Above The Vanished Ground

Richard Wilbur

Writing poetry is talking to oneself; yet it is a mode of talking to oneself in which the self disappears; and the product’s something that, though it may not be for everybody, is about everybody.

Richard Wilbur

The Death of A Toad

by Richard Wilbur

A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
Low, and a final glade.

The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
As still as if he would return to stone,
And soundlessly attending, dies
Toward some deep monotone,

Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia’s emperies.
Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
To watch, across the castrate lawn,
The haggard daylight steer.

In the spring of 2019, all the factors aligned for a small explosion of baby toads the end of May everywhere in Minneapolis. It had to be the right combination of moisture, temperature and soft moon light for toad pick up bars.  Regardless suddenly in every back yard, every front yard and in every school yard, where there was even a tiny bit of grass and shade there were baby toads in multitudes.  Fortunately the lawn that I was helping to keep cut, was tiny, with ample places for baby toads to hop off to safety.  The first mowing, with Wilbur’s poem firmly in my mind, I went slow, mowing around them mindfully, even leaving some grass uncut where there were too many toads to let pass in the pedestrian zone.  But the things that help baby toads prosper are the same things that nurture grass, and so with the lawn turning into the rough at the U. S. Open after a week and it being even harder to see them, I tearfully admit there was some carnage.  Okay, there was lots of carnage, the herd was thinned.  By mid June I was still trying as best I could to mow around the survivors, but I began to realize that sometimes when I purposefully went on the other side of a toad I spotted in my path, it would at the last minute jump into harms way, possibly suicidal over the loss of his pals from this evil contraption built to torment them from the week ago, or on a fools errand, sent by the toad general to make a mighty stand against the steel tank. It never ended well, no ceremonial burial beneath the rhubarb like Wilbur, no 21 gun salute. By August I stopped trying. I realized I actually killed less, and by now we were down to maybe .001% of the original population, if I just moved in a straight line at a reasonable speed and let them get out of the way.  The survivors had figured it out as long as I acted consistently, the tornado staying in tornado alley where it belongs.

Despite my first hand summer long reality TV experience with Richard Wilbur’s famous poem, you would think I had figured it out then.  In fact, Wilbur’s poem just made me more annoyed as the summer passed, I disliked it all the more.  It felt pointless, the poem and all the toad slaughter.  It wasn’t until the Ukraine war began, and men, women and children, unarmed, are being attacked by tanks, that I suddenly had a connection to Wilbur’s poem. I have no idea what Wilbur intended when he wrote it, but it feels to me like the poetic narration to the CNN clip of the family killed in a mortar attack crossing the street in Kyiv, their deaths replayed over and over again on YouTube, their heart blood seeping out on the pavement.  

The problem right now, for me,  is that its harder and harder to believe that good always defeats wrong, that light always overcomes darkness.  Does it?  Not for that family.  Not for George Floyd. And maybe the point of Wilbur’s poem is to remind us of this fact; sometimes you have to get lucky and hop at just the right moment in the right direction. 

Last night on the way home from work I stopped by my local Trader Joe’s to pick up a few things.  There was a car alarm on a late model Toyota going off a few cars away in the parking lot, blaring its sad song. I went in and shopped and came out and it was still at it. Just as I started pulling out of my parking spot, a man approached me, shivering, asking if I could roll down my window.   I stopped and we looked at each other for maybe two seconds.  We were the same age.  He was conspicuously under dressed for the current temperature and wind chill.  He had fear in his eyes and I realized I probably did too.  The spate of high profile car-jackings across the Twin Cities the past year running through my mind and he probably thinking the same, “is this guy crazy?”  I rolled down my window.  He said; “I am the biggest idiot in the world, but I think I locked my keys in my car, and I set off the alarm trying to get in, can you help me?”  A white person calls the police when you lock your keys in your car and they send out a nice young cop to unlock it for you, even free of charge in Elk River, or they dispatch a tow truck with a door jimmy.  In Minneapolis, black men do not call the police to help them open their cars. I said; “sure, hop in.”  He guided me to his house about 4 miles away, and he said as we pulled up, “I will be right back, I know where my extra key is, it will only take a minute.”  He looked me up and down briefly.  His eye’s downcast, imploring silently, unsaid; “are you going to take off the minute I get out?”   I didn’t.   He came back in about 3 minutes.  We drove back and chatted the whole way.   I asked him “where are you from?”  He said, “Queens”.   I asked, “Mets or Yankees?”  He laughed, “Yankees!”  I said “damn, those Yankees eat the Twins for breakfast.” He laughed again and said, “you have no idea how much I appreciate this.” As we approached his car, he hit the fob and the alarm stopped.   I fist bumped him as he climbed out, winked and said, “We were on a mission from God!”, doing my best Blues Brothers imitation.   He smiled and said, “I loved that movie. I still lived in New York when Belushi died.”   To which I thought, man, was that death pointless….

