tiny birds/add themselves one & one to the flock, their small throats gathering the One/Great Song that is more than themselves alone.”
“In a small community, what happens to people matters to you in very immediate ways,” says Green, whose home on the island is a log house he and Sally built with their own hands. “You learn to live with people you don’t like, you learn that not liking someone is not an excuse for not being with them.
“I had to live with people as they are, not the way I wanted them to be, which was a great gift for me: I had to change myself because I couldn’t change other people.”
Some poems from this man's life as a son, a husband, and a father:
On Board the Sea Lassie, Summer, 1944
I can bring back the boat, a purse seiner
built in the 20s, white paint flaking
from her rails. She has made her set
& swings like a clapper against
the enormous bell of Alaskan sky.
I can bring back the gulls floating
like flakes of dirty snow sternward,
the smell of leaked diesel, the sound
of the hull scraped with the weight
of tarred cotton & fish.
I can bring back the crew, & I do,
a small group of mostly older men with the ghosts
of their lives in their mouths, the tall Swede
still sweating out last night’s whiskey. They smell
of tobacco smoked or chewed, the sour stench
of unbathed bodies, coffee, and too much grease
in their food.
My father is easy: there are pictures of him then
at seventeen, handsome, high boots & rubber
apron, black-billed hat tipped back, bare arms
as yet without tattoos. Because he is who he is
he is watching the coastline for bears
on the beach. Because he is already
who he will become, he is also doing his job
braced against spray & pitch,
though not neatly enough for his father.
Having brought them here, there is still
nothing I can do about my grandfather’s hands,
those knuckles hard as barnacles slamming
into my father’s face, knocking him down
& onto the hatch cover, again
& again, because he keeps getting up,
too young & strong & full of pride
to simply stay hunched on the deck.
I bring my father back because I want
to tell that boy he will not beat
his own two sons, & they will not
beat theirs, to tell him though he’ll mourn
the fact he cannot mourn his father’s death,
I know I’ll weep for his. But the boy can’t hear me.
He has become an old man in whom pain
has lived like a flapping salmon in his ruined back
his whole life long. I could tell him, & try
whenever I visit. But that’s not the same thing, is it?
At the Pond’s Edge
I come to her the way I’d come
to a pond’s edge in October dusk
so as not to frighten the wood ducks.
My hands move on her flank like a drake
drifting across a pond’s surface
or the slow caress of mist at dawn
hanging now on, now above the still water.
Dusk or dawn, a man can be gentle,
always & all ways gentle,
& still be a man, her slow teaching
over long years, the classroom her body,
nearly a quarter of a century now,
no longer the body’s daily insistence,
the hard urgings that caused me once to
fear my own desire. We have slid
into middle age with sweet understanding,
the pleasure of the long familiar,
a tenderness that still
explodes into sudden wings on the water,
catching us both by surprise.
—for Laura Walker
In the long night, when our sons wake
& their cries come
through our thin sleep so we rise then
from our love’s side
& we move off through the held breath
of the still house
where we lift them from their wet beds
just to hold them
through the strained dark with their warm weight
in our curled arms,
if we walk them, or we rock them,
through our mouths come
all the soft songs from our own past,
whether sleep songs
or the sweet hums that propel them
toward our best hopes,
though the truth is that we can’t take
or their grief-hurts into our selves,
though we wish to
& we try to, all we can do
is to soothe them
through the worst time, for it’s our flesh
held in our flesh
& it won’t stop when they leave us
though they can’t know
that we still sing through the house walls
when the stars call
till our fears still & the heart sleeps
in the long will that the night keeps.
These poems are from The Grace of Necessity, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, (2008), winner of the 2008 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. Reprinted with permission.