Thursday, November 11, 2010


An old secret promise

This past Tuesday evening I went to hear poets Tim Young and Thomas Smith read from their work. It was, in part, a publication reading for recent books by each of the poets: Herds of Bears Surround Us by Timothy Young (Red Dragonfly Press, 2010), and The Foot of the Rainbow by Thomas R. Smith (Red Dragonfly Press, 2010). It was one of the great poetry readings I've been to in many years.

I've known Tim Young as a friend since sometime in the early 1980's. I've known Thomas less well perhaps, though we've been friendly acquaintances and poet colleagues for upwards of twenty years. The reading took place at The Loft, a literary center in downtown Minneapolis, in a large renovated warehouse space that also houses the Coffee Gallery, the offices of Milkweed Editions, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Whenever I've walked into the building (on a busy truck route on the northern edge of downtown Minneapolis), the first thing I notice is the pervasive smell of fresh-sawed wood, which seems never to have left the place since the renovation was done.

Maybe two dozen people showed up to hear the reading, a decent turnout for two poets not graced (or shrouded) with corporate grants and sponsorship. Lively excitement played around the room. Someone from the Loft staff made some brief remarks, and then Scott King, publisher of Red Dragonfly Press, introduced both of the readers. (By way of full disclosure, I should perhaps mention here that Red Dragonfly Press is also the publisher of several of my books of poems.) The reading itself took place in the Loft's main theater, bare brick walls and bare wood floors and free-standing chairs, well lit, with a podium and mike in front.

Tim Young read first, for a half hour or so, then Thomas Smith read, again for about a half hour; then, following the plan they'd devised, they took turns each reading one poem, a poem rodeo (as Tim called it), trading poems back and forth for 15 or 20 minutes to finish the evening. Tim's style of reading was fairly straight-from-the-hip, gritty and largely unsentimental though deeply felt. Thomas's manner was softer, quieter, reflective and touched with sadness. I felt both of them connecting warmly with the audience.

I'll quote a few passages from the poems of Tim and Thomas, to give some of the flavor of their work. All quoted passages here are from the two books noted above.

From the poem "Snow Has Fallen," by Tim Young:

I watch the chickadees flit
from stem to dead stem.
They pick at weed seeds
and sing against the cold.
A chickadee warrior
is the bravest of all.
He defends his kin
against any large thing.

He is steadfast -- courageous --
And in the worst winter he won't flee.
Gray, white and black, he's beauty
with only three tones of his color. [...]

[...] Even in a blizzard he finds a refuge.
He tucks himself in and waits
for what is impossible to defy,
to pass.

I've watched the gray day
arrive out of black dawn.
Snow begins again. The lawn's white.
The sky's white, and if it weren't for
the gray trees and chickadees,
I wouldn't know where earth stops
and sky begins.

And from "Darkness in the Rear View Mirror" by Thomas Smith:

New snow dusts its veil over the freeway.
Moist air diffuses the suburban glow.
Windshield wipers flap their wings, flightless birds.
A semi studded with carnival bulbs
flashes quickly behind, then showboats past.

Comforting shadows return, the dashboard
dials brighten, the rear view mirror lays
its black bar across the field of vision.
Ahead of me, safely distant, tail-lights
lantern a faint reddish trail to follow.

Many of the poems that both poets read were poems of the natural world, infused with the lakes and streams and fields of the northern plains, the far-reaching trees of the north woods, living creatures tiny and gargantuan. Poems also of deep human pain and want, of the great opening and sustaining of love.

Tim Young, from the poem "The Moment is Near":

Today, Ruth,
who's dying of cancer,
moved into Mary's house --
her hospice for the end. [...]

[...] The snow-field run-off plunges
beneath Mary's driveway bridge
and in minutes that water
will spill into the Big River.

Along the backwater
more than fifty eagles perch,
prepared for a long flight north.
As soon as the last black ice

dissolves on the lake
they'll fly to their high, stick-nests
in the mysterious white pine groves
we've only heard of.

And the moment is near.

And then Thomas Smith, from "A Rite of Spring," a short poem about a garden club sale held the Armory building in a small town:

Faces, fresh and airy as the flats of
geraniums and zinnias, a partial
reply to the song of Pete Seeger, ninety
years old last week. Maybe someday,
at least a little because of him, the armories
of this world "gone to flowers every one."

