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Praying for Signs (the Frost providences)
If my mother had known the countries I was to travel and the death I was to die how she would have wept.
— ENGLISH DITTY
The first was not praying,
just leafing a book — the first word,
a title, was "Maple," the wood of the casket just yesterday.
In the poem, a girl's name.
"Maple is right," but couldn't it be that both name and the choice of a boy's casket is right?
The next sign was praying,
hoping to know, like a science,
the trembling thumb hooking more pages apart, looking as if to the sky, after speaking the name of that son. And there too the meaning seemed clear,
for that morning the father had looked at a dead skunk on the road, killed the same night as his son
(the farm woman swore).
Teeming with maggots, fur fine as a boy's bloodied hair,
the skunk seemed clearly to say
"Here is no pain, just a bone being cleaned. There's more of your son, boy in his fresh grave,
in the birch by the roadside."
So the father took back a birch leaf and heard the fluttering voice of the wind, sure that his son was not in the dirt of a road but in the green of such birches.
And tore off that leaf, proof of a kind. The next dip in the book, Book of Frost sacred as scripture, was "On Going Unnoticed." Though said of a coral root the words seemed to speak further:
As vain to raise a voice as a sigh In the tumult of free leaves on high.
What are you, in the shadow of trees Engaged up there with the light and breeze?
which was more or less what he had asked of his son, lost more in the birch leaves than in the maple box covered with sand,
laced high to the topsoil with roses,
carnations, marigolds, mums,
tears of a mother, baby's-breath she tossed in right where his true breath exhaled like frost would have been had the coffin and sand not been there — aye just where his breath would have been if new born —
though days late if he went right away to another one's breast.
Later in the poem a sentence says
(though surely of no reference to the leaf the father tore and took back to the farm where goats and cats,
ponies, chickens, dogs maintained such a home as his boy had loved well) :
The only leaf it drops goes wide,
Your name not written on either side.
So much for the subject of "Signs,
looking for," from sky and leaf and stone found at a stop of the last auto train on the son's favorite shore, stone buried for years yet crying out to go along, to join the boy —
and so it did, dug out by hand in haste,
falling to knees an instinct now,
and the stone born of damp sand so like the boy in rough and male nobility that all agreed it belonged on his grave, had been cast out by fire and thrown down for the purpose, with only the need to add his name, SAM, carved there soon,
that stone forever his though bomb sail past or earth melt and weep.
Still praying, yet unsated, Dad thumbs again, finds "Iris by Night" —
could hardly be quite relevant,
but just for hell let's search it through:
And then we were vouchsafed the miracle That never yet to other two befell And I alone of us have lived to tell ...
And we stood in it softly circled round From all division time or foe can bring In a relation of elected friends.
True of rainbows as that first great poet had made quite clear but also apt and true, precise if meant to paint for time how it had been around that open grave,
hands joined, songs sung — "Amazing
Grace" — but first the sand, flowers thrown until they wove and laced their way up toward ground,
lifting up, grain by grain,
that tapestry, not tramped by feet but held like leaf in stone, a pattern ordained like those found in, say,
stained glass, carpet, pine cone —
and what galaxies fulfill in fire.
That pit was filled with roses,
long-stemmed mums, the baby's-breath
— nettles too and thistles meant to take the sting of sainthood off the mangled boy who did outdo in mischief Huck and Tom although not one had found in him a hint of malice, nor was there foe who nursed his spite, glad he's gone. Consensus had it,
angel Sam! Caught like millefiore sold in Italy and works of art in amber, those petals now hold sand,
and sand holds petals too.
And all are lax within that space,
at rest, with no pain there,
oblong, carved out of earth. All
who knelt together there wrote his name now sacred in that sand before topsoil closed on wound anew,
would hold in mind as if seen once through crystal exactly where his tossed rose fell, was crossed with mum, jack-in-pulpit, iris,
gladiolus blue — and weeds, a few.
Yet not explicit, these three signs,
no lucky strike at "Once by the Pacific" — the great Frost poems —
nor the favorites of that boy —
"Come In" and "Dust of Snow" —
which he had written out, one on a cypress root, one on a slab,
and now the father thinks the boy himself was "Dust of Snow,"
what he did to a day so much like flakes that fell to make a miracle. And the father knew how Sam had helped him live,
even to this darkness, though no flake touched him now.
