Michael Curtis, Poetry

Bunyan’s Chores, A First Fancy:

Ax in Hand.

Perhaps you learned of Paul Bunyan from stories in books mother-read or father-read at bed-time, in rainy-day books you read to yourself, or by pass-the-time tales when in-the-car with family.  Perhaps you stood in the shadow of a gargantuan Bunyan statue, or rode on the wide back of Babe the Blue Ox and there learned how Babe came to be blue.  Or, perhaps you are a tree-chopper who in fire-light’s glow tells tales of the day’s battle with an army of giant pines, a tall-tale that honestly grows inch-by-mile into truth.  We all seek for truth, we all share stories, we all look up to the vanishing, manly men. 

As for myself, I met the hero, Bunyan, when winter-running long-deep in the snow beneath the towering pines of the Northern Forest, and would not have noticed him but for the floating-cloud of breath-steam that through pine needles magically appeared.  Cloud-encompassed, I paused, looked about and there through snow-heavy trees discerned two large blue eyes, icicle-clear, measuring me.  Well, I did as you would when alone in the wood on a snow-crystal-day, breath-fog-paused by a bearded, tree-hunching giant who ice-eye stares straight into you … yes, of course: I said to him, “Hello.” friendly like.  The giant nodded.  “Mr. Bunyan?” I asked.  Again, the nod, this time tinctured with a rosy-cheeked, fine-toothed, grizzly smile.  “Nice to meet you, sir.” I said, “Fine day.”  In a whispering bellow alike the low roar of a leaf-stirring frigid Sunday-morning squall, he returned, “God’s glory.”  I nodded twice, then quickly I paced along my way through fresh-clean-snow, and he went along his, I suppose.

Paul Bunyan, A Disneyland Record

Many years ago, forty, I guess, long before the classive revival, when all poetry that might be found was found on progressively aging paper, I from nature began to compose verse.  You might remember those progressive days, those first days of plastic Apples when all that could be done with the things was to play Pac Man and other time-eating games.  “Betterment, self-improvement, progress”, we were told.  Alike you, I was told many things.  I cannot know how you came by yours, yet, my computer was given me by a friend who hoped I would find a future in technology, in science, and in forwardism, a future where Skinner-like I would be trained to push button-keys with more than one finger.  Neither the training, nor the Apple, nor the ten finger practice survived that month of enthusiasm for dot-swallowing Pac Man. 

Bunyan’s Chores: The Labors of Paul Bunyan

An yet, In time, in technology, into the gelded, digital world I entered, rope-dragged and resisting, and here among the vacant wood-less paper I found other, former woods-runners who, alike me, were writing verse.  One such, Arthur Mortensen, was among those who founded a movement in poetry … no, not a thing alike a bowel movement, that thing which most modernist, progressive-art-movements are, but a classive returning, wholesome and fulsome.  In fact, Mortensen and other poets turned in disgust away from progressively narrow, progressively disgusting movements, and turned toward the light, toward liberty, beauty and the good, expanding into narrative verse, an expansion of poetry named … well … Expansive Poetry.  Perhaps you know expansive poetry; if not, you can find it, here, Expansive Poetry Online.

Just now, I do not remember if my first Bunyan poem was by Arthur published; if it was, credit goes to him.  If not, here you will find “Ax in Hand”, a narrative, jejune verse composed before I discovered poets who alike me had abandoned old progressivism to return to classive modernism, the goodness and the light.  Here, now, my one button-pushing finger copies-and-pastes for you an early, honest, narrative verse true to our American tradition:

 

Ax in Hand

    I.

    THE WOODSMAN is a manly man
    Who works all day with ax in hand
    A-chopping trees to board and lath
    In all the woods across the land.

    He wears a shirt of colors plaid;
    He wears suspendered denim pants;
    He wears stout gloves upon his hands:
    The woodsman is a manly man.

    And when he works he has to sweat,
    And when he sweats there down his neck
    Run twigs and sawdust, dirt and nicks
    That scratch his thickly muscled back.

