Honoring Paul

I got up at 3:30 AM on Friday morning last week. Seriously, no exaggeration, no lying.

It worked out fine, and I didn’t even feel bad, surprisingly. The reason? My brother Paul was slated to receive the Charles. Martin Award for Association Leadership — the highest award of the Iowa State Education Association.

It is an honor he richly deserves. Like me he has been a member of the Association throughout his entire teaching career, but unlike me he rapidly moved into leadership positions, including long-time presidency of his local Association, chief negotiator for about thirty years as well as serving as head of grievance and negotiations for the same amount of time. He’s also been prominent and important at the state level — representative to the Delegate Assembly for nearly twenty years, many roles for the Unit Nine Board, and the ISEA Executive Board. The presentation of the award especially acknowledged his mentoring role for younger teachers in Oskaloosa and around the state, which is, as they said, “perhaps, his greatest legacy.”

The ISEA Delegate Assembly was last Thursday and Friday, and I wanted to be president to see him receive the award, as did my sister Margaret, Paul’s superintendent and many, many friends. My brother David would have been there, too, except he used his personal time to attend the recent state math conference.

Anyway, I set the alarm or 3:30, and when it let off I actually got up easily, having fallen asleep deliberately at 9:00 PM on Thursday evening. Showering, shaving, dressing, packing some beverages for the trip, and wolfing down a half a grapefruit and some milk in the dark consumed not quite an hour. Janet had recommended I buy a convenience-store cappuccino for the drive and warm it up in the microwave just before I left, it’s was a good idea except I let it cook too long and wasted some time cleaning up boiled-over cappuccino before hopping in the truck and heading out into the dark, just about an hour earlier than I might have headed out for a morning run.

Why is this ISU picture of Hilton Coliseum mostly sky?

I drove east out of Maquoketa to Anamosa, picking up 151 to Cedar Rapids, and then it was all Highway 30 across the state to Ames. Dawn light started to appear in the rearview mirror somewhere between Cedar Rapids and Tama. Predictably there were not many cars on the road at that unusual hour, but there were more than I expected, and the route around the Cedar Rapids was plentifully hectic, thinning, as one might expect, as I drove west beyond the city. Although Google Maps had predicted a three hour and forty minute drive and even directed me within a news into a neighborhood east of where I wanted to go, the middle of nowhere, basically, and I had to seek out the Hilton Coliseum using my own wits, just like it was the 20th century, I had parked the truck right near the south entrance by 7:40.

If you ever want to plant a bomb or otherwise terrorize a large gathering in a public place like that, my recommendation (not serious, of course) is to arrive early, dressed like everyone else and ask to go to the bathroom. In truth, I think the guards like me had no reason to suspect that anyone, not even the state Association of school boards, would have any desire to bomb the ISEA Delegate Assembly. I killed a little time writing on my Sepharad story and then hiked around the oval outside the basketball court about three times before spotting my relatives — Margaret and sister-in-law Nancy — waiting for me to arrive. Paul’s honor occurred about fifteen minutes later than predicted, but that’s large meetings for you. He gave a splendid speech, far better than I would have done, lasting about 12 minutes, filled with nostalgic memories, wit, personal acknowledgments, genuine insight and truth. Afterward we hung about until the end of the morning session, not really attending to matters of the redistribution of Uniserve regions or the recommendation to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq in order to provide more money for education, and chatted as Paul received well-wishers and old friends at the rear of the assembly.

Eat here only if you enjoy this kind of joint

For lunch the family and some of his friends drove over to Hickory Park, a restaurant with which the rest seem to be familiar but which I fear will probably not receive my business again, just not my kind of place — too loud, too folksy and with far too hard benches for seating at the tables. Our waitress young was excellent, and I really enjoyed my spinach salad (except for the excessive amount of bacon bits). I took a note to tell Janet that if you crossed a Cracker Barrel with Thunder Bay Grille (on the north end of Davenport and part of a small chain owned by a rich Republican businessman) with a hint of TGI Friday’s (something about looking down the hall by a long row of booths), and hung a powerful stench of smoked meat in the air, you’d have something like Hickory Park. Intriguingly for such a place, their portions — except for the salads, of which Paul and I were the only partakers — were curiously small.