And still he shopped, like poking in a Bible. Just one more flip,
to prove it's fool's game, all
such seeking. Your son is dead as the skunk is dead, flat,
drained, no spirit there, and hair gone fine like wire in three days, nights.
No bone is plow of noble ship nor new life elsewhere found more fortunate by far, if virtues count for aught in this life or the next.
And that white ash Sam carved in a school workshop by happenstance alone turns out to look like angel wings as two or three hundred seemed to think who praised him, wept on Sunday,
said he had touched their lives, and deep.
Yet clearly, angel's wings!
Mere accident, like dips in books and finding gravestones, skunks,
birch leaves named, and then the text.
Yet one more dip to end the waste — How 'bout a title page — BUILD SOIL! Well, hell,
one more — for that's too brief.
This refers to clouds which had seemed that night
(entering the town, the end of his road) to be so dark they were meant to be Unknowing's shade, opaque. But then the moon broke through — the eye of God, a light at last to say this spot of earth is not forgot
(or so an archaic poet might well have put it). I had that sign, for sure,
but Frost is on about
The clouds, the source of rain, one stormy night Offered an opening to the source of dew;
Which I accepted with impatient sight,
Looking for my old skymarks in the blue.
Not much in common — dew and hope.
Read on. But stars were scarce in that part of the sky,
And no two were of the same constellation —
No one was bright enough to identify;
So 'twas with not ungrateful consternation,
Seeing myself well lost once more, I sighed,
Where, where in Heaven am I?
But don't tell me!
Oh, opening clouds, by opening on me wide.
Let's let my heavenly lostness overwhelm me.
I never meant to quote a poem entire within my own and yet that night my son was dead and this small town,
his road's end, had been my destination.
For two days I had flown through air,
moved mountains, so it seemed, to wash blood off stone. And then I had that sign, "Lost in Heaven," moon clear as all our light reflected, Robert's, mine,
Sam's, his sister, all who loved him,
shared his short, good life. And then his stone, placed before my path,
that birch tree, skunk, and other signs soft as a dust of snow. No meaning,
just one stone, Frost's lines mere stems in sand, dulled mums that fade,
yet some fools still seek signs,
clutch books though no voice calls,
not his that always echoed mine:
"I know you do." Next week in another state, a wedding in a church, The Book of Common Prayer falls open of its own to the service as it had been for Sam who wrote on a cypress root Frost's poem "Come In"
and said so it speaks through years
"I left the blue door open
for you, Dad."
Had we known these few images were all we'd have of you we'd have been taking pictures all the time.
The one I need to forget
— to stop weeping, to live —
is the one in my mind without looking.
If my lessons to him meant anything at all I must listen to them now,
for myself. Love your own body, I told him,
the goodness of it — Let the love out. Soaping's a joy, and I towel now in front of the mirror where I caught him once smirking and naked. Smiling's no sin. Despise no one, pray for even the hard-hearted,
even the steel- and rust-
hearted. Dance a jig when you get out of the pool, turquoise as a god's eyes,
as a son's, as a stone's, for even a stone must be loved,
wished well on its way through star after star.
In the Gallery Room
Love divides love. And so, my son,
You choose the happy Dell
By Constable, a wading cow,
Silvered tree, a stag, old footbridge Where you want, you say, "to wade And take a nap."
After a hundred years this scene Is fine and cold On your naked, Brancusian feet.
Your favorite painter, you say,
Is John Constable.
But I choose Low Ebb,
In dun and lead, with heavy Heart choose that — where Gustave Courbet shows folks in fog Just barely making it,
The storm about to close Upon them, making sea's mean Waves and sky all one.
And that is what you save me from —
By saying there too You'd like
"To wade and take a nap."
That day at the pool the little fellow and I spotted each other about the same time.
He wore only a white sailor cap and laughed,
bread in both hands,
waving those chunks toward me. His mother was holding him up and she bent round and looked deep into his blue eyes to inquire why he was looking so intently at me,
the foreign man half a pool's width away,
why he had singled me out of dozens, all ages, a fairly big crowd. Of course she had no way of knowing. His eyes refused to leave mine,
latched on to me,
and he tried to wriggle out of her arms, to run toward me. No way she could have grasped it, that he was my son, had been my naked laughing boy in another land,
and on the high Atlantic,
age one, swaying on a deck, the life preserver's arch hugged by both arms, an orange wicket around him, touching his head, his feet on salt planks and a captain's cap on his head in augury,
and she too mine now that these mothers are so young, children holding children,
daughter holding dear son laughing,
welkin-eyed, bread to offer in both fists.