    “Timber!” the call that echoes through
    The forest where the redwoods grew
    Proud children of a Primal God
    Who forced upon the fertile sod

    The lusty passion of His seeds
    That Mother-Earth in zeal could feed,
    Could give a Race of Giants birth,
    The proof that God once loved the Earth.

    On “Timber’s!” echo follows quick
    The bellow of a broken bark
    Twisting with a creek, then “Pop!”
    The body of a giant drops,

    From the heights of heaven’s edge
    Onto the ground where she lay dead,
    Dead and heavy on the earth,
    Dead and broken in the dirt.

    And all around her siblings stood,
    Sentinel soldiers made of wood
    Who will neither weep nor moan
    Keeping silence in root and cone;

    Besides, a flood of resined tears
    Cannot stop the ax they fear;
    The ax they fear cannot be stopped
    With tears or pleas that pity drops.

    Again the woodsman’s Mighty Ax
    Rises to the skies, then “whack!”:
    Remorseless to the murder done
    Ax shows itself before the sun,

    Ruthless high in singing glee
    Cuts through the air into a tree
    Where the razor edges bite
    Hungry for another life.

    Again and again the woodsman’s Ax
    On fleshy bark and branches whacks
    Gashes the trees in silent pain
    Again and again, and again and again.

    And again the echo, “Timber!” sounds
    As trees like thunder shake the ground.
    Again the Ax does lusty swing
    And giants fall in silent screams.

 

    II.

    Down the river’s windy road
    The mighty mortal corpses float
    To the buzzing sawing mill
    Where workman subdivide the kill.

    No solemn funeral is here,
    No mourner sheds a woeful tear,
    No epitaph in rhyme is read
    Over the bodies of the dead.

    There is no quiet of a grave
    Only drill and saw and lathe;
    No moss where life might spring anew,
    No, every limb of wood is used,

    Is stacked by width, by length, by height
    Tall and close, priced and tight,
    Strictly sorted, precise in count
    That not a twig nor coin be lost.

    A workman takes a long straight stick
    And knifes it to a gear, then click,
    The driving motor starts to turn
    And metal through the thin bark burns

    And tears and cuts and sands to shape
    Until the will of Nature breaks,
    Until the stick loses its self
    Becomes a spindle on a shelf.

    Like hording ants over a hill
    The yard-men greedy orders fill
    By pound, by ton on trains and trucks
    Till every flat-bed is filled up.

    Then with a slap they’re shunted off,
    Each truck and train spit out a cough,
    A burp of fuel, a puff of smoke,
    A grunt like oxen on a yoke.

    With a herd-like prod and nudge
    The smokestacks steam, the axles budge,
    The whistle screams and pistons sound
    Like gears grinding in the bowels.

    The muscled iron-cold machines
    Are goaded like the horned beasts         
    To Chicago’s slaughter pens
    By the grisly will of men,

    Men who take their coffee black,
    Men who drag on cigarettes,
    Men who stride without a care
    Because the open-road is theirs,

    And men will drive the hot, gray mead
    As if it was a docile street                                 
    And not the bloody killing fields
    Where now the ghosts of crashes wheel.

    Here upon the road of death,
    Stiff gears will crank without a rest,
    Will fed with liquor sucked from soil
    And swallowed by the gallon, oil.

    Black smoke like coiling djinn clouds
    Speeds thick through meadows, woods, and towns
    To reach the soul of she unborn
    Before her house of wood is formed.

 

    III.

    The child in her mother’s womb
    Cannot know that soon, too soon
    She low shall lie within a crib
    Encaged by sticks reborn, yet dead,

    Tight turned by tools, a spindled tomb
    Pink painted, centered in her room,
    And round her room a merry border
    Of woodland creatures lined in order,

    And here the pretty child will dream
    Of very many lovely things,
    Will hear her father’s tender voice,
    And sometimes hear a creaking joist,

    And here she will become a girl
    Dressed in frills, in bows, in curls:
    Happy, she without a clue
    Of the pains that built her room,

    Of the mind that drew its plan,
    Of the many strains of men,                
    Of the hunger of the ax,
    Of the woodsman’s muscled back.

    She windowed smiles to see the bird
    Who hopping on a twiglet chirps
    In Nature’s song of pure delight
    Beneath a redwood shaded night.

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