Archive for the ‘Angus Martin’ Category

I’m trying to get this post up quickly—too many things to get done and my daughter gets home from Cameroon today—so I’ll skip the fanfare and get right to it.


I put an assortment of poems for Father’s Day around town.  Three of the poems are fathers addressing daughters. Another poem is a father’s lament for a failed relationship, and another is a daughter’s. One has no mention of a father at all, but it speaks to what I love about fathers.


That poem, the one with no particular mention of fathers, is Marge Piercy’s “To be of use.”  I put the poem in the mouse trap section of a popular dad hangout, the hardware store.

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture


Up close:


Of course any number of people in the world are useful people, people who do what has to be done, again and again, but I send this poem out to the fathers I’ve known and admired.  Especially the ones who empty the mouse traps.


Poem is hanging on a branch

Poem is hanging on a branch

Marie Ponsot’s poem “Hard-Shell Clams” I left in a cemetery.  All those buried wounds seemed to belong there.  The poem is so beautiful it gives me the shivers.



I can’t stop reading it.  That image of the sand just kills me: a glitter like chain mail guarding who I am/from his used blue gaze that stared to understand.


One poem is on the window, the other on the post

One poem is on the window, the other on the post

I posted two poems of fatherly advice together on a local high school.  School is out but maybe someone will come to the gym and find the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in “From a Letter to His Daughter.”



Emerson’s advice is classic dad: get over it and move on.  If Mad Men’s Don Draper were a good man, a good father, this is what he might tell his children: Finish every day and be done with it.


Miller Williams offers different advice in “For a Girl I Know About to Be a Woman.”


Some of the advice seems a little dated, but if you substitute other offensive words for “dago” and “wop,” his counsel is sound.  He lists tell-tale signs of a loser and abuser: if a boy tries to change you, doesn’t respect you, himself or even a snake, beware.


Poem is on the front bumper

Poem is on the front bumper

I put James Tates’ “Father’s Day” on a golf cart.  No, I’m not accusing all fathers who golf of avoiding their families, but some do.  I remember driving by a golf course one Thanksgiving Day with my mother-in-law.  It was snowing but sure enough two men were golfing.  “Who are they hiding from?” she said wryly.



The father’s invention of a fairy tale to explain his daughter’s refusal of contact is funny and heartbreaking and a much much better version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”


poem is on front of truck, under red sign

poem is on front of truck, under red sign

I had to do some talking to get the next poem on an ice cream truck.  Poem and camera in hand, I surveyed the situation and realized it would be impossible to tape the poem on the truck without being noticed, so I asked the ice cream man for permission.  I explained my blog, I showed him the poem, I pointed out where I wanted to tape it.  “I don’t get it,” he said. So I read the poem to him and tried to make a connection between a father leaving a treat for his daughter by her bedside and a father who might buy an ice cream treat  (that might also stain a mouth blue) for his child.  “I still don’t get it,” he said.  I changed the subject—we talked about his home country of Tanzania and my daughter’s experiences in Cameroon—and soon he put aside his suspicions of my intent and agreed, as long as he wasn’t in the photograph, to take on the poem.  Thank you, ice cream man.



This poem is pure and sweet.  The father thinks of his daughter as he hikes, plans his little present, gazes at her as she sleeps and imagines her delight as she wakes. She’s on his mind, past, present and future, the lucky child.  “For Sarah, Asleep” is by my Scottish friend Angus Martin.  I hope he gets a kick out of the trek this poem has taken and will take, should the Tanzanian ice cream man decide to leave the poem on his truck.


Happy Father’s Day!


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Poem is on shrub.



by Angus Martin


The air is blowing round and round the world.

It must be. I’ve breathed this air before

and will breathe it again if I’ve that long

to live, and can offer


my mouth to it.

Tonight it is blowing hard;

gates and loosened bits of buildings

clatter and bang, and I’ve heard


enough to start me thinking

of my father’s life on the sea,

and how on nights like this

I would fear for his safety,


listening in bed with a small loneliness

lying beside me, breathing as I

breathed, in perfect unison, the air

that was serenity inside, and outside, ferocity.


Didn't have my new tape dispenser yet


This is my last post about Chesterown, I promise, unless by some good fortune or crafty planning I find myself back on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, hunting down  crabcakes and old books.


I left “Air,” with its evocation of violent storms at sea, on the peaceful banks of the Chester River.  The Chester is hardly the Irish Sea, but there is a long history of crabbing and fishing here.  Whether on the rocky coast of Scotland or on the flat fingers of the Chesapeake Bay, fishing is a hard, hard life.


Poet Angus Martin, an old friend whom I’ve poem-elfed previously, was briefly a fifth-generation Scottish herring-fisherman before he left for other endeavors.  Some thirty years back, my brother John visited Angus in the Kintyre peninsula.  Short of money, he got a job through Angus as a fisherman.  As John tells it, he lasted only one night:


What I recall is leaving around midnight, and that following a traditional send-off from the wives and friends at the pub. I was advised, wisely, to be careful peeing off the side of the boat at night, because it would happen from time to time that a fisherman with too much grog in him fell in, no one knew, and was lost.


I slept in a bunk below, not too far from the engine.  The air was stagnant and smelled of petrol.  Waking up in the middle of the night in a storm, I thought the boat was going to flip over from the rocking.  I went on deck and there were two fishermen pulling in the nets full of fish, as if the weather was not an issue.


I got seasick on the second day and they dropped me off at the next port.


The fear my brother felt on that stormy night is the same fear the young boy feels in the central image of the poem.  But the boy fears for his father’s safety, not his own.  We parents always worry about our children.  It’s startling to realize they worry about us as well.