Anyway we all chatted amiably, and I was heading home, having switched from a dress shirt and jacket into a hoodie Guinness sweatshirt, about 2:00 PM. I preferred to drive out in the dark to drive home, although it was a beautiful cloudless afternoon, and I really had good luck not getting behind semis or pokey drivers, usually. I had planned to stop at the Mesquakie reservation for gas (and desperately needed to urinate at that point and therefore did stop), where the price was listed about three cents less than elsewhere in the state, but apparently every other driver on Highway 30 had the same plan — there were at least twenty cars waiting to go through the pumps.

So that was my Friday. I’d intended to make this honor Paul (who is retiring this June, as I and his wife did a year ago — but he is becoming a Methodist minister as a second career, one he has been accomplishing already for at least a decade, even founding two Hispanic parishes in Oskaloosa and in Ottumwa), but the post degenerated more into a tedious trip summary. Oh well. Let’s see what you get for tomorrow.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Humility Arises from Humiliation

Unfortunately for my apparently dwindling readership, going through my poetry files has been entertaining me immensely. As I don’t see actual publication as a reasonable goal, the blog makes a good place to deposit what I find, and I also have enjoyed recently framing each of the poems with some kind of reminiscence and analysis. I may even go back and add introductions and closings to the earlier poetry posts that lack such blather.

Most of the poems I have chosen to present here please me in some way, to at least a tiny degree. And that is true of this one, too. But this one is different. First of all, it is the oldest poem that I have in my poetry files. I have other, worse ones, more humiliating to read today, buried in the volumes of the MPHS Creative Writing Anthologies of my high school years. Probably much fewer than even fifty people have those spiral-bound, typewritten collections yet, so those old poems should be pretty safely buried. I am not sure I know where my copies are right now.

I wrote “Morning dew-dappled” (which has always been untitled until its appearance here)—pretty close to this version—back in the spring of 1971 (as noted below). A subsequent equivalent event cause a reconsideration and some changes exactly a year later, and I have toyed with it since. The poem arose (an appropriate verb in this case) from the morning after our senior Prom at Mt. Pleasant High School, watching the sun rise on a glorious May (I assume it was May) Sunday morning. I was 17.

It is pretty embarrassing to review now what I wrote and presumably actually felt then. It’s too exuberant and demonstrative (and I was showing off my reading and my vocabulary). I know I believed in those freewheeling years that poetry had to be valid (I think we used the word true then), so I know that I actually felt this poem sincerely. I also know I reworked this poem after a similar morning after a similar night-out with a different girl a year later. How “true” does that make this?

Henry James isn’t the only writer to wonder what might happen if two different versions of oneself could meet. I feel fairly certain that my youthful self would think the modern me too ordinary, too dull, too old, too conventional and prudish, too drab to have any connection with himself. But that annoying and selfish teenager humiliates me. Possibly more on that in posts to come. For now take a look at seventeen…


Too Bright for Sight

Morning dew-dappled wine-wild sunrise,
and the gilt-golden sun-shimmerer
brightfantastic crowns the earth
in crimson tendrils of delusion-delicate dawn.

Night succumbs, purpledark
like a demented delirious dæmon;
the moon, a palewhite crystal crescent,
hangs on the edge of the departing night
and the sealight blue of the new dawn sky.

Martyr-marevllous, the myriad musecolored dawn
swirls into the brighteastern sky.
Racing relentless with it,
dazzled eyes encompassed with its psychosis,
alone in my mind: the highway departs beneath.

Inexplicable bubbles foam like Pepsi
inside my electrified mouth—
and alone, whirling with wordy rhythms,
riding meteor-quickly, a surprising sunrise.
Flying alone like a solitary skyborne falcon
into the bright golden dawn,
racing past equinox to discover day.

Out of the bleak night
the sunrise (lovely lady) leads me
silversilked like music, saying
the price of this dawn’s
the doom of the night

(sun stealing sky from the stars),
a weight of ransom paid.

Sorrow is an ethereal coin
with which we purchase our brief freedoms.
Freely soaring in the fragile blueing sky,
wind rushing icecool against me,
sunbright amber too bright for sight,
alone and laughing with the wild wind,
one with the surreal sunrise.