Tim Young talked a little about having worked for several years at the juvenile prison at Red Wing, Minnesota, helping inmate with learning life skills, moral judgement, and anger management. It can be easy to forget that these things have real weight in the world, quite apart from the psychological and sociological language the prison bureaucracy uses to talk about them. Tim mentioned that for about five years, most of the teenage boys he worked with were sex offenders, and had themselves been victims of abuse (sexual and otherwise). One of the sections of Tim's book is made up of poems coming out of his experience working at the prison. From the poem "An Inmate Weeps on His Math Test":

A week into his recidivist sentence,
something's moving inside him,
through his mind,
through the fisty muscle in his throat,
through his tear ducts,
then over his shivering lips.

I slide a box of tissues to him.
My work is to be nearby,
correct his tests, send my words
halfway across his table,
and wait.

I think of the elections of last week, the hysterical ignorance and repugnant cynical greed manifesting into precinct maps and vote counts, polyester jackets and prepared speeches, money changing hands in backrooms and cheerleader smiles for the cameras. Among the hordes of opportunist hacks and deal-cutting operatives abroad on the land, could any among them comprehend a moment of real human vulnerability such as is described in the lines above?

During the reading Thomas Smith mentioned, at one point, mentioned the elections, the frequent conversations he'd had in the past week where people kept talking about the election results. "The fact is," he said, with deep quiet sadness, "that as a result of the elections last week, people will die, around the world and here in this country."

From Thomas's poem "A Homemade World":

Many people salvage bricks
from their childhood homes.
They nail the old framed
prejudices above the fireplace.

They can't see out their windows
because they've recycled the smoked
glass of fear. Even their
books keep out light.

If you build with only
the things you've made your own,
a friendliness toward living
warms you like a patchwork quilt.

If you build your world-house
with toxic cast-offs, there's some
poison everywhere you turn.
And if you build your country

with bombs and oil instead of
wheat and schools -- you can't help it,
you'll just go on electing
Disaster as your president.

The poems and books of Tim Young and Thomas Smith include, among their many tunings and textures, moments and movements of grace and tenderness, intimacy and embracing light. I'll finish here with passages from one more poem from each poet. First, from Tim Young's poem "An Evening So Beautiful":

An evening so beautiful even the moon has envy.
She throws off her see-through gown
and so begins our love affair in the garden.

Where the rainbow faded at sunset
new stars emerge the way
lavender sprouts from the soil. [...]

[...] then our hearts spin, slowly,
in the shadow of a blooming catalpa.

Its white petals drop
like warm pearls from the lips
of our private goddess.

A wide-eyed doe, slender to her flank,
flicks her tail, flutters her lashes,
then bounds away with the grace of a swaying lily.

And Thomas Smith, from the poem "The Return," which begins with a quote from the Koran, "Unto Him all things return."

Burning clear with all
heat and strength befitting
the day of its longest dominion,
the sun, boiling from that
high nest of foliage,
lit a silver swath
of sparkling, dew-bent

grasses all the way down
the drenched slope.
So brilliant was that carpet
of light the sun unrolled
down the hill to our feet,
we stopped where we were
and sat a while in pure wonder.

And I remembered an old
secret promise, deemed
unwise to speak, though
who could deny it,
seeing these folk, humble
yet adorned, nodding together
on their way back to the sun?

And soon enough we got up
again and wandered on
into whatever we had to do
on that day, though not unchanged,
having accompanied a little distance
on the morning road of their return
those illuminated pilgrims.


Tim Young's website is here. Thomas Smith's website is here. The links in the first paragraph above go to the Red Dragonfly Press webpages for each of the books quoted from in this blogpost; the main page for the Red Dragonfly Press website is here. I invite you to go and look.

Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I am not familiar with the work of these poets but given what you've shared here - and their words are marvelous - I will visit their sites and look for their books. Theirs is poetry I could read all day. . . and be deeply moved.
I attended the reading and find that you evoke the setting and tone of the evening with precision, as well as giving salient examples of each poet's work. Thanks for this fine post.
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