Martin captures such fears in this powerful image:


Listening in bed with a small loneliness

lying beside me, breathing as I

breathed, in perfect unison


That “small loneliness” could break a mother’s heart.  It takes me back to many a childhood night, lying awake with worries that were, mercifully, never realized.


It’s the air, the air of a raging wind, that transports the poet back to childhood.  The connection to his earliest years is accomplished not just through a sensory re-creation of past experiences, but through an actual physical encounter with air.  The air he breathes today could be the very air he breathed as a boy.  It could be the same air inhaled by people thousands of years ago, and by extension, the same his descendants will exhale for generations to come.


In this way, air becomes a shared experience among people all over the world and people throughout time.  Air is an element that unites, an element he offers his mouth to, as with communion.


“Air” is neatly contained in four stanzas with four lines each.  Slant rhyme connects the second and fourth lines:  before/offer, hard/heard, sea/safety, I/ferocity.  The last line contains the internal rhyme of serenity/ferocity.  This subtle structure which holds the poem together becomes almost a little house sheltering the boy from fierce wind.  Wind, whether inside the body or out, needs to be contained; and all people, whether poets, Dorothy in Kansas, women in childbirth, or yogis in strenuous poses, need structures to contain it.  (There’s the beginning of a bathroom joke there, but I’ll refrain.)


Angus Martin is a man of letters on many levels.  During the years he’s worked as a rural postman, he has published many books of poetry and local history.  He’s also an excellent guide for those lucky enough to hike with him.


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poem is on thin tree in center



by Angus Martin

All these people at my back,

watching me—out there—

people clothed in animal skins

and others only in body hair,

half animals themselves, poking me with sticks

in the soft parts of my unconscious,

startling me with sudden mad cries

and eliciting responses

that escape my knowledge

let alone my understanding.

I have been waking lately

in the middle of dreams, demanding

explanation, but they are secretive

and sly, and slide their sticks

under my bed and slink

along the walls, their shadowy backs

eluding me.  But sometimes I will

lie awake and catch them unawares,

crouched in the middle of my room,

shielding small fires.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is wild, barely-inhabited country. Whenever I visit, I feel uneasy, as though a moose might charge at any moment, or the overbearing evergreens will scoop me up into their dark branches and hurl my body miles into the freezing depths of Lake Superior. In every town I’m struck by the gentle failure of attempts to civilize the place.  Most of the 50’s-era buildings are musty and run-down and clump together at crossroads, not bothering to venture into the wilderness.  Of the few human inhabitants I spot (Yoopers, they call themselves) most are big like bears, solid for cold winters. Call me cuckoo, but I love the place and make a point to go back every summer for an extended hike.

This July I brought three or four poems with me, not sure which one I would post on Grand Island, a beautiful spot across from Pictured Rocks, reached by a raggedy pontoon boat that pulls right up on the beaches. A few miles into our 10-mile hike, we happened upon a group of archeology students from Illinois State University on break from a dig, eating lunch and sunning themselves.  Which poem I would use suddenly became clear.

They gave us a tour of the dig, a shallow 10-foot area, and shared their discoveries thus far:  a handful of  “projectile points” (what we’d call arrowheads), and some French trading beads dating from the time of “Contact” of Europeans and the island’s original inhabitants. The students were a genial group, but far more interested in the past under their feet than the poem I taped to a tree above them.

I, conversely, was positively giddy.  I couldn’t believe my luck in having brought this particular poem with me. The subject matter, obviously, matched nicely with the site; but the poet, Angus Martin, was the person who first introduced me to hiking. My sister and I had stayed with him over 25 years ago on the Kintyre peninsula south of Glasgow. He was an expert hiker and could name all the plants along the way and knew which were edible; as the local historian (you can find one of his books here) and village postman, he entertained us as we walked with stories of the land and its people; and as a poet, (you can hear him here) he inspired us with his love of the Scottish countryside.

It’s tempting to apply what I know (admittedly information that’s 25 years old) of the poet to my understanding of this poem. But I’m stepping back to read “Ancestors” as if I never met him.

The speaker in the poem seems paranoid (“All these people at my back/ watching me”) and with good reason.  Cavemen in his bedroom cast shadows, cry out, poke him with sticks, and light fires. But unlike Dickens’ Scrooge, he’s strangely unspooked by these night-time visitations.  He’s amused by their nude and hairy bodies, perhaps a little unnerved, but mostly riveted by their presence in his life. The ancestors, on the other hand, seem threatened.  They avoid being seen and lope along the walls like melancholy Peter Pans of the Paleolithic age.

My understanding of the strange scenario of the poem is that the poet is having a physical experience of mental activity. He imagines his unconscious as an organ, something that can be poked at with a stick. We all experience moments when our unconscious mind takes over and we feel the power of our primeval natures.  For me, that wild spirit overwhelms me sometimes when I’m dancing (there was a reason I was seldom asked to dance in high school), or in childbirth or in another activity you can well imagine which leads to that.  These experiences are as mysterious and elusive to the conscious mind as cavemen appearing and disappearing in a 21st century bedroom. To try to capture and restrain that kind of unthinking, emotional experience into the formal setting of a poem—a poem that rhymes, even—is ambitious.  Perhaps this is the ambition of every poet.

Granted, the ancestors the archeology students unearthed were not the prehistoric ones of the poem. But the Upper Peninsula feels that way to me–pre-verbal and untouched.  It frightens and attracts me, just as the bedroom creatures affect the poet. Each visit I want to leave quickly and get back to civilization; and as soon as I cross the Mackinaw Bridge, I’m longing to go back.  Something fierce and free about the place claims me as its citizen.

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