(What price will be paid for this incarnadine dawn?
Who will buy this cola-bubbling purple joy
rising effervescent in my icicle soul?
With what worldly coin will who purchase a wordwine,
wondering in his wage-earning walleted mind
what wily words are these with which I wander?)

Dynamic dancing dawn spills across the world,
the moment, mystic, passed
when night and day, darkness and light,
are balanced evenly on a cosmic scale,
carmine-crystalline dawn.

Spring 1971

I taught William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” for almost twenty years in American Literature/Advanced Composition (now there’s a jawbreaker of a course title; someday I may have to discuss the arcane and superficial realities of entitling courses in the State of Iowa to please certain state universities and the Department of Education—it doesn’t really matter what you taught in the course so much as what you called it). Bryant wrote his great poem at 17 (and it really is a great poem; the longer I taught it the more I could see in it, although like most of my students, on first reading it seemed incomprehensibly dull)—tinkering with it and adding a final portion over the next seven years. Click the link and read his poem. Look back at my drivel. I was 17, too. No comparison, sadly.

I have admitted in previous poetry posts to some of my stylistic weaknesses, and you can appreciate them fullblown and unselfconscious in this bit of verse.

In my teens and early twenties (during high school and college) I like most fellow pseudo-poets loved and overused free verse (and/or song lyrics), so predictably this little ode to dawn joy is written in free verse. I also enjoyed using various indentations to excite a poem’s appearance on the page, but in my halting use of HTML today, I can’t do much more so far than get the font I like (Palatino) for various posts (and I intend to go back and edit that HTML aspect of my earlier poems and essays that I hadn’t fancied up with fontwork). So the appearance of this poem here isn’t quite my intention, and in studying the HTML version of this post, I don’t know yet how I got the double-indent on the penultimate stanza. This isn’t the same as the basic word-processed version for page layout, but it’s adequate. I actually like how the last three stanzas remain indented, accidentally—along with this closing—from the actual margin, as they constitute a kind of second movement.

As for the situation/story of the poem: it’s dawn (rather over-gorgeously, but appropriately adolescent perhaps), and there’s a ghost of the moon in the brightening sky. The speaker is driving in a car at highway speeds (“racing relentless”) and feels exhilarated and inspired. Comparing the sunrise to a woman, he begins to feel a sadness of some kind but still finds himself caught up in the rush of light and novelty a new days brings. Parenthetically, a part of his mind wonders if he can sell this feeling or the poem that might result. But he and the day rush on.

I do think a few things link this poem with “Thanatopsis.” Bryant also feels that sadness about something and has Nature offer consolation. His philosophy exposes such adolescent grief as glimpses of the necessary truth: “I am going to die.” Profoundly and Romantically, Nature’s solace has no hint of religious comfort—no afterlife, no reward, simply union with all of dead humanity and with nature in the process of decomposition. Perhaps the consolation arises in his imagery and figurative gambits, as the language conceals the biochemical reality, and the famous last stanza leaps nobly into metaphor and simile and pure gorgeous language. My speaker never probes so far: he feels some sort of sadness but never explores what it might be, caught up in simple sensations, and he just races on, imprisoned in time’s delightful rush, alone.

Some of my youthful literary interests can be felt behind the poem, although I recall trying my hardest to hide the influences.

One reason I still like this poem is because in 1981, just ten brief years afterward (although they felt like lifetimes then), also on a May morning, at dawn, I felt equally balanced between night and bright possibility, having driven in my blue Ford van around Jackson County for hours (all this before a work day) after leaving Janet, wondering and exploring in my imagination and emotions what this new relationship might be or become. Even at 27, it was a deliciously, enthusiastically adolescent experience, and this poem, when I rediscovered it a few years later, reminded me more of that joyful day’s arrival (fortunately I have forgotten the long day at school that followed) than my senior Prom. Or the one a year later.

Even though we had just started to know each other and had not yet gone out on anything like a date together (just group gatherings at The Loft and/or the Maquoketa truck stop café after rehearsals for Romantic Comedy), I asked Janet to be my date to the 1981 Andrew Prom, me being a teacher and expected to attend. Although she made her wifely appearance at later proms, in May 1981 she turned me down.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.