Given the current conflicts across this land and the earth, this timeless poem from the late John Haines conveys the words I have no voice for.


How strange to think of those street
sand vacant lots, the sandhills
where we played and dug our trenches;
the forts we built, the enemies
we conjured to aim our stick-guns at,
and then went home at evening,
to victory, to safety and sleep.

And now the vast acres of rubble,
the pitched and roofless houses,
upended stonework and sunken bridges.
The dog-packs roaming, digging,
for the one still-unclaimed victim;
the stray sniper aiming at dusk,
and in the roadside fields,
flowers that explode when picked.

The children wandering from one
burned suburb to another,
seeking that which no longer exists:
a neighborhood, a playing field,
a wading pool or a standing swing;
for a kite to fly, a ball to throw,
or just one pigeon to stone.

And through all this haunted vacancy,
from cellars and pits of sand,
come and go as on a fitful wind
such whispers, taunts and pleadings:
the scolding voices of dead parents,
the lessons of teachers no longer
standing, whose classrooms
are blown to ash and smoky air.

And far-off, unheard beyond the drone
of a single hovering aircraft –
in Paris, Zurich, Prague, or London,
the murmur of convening statesmen.


From:
For the Century’s End
Poems 1990—1999
by John Haines
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

A few years ago I wrote a story inspired by John Haines titled “A Walk in the Woods With John Haines”.  As his words and thoughts continue to provide guidance over the years, I return to this piece and update the images and feelings to reflect the experiences that have defined me.

As nature becomes essential to daily life and getting through the chaos, I have been thinking about John Haines.  Some of my most-often used quotes come his book “Fables and Distances” and so I have started reading it again and am reminded the impact his writing has had on my outlook in life.

Fables and Distances: New and Selected Essays

johnhaines_newbioimage_credit-dorothyalexander
Photo credit: Dorothy Alexander

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A Winter Light, by John Haines

We still go about our lives
in shadow, pouring the white cup full
with a hand half in darkness.

Paring potatoes, our heads
vent over a dream—
glazed window through which
the long, yellow sundown looks.

By candle or firelight
your face still holds
a mystery that once
filled caves with the color
of unforgettable beasts.


Photo below shared from Alaska Dispatch News which features a piece about writer/musician John Luther Adams and being influenced by John Haines.
J Haines JL Adams 3x2


From TWENTY POEMS, Unicorn Press, 1973

I typically read and have been influenced by John Haines nature poems and memoirs, but this poem is timeless.


How strange to think of those street
sand vacant lots, the sandhills
where we played and dug our trenches;
the forts we built, the enemies
we conjured to aim our stick-guns at,
and then went home at evening,
to victory, to safety and sleep.

And now the vast acres of rubble,
the pitched and roofless houses,
upended stonework and sunken bridges.
The dog-packs roaming, digging,
for the one still-unclaimed victim;
the stray sniper aiming at dusk,
and in the roadside fields,
flowers that explode when picked.

The children wandering from one
burned suburb to another,
seeking that which no longer exists:
a neighborhood, a playing field,
a wading pool or a standing swing;
for a kite to fly, a ball to throw,
or just one pigeon to stone.

And through all this haunted vacancy,
from cellars and pits of sand,
come and go as on a fitful wind
such whispers, taunts and pleadings:
the scolding voices of dead parents,
the lessons of teachers no longer
standing, whose classrooms
are blown to ash and smoky air.

And far-off, unheard beyond the drone
of a single hovering aircraft –
in Paris, Zurich, Prague, or London,
the murmur of convening statesmen.


From:
For the Century’s End
Poems 1990—1999
by John Haines
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

On a somewhat grey and dreary day we headed north to the fields and trails near the Wild River, the St. Croix. Alone on sandy trails well suited for horses, we circled the empty field through the forest and made our way to the river. Beneath the grey sky, we felt the presence of life, animals, and trees absent of sound. The two deer that crossed our path did so leisurely as I assured them we are guests here, just passing through.

In previous journeys here through the thick woods, I knew that John Haines was here walking with us, with an eye for details and subtle nuisances. Today he was here also, but we took this in as a whole, all of the nature seen and not seen, all of the light passing through us, with us, and a part of us.

The empty field, the river, forest, trails, sand, and the animals all served as a reminder that this is home, this is birth, this is where we came from.

The Empty Field We Visit
The Empty Field We Visit
Keeping Watch
Keeping Watch
Keeping Watch Also
Keeping Watch Also
Sisters Resting
Sisters Resting
The Wild River
The Wild River

 

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Cold for so long, unable to speak,
yet your mouth seems framed
on a cry, or a stifled question.

Who placed you here, and left you
to this lonely eternity of ash and ice,
and himself returned to the dust
fields, the church and the temple?

Was it God—the sun-god of the Incas,
the imperial god of the Spaniards?
Or only the priests of that god,
self-elected—voice of the volcano
that speaks once in a hundred years.

And I wonder, with your image before me,
what life might you have lived,
had you lived at all—whose companion,
whose love? To be perhaps no more
than a slave of that earthly master:

a jug of water on your shoulder,
year after stunted year, a bundle
of reeds and corn, kindling
for a fire on whose buried hearth?

There were furies to be fed, then
as now: blood to fatten the sun,
a heart for the lightning to strike.

And now the furies walk the streets,
a swarm in the milling crowd.
They stand to the podium, speak
of their coming ascension …

Through all this drift and clamor
you have survived—in this cramped
and haunted effigy, another entry
on the historian’s dated page.

Under the weight of this mountain—
once a god, now only restless stone,
we find your interrupted life,
placed here among the trilobites
and shells, so late unearthed.


John Haines, “The Ice Child” from For the Century’s End: Poems 1990-1999