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Song of Sand, Song of Sea, Song of Leaving, Song of Leaves

May 29, 2012

I’m in a northern Chicago suburb near O’Hare in a hotel, being parental support for Walker at the Chicago Open chess tournament. The tournament is so big that there are about twenty grandmasters playing in the open section, and some of the players have flown in from other countries. Walker knows a lot of the highest-rated players, at least by reputation, and I’m starting to know some of their names.

I got to visit my brother’s family and my friend Harriet the first day, when Walker had three games in what is (for chess) fairly rapid succession. Yesterday he and I had a late lunch outside in the lovely heat and talked about things that don’t come up at home.

We’re missing Eleanor’s first weekend back from college. Last weekend, when she first got home, I turned off my phone and slept more deeply than I think I had since before she went away. Now we have all summer and a beach vacation to look forward to, amid our other planned comings and goings—conferences, day trips, more chess tournaments.

I’m humming a secret song of satisfaction and would be surprised to hear it coming from anyone else, like in this poem by James Harms, about taking his young son to the ocean:

Song of Sand, Song of Sea, Song of Leaving, Song of Leaves
“Here Comes a Regular,” Balboa Pier

I own this song like a buffalo nickel, carry it around to offer the air every day or two when I’m alone in the garden, the shower.

And now it drifts through the parking lot and out beneath the pier, a bit of musical tulle fog lapping at beach towels, a song so secret I’m sad to hear it leak from a low-slung El Camino.

The bubbling edge of a broken wave is singeing Walt’s ankles, his first time by the sea.

Beyond him a line of pelicans shoots the pier heading north, wings wide and still in the inch of air above water; Walt turns to yell, mouth full of wind, his words torn apart by the wake of Pacific waves.

The El Camino leaves the parking lot and leaves behind my song of leaves: First the lights then the collar goes up, the wind begins to blow…First the past then the leaves that last, here comes the snow.

Catalina floats in the deeper distance like a cloud settling on the water as Walt breads himself with sand, rolling toward the ocean, singing.

I walk down to the water to hear his new voice, changed by the sea, to help him wash the beach off his body.

And Walt wants to know did I see the birds.

And Walt wants to splash me, the cold Pacific: he’s laughing and so am I, each of us someone’s, each of us fearless, within reach.

That’s how this summer feels, at least from this end—we’re all within reach. And right now my reach doesn’t have to exceed my grasp, unlike Andrea del Sarto‘s. I feel like you do, as a parent, when your children are playing on the shore, in the tide pools, or in the shallow waves. They will move farther out pretty soon, but for now it’s wonderful to let the worrying muscles unclench.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2012 8:08 am

    Interesting. I have a slightly different take on this poem, maybe because “Here Comes a Regular” is a song I own “like a buffalo nickel” too, a song I know so well I don’t even bother to listen to it very often anymore. I know Paul Westerberg’s every move, every inflection. Hearing it, while pleasurable, is als superfluous at this point. The song is much more melancholy than the poem, I think and the poem’s repetition of key elements of the lyrics keep it tied tightly to the song behind it. While there’s a temporary safe haven — the ocean in the poem, a bar in the song — it’s artificially created. Outside the world is still spinning. Outside your problems are still waiting for you. Outside you are still failing. The key line in the song is, I think, “I used to live at home, now I stay at the house.” It’s a song about loss, but it’s small, incremental loss, the kind that happens gradually if you’re not paying attention.

    The poet wants to pay attention. He knows that the moment at the beach is a fleeting thing. He’s pretending the rest doesn’t exist for a few moments. That is why I love this poem — it’s one of the moments of the kind of joy that’s on the edge of a sob. We all have them as parents. And from a technical standpoint, I love the way he works through the song, weaving elements of the lyrics into the poem. It’s contrapuntal, but in a way that works so seamlessly that it’s not distracting. If you didn’t know the song, you might not even notice what he’s doing.

    If you haven’t already, you can listen to the song here:
    The lyrics are here:

    • May 29, 2012 8:51 am

      Thanks for those links; they do add to the enjoyment of this poem.
      As you know, I’ve been having trouble with how personal I get here about poems, and one of the things I liked (but evidently didn’t elaborate on here enough) is that sense that it’s a very temporary respite. Adding to that is my sense that while my family is “together” this summer, we’re apart this weekend, and there are a lot of highway miles to get through before I see them again.
      Many of the poems in this volume, Comet Scar, are about songs (ten of them by Grant McLennan). You might like reading those, too.

  2. May 29, 2012 4:22 pm

    Sometimes I think your thoughts surrounding the poems are just as poetic (if not more so) than the poems you share.

  3. May 30, 2012 7:23 pm

    That’s nice of you to say.

  4. May 31, 2012 11:24 am

    Wow. I agree with Jenners. Reading you thoughts was like reading poetry.

  5. June 1, 2012 1:52 pm

    It’s true, you make me appreciate poetry. I’m glad to hear Eleanor is home safe!

    • June 3, 2012 9:58 am

      That’s encouraging, when I’ve been feeling less open to writing about poetry. And yes, Eleanor is home safely, with stories to tell and postcards of Iowa sent (two of them visible at The Written World)!

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