Chronic Condition

by Richard Wilbur

Berkeley did not forsee such misty weather,
Nor centuries of light
Intend so dim a day.  Swaddled together
In separateness, the trees
Persist or not beyond the gray-white
Palings of the air.  Gone
Are whatever wings bothered the lighted leaves
When leaves there were.  Are all
The sparrows fallen?  I can hardly hear
My memory of those bees
Who only lately mesmerized the lawn.
Now, something, blaze!  A fear
Swaddles me now that Hylas’ tree will fall
Where no eye lights and grieves,
Will fall to nothing and without a sound,
I sway and lean above the vanished ground.

Speak Of The World’s Own Change

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017)

Teach me, like you, to drink creation whole/ And casting out myself, become a soul.

Richard Wilbur

A Barred Owl

By Richard Wilbur
The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

Richard Wilbur is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th Century.  Few racked up the awards like him; two Pulitzers, the Bollinger Award, Poet Laureate of the United States (the second after Robert Penn Warren), the Frost Award, and you can go on and on.   I have honestly never understood or even much liked Wilbur because I never understood his most anthologized poem – The Death of a Toad, until the start of the Ukraine war.   And now, I relate to it and him completely differently.  It made me go back and reassess Wilbur and I found him surprisingly humorous.   I also realized what I had always missed before, the context of his use of animals as metaphors and symbols for the tragedy and violence of human existence are informed by a perspective of having survived WWII as a soldier.  
Born into men of letters, the descendant of both a father and grandfather who were editors, it was only natural that Wilbur would find a way to make a living with words.   Wilbur may be a little too formal for today’s mainstream poetry taste’s.  Even in his heyday he was accused by critics that he favored the smoothness of his poetry, picking the rhyme and meter over emotion and content.   But, I think that’s rubbish.  There’s nothing wrong with wordsmithing in my opinion if the reader can figure out the emotion on their own easy enough.  We never accuse a song writer of being too in love with the rhyme in their lyrics, even when the lyrics are complete nonsense, as long as the song writing and singing are first rate and deliver the emotion.   Let’s give poets the same freedom to operate. If the reader can’t summon a little emotion of their own, well then, the poet can bring a reader to the handkerchief, but they can’t make them cry….
There is a sneaky complexity to some of Wilbur’s word choices that I had never considered before reading him this week.  Take the poem above.  Linger on the second word – warping.  What’s being warped?  Reread it and ponder how darkness changes the things we see in the light and how we all domesticate, normalize, our fears. 
The poem below, read it the first time aloud, enjoy the smoothness of the words, don’t give it much thought as to meaning.  Then read it again, now that your subconscious has an idea of what lays ahead, and this time consider how much of the imagery and ideas are a defiance of the God of war.  Is his reference to a soul unshelled, the idea of it living beyond the husk of our mortal body, or has it survived, intact, endless mortars raining down, surviving as if it hadn’t occurred?  Is it a prophet coming to the streets of your city, or soldiers of war? 


Advice to a Prophet

By Richard Wilbur 
When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,   
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,   
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,   
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.   
How should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,   
A stone look on the stone’s face?
Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive   
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,   
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip   
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without   
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?   
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean   
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose   
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding   
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing   
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

This Place Could Be Beautiful


Storm Damage From Hurricane Michael, October 2018.

Good Bones

by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

After every hurricane, tornado, flood, fire or earthquake, the same quote is printed over and over in the media; “residents vow to rebuild.” It’s true, someone will rebuild. Someone always does where the view warrants the risks. We should bring the same zeal to rebuilding the shambles of our lives. Except for the exceptionally fortunate, most of us are our own natural disaster at some point, wasting our time shaking our fists at unseen forces, rather than finding affordable marriage insurance with a reasonable deductible. So go ahead and buy that bouquet of flowers at the super market or farmer’s market on Saturday morning. Pick out a bottle of wine. Take it home, set a nice table for yourself. Cook a fine meal for your partner tonight. Say a blessing for all that you have that is grounded and not blown away. You’ll never say on your deathbed, “if I had only spent less money on flowers, think of where I would be today.”


The House

by Richard Wilbur (1921 – 2017)

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.