This month's featured poet, Robert Cording, lives in Woodstock, having recently retired as professor of English and Barrett Professor of creative writing at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Both there and at the Frost Place in New Hampshire where he was poet-in-residence, he has been an inspiration to untold numbers of writers. He has published eight poetry collections and has received many honors for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. No one's poetry touches the heart and enriches the spirit more than Cording's.
– Rennie McQuilkin, CT poet laureate
Walking with Ruskin
Each day I walk for an hour or two,
what started as exercise now a matter
of devotion. Or, less grandly:
walking gives me something to do,
a kind of discipline since I don't know
how to move towards any of those
big intangible goals—wholeness, God,
forgiveness, justice—but I know how
to walk. Sometimes I bring Ruskin along.
Despite his holy striving and cloying
superlatives ("the greatest thing
a human soul does in the world is
to see something," or "art springs from
the most profound admiration"),
I like the way he forgets himself
in his concern for what is particular
about an eagle's beak or the green-brown
coppery iridescence of a pheasant's feather.
He's teaching me a kind of readiness
for what comes along as it pleases:
a line of ants carrying the remains
of a red emerald butterfly, or
a brook in winter moving under ice
like the one-celled life found in a drop
of water under a microscope.
I like to compare notes with him,
to count the shades of blue
on a kingfisher's back or the three
different kinds of wing feathers,
but I'm still learning to look at things
with Ruskin's respect for fact
and his love for what's being seen—
this beetle, say, that's crossed our path,
its two topside eyes ringed in white,
the lacquer of its shell a depth
of black and darkest greens.
Today, the late July pond water looks
like used car oil, and the roadside grass
is a pointillist study of greens
and the bright white coffee cups of
Americans who run on Dunkin'.
Ruskin and I are looking at clouds,
a kind of medicine. Ruskin says,
they calm and purify, if only because
the sky is large and we are not.
And if I'm always half-thinking of
my credit card debt, or if I'm seven
to ten years of mortgaged life
away from retirement, I go on
crouching down for a beetle
that doesn't care if it's seen, though
my seeing it makes the day more real
to me. Nothing much, but something
I'm always thanking Ruskin for.
(July 4th, 2014)
The air cool and fresh, the lake's a dazzle of
whitecaps and gray-blue waves, the sun
breaking out in applause between a rhapsody
of wind-driven cumulus. Flags snap
on decks and boathouses and fly straight out
on the boats that skip up and down the lake.
I've put down the newspaper's infernal sadness,
and I'm enjoying a group of teenagers trying to tie
two of those rented pontoon boats together.
They're already half-drunk, laughing, happy
in their incompetency, a Marx Brothers' movie
of a rope thrown from one boat to the other.
In the foreground, a trio of kayaks, red, yellow,
and blue, and the glint of paddles making
figure eights in air and water. A backdrop
of mountains looks down like gods who have
seen it all a million times, but, stretched out
in the sun, are as yet too lazy to exert their whimsy.
In their shade, five seemingly still sailboats give
the speedboats their speed; their distant sails tilt
white triangles into the wind as in a child's drawing.
The Minne-Ha-Ha steams down the far side
of the lake and the Lac du Saint-Sacrement huffs
and puffs up this side, each of them packed tight
with people reveling in the mindless freedom
of a perfect day off, waving to all of us on our docks,
as the two boats blow greetings to one another.
Everything shimmers in the sun, and I'm imagining
the whole scene as one of those Impressionist paintings,
a beach scene of people dressed in gay colors
and holding color-coordinated umbrellas, happy to be
exactly where they are, or so it always seems.
And since I'm looking again at the ongoing comedy
on those pontoon boats, I might as well prescribe
a dose of that teenage idea of freedom without obligation
for myself and forget about finding some meaning
I'd only force on this rapturous day anyhow—
I'll just sip my gin and tonic, and enjoy
my unpursued happiness on this freighted day.
She was what she was—a golden,
with a golden's therapeutic capacity
to please, always drooling love,
at any moment ready to roll over basely,
legs up in the air when I'd lean down to pet her.
A dog with an empty thought balloon
above a head tilted into the air, all attention
concentrated in her nose.
On walks, one of us was always trying
to work out the day's poem or compose tomorrow's
lecture; and one of us always close-reading
turds and peed-upon twigs and grass,
stopping now and again for what
seemed like nothing at all.
And sometimes I'd see it, a deer
mid-woods or a grouse I'd nearly stepped on.
A hermeneutist of dead leaves,
sometimes she'd lift up a vole and hold it
in her soft mouth as if to say,
The world's alive all around you.
I suppose it's just another bauble of imagination
that wants to see a dog (who, by her very nature
could not help but show me things
I could not see myself) as a kind of necessary fool
to my kingly self-absorption, but sometimes,
Nellie chewing grass she was destined to throw-up,
then lying down, the two of us pausing
on the hillside above the pond,
goldfinches flashing, a mallard floating by,
there'd come a moment when I'd grow
as thoughtless as my dog, my guide
it now seems, to something like a paradise.
All poems copyright © 2016 by Robert Cording.
CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poets Corner by invitation.