The Apple That Fills the Room
What the young are not prepared for is the apple that fills the room.
That is not how they proceed.
They are not aware that one will grow and fill the rotten room.
Let it be a yellow or a red Delicious or one from another state. Let it be brown to the core, with a sere leaf on the stem. Whatever apple has been brought in is the apple that will fill the room.
They are hardly prepared to know.
For Samuel Cyrus Ray 6/6/65
Was that you,
With red veins like Torchman?
The night before your birth I sought You in a magazine, fishgill and shell ear.
And were those plastic bags You peered through women, those coronal Leapings off the sun, like gold Hair on end, the hair of a mad god?
Blonde or brunette I didn't know her —
But froglegs and taffy cords, I knew you,
Come to life for speaking to....
I rose from your mother as I would rise From golden fields And walked out into Portland —
Toward the throbbing mountain beacons —
Deciding what to say to you.
I staggered till rowhouses fell At my feet and left crystals,
Castles, mists, and the tinkle Of some temple bell.
And when I returned you were rising,
Freed of all I had known,
Blessed with blindness approaching this World, rising for the first time And last to a world That would be all sweetness and breast.
At the Washing of My Son
I ran up and grabbed your arm, the way a man On a battlefield would recognize a long-lost comrade.
You were still wrinkled, and had a hidden face,
Like a hedgehog or a mouse, and you crouched in The black elbows of a Negro nurse. You were Covered with your mother's blood, and I saw That navel where you and I were joined to her.
I stood by the glass and watched you squeal.
Just twice in a man's life there's this Scrubbing off of blood. And this holy Rite that Mother Superior in her white starched hat Was going to deny me. But I stood my ground.
And then went in where for the first time you felt Your mother's face, and her open blouse.
Bending down to tie my son's shoelace Where he sits in the stroller In a bar in Spain, I see below me a jumble Of geologic layers and rivers Of time: there are the crossBars,
holding the miniature and mystical Cities; there is my own tweed Sleeve, steel-toed shoes going back To freight-loading days, and there is This little man standing up,
Drunk with enthusiasm for a sick world.
A Polaroid on the Porch
I think he will resist the evil power of the wound longer than they think.
I thought something was wrong with the film or the light that struck our porch there in Spain,
up the slope at Santa Eulalia del Rio. Right away his small curled fist looked a thousand years old and the perfect imperfection of his life was captured as in a varnished painting, a thousand seasons gone.
Yet it was only my son in his diapers, the snapshot turned to bronze, a rust haze upon his world,
something in the yellow air, a blight upon us.
My eyes could not pierce such a mystery, some curse laid with blessings upon us. "We will kill them with kindness," the gods have often said, and we were not the first, not the last. All was there before us. He lay with eyes pressed shut, sucking his thumb, a stalwart frog of a son, dreaming his way back to stars. All was foreseen and we trembled.
Nobody loved us, not enough to beg us to stay. Is that why we wound up in Calabria? At night we sat by the fire and the beaming, ruddy old woman, bandana on hair, shared out her wine, was proud of her Americans. What a catch we were to break bread with — young couple who busted her bed. She slapped thigh again and again, and she loved our boy Sam,
who stood naked in the basin and our girl
bella come un angelo. I'd walk in sun through hills, stop by the tavern, join old men back from the States, wanting to die in the shade, so one had told me.
Wine, small wobbly tables, chess, gossip,
then the Mandarin-nailed clerk in the little Posta told me anew,
Nobody loved us, niente, and he was amused behind bars, waving that scimitar curled,
proving he never worked hard. Contempt again had crossed ocean. Even that mountainous Boot shivered at night and we hugged, vowed to love one another and those two so small,
committed to us. Fireworks shook fields,
distant hills, echoes of wars coming near.
We ignore the barbed wire from an old war.
The donkeys bray all night.
My son is the first man to see the holy moon,
the wrinkled sea that will shipwreck no St. Paul tonight,
not in this lovely cove,
calm though the rocks protrude sharp as knives for a martyr.
"It's the right moon," Sam says.
He is my friend.
I lift him high, so high.
A few flowers survive.
The Temple at Paestum
Son, forgive me if for a moment when we saw the temple at Paestum on the sea I thought the steps worn on that stone had been by your ancient feet which ran before me.
In the Evening
Where the brambles close round like a halo and the rough fire of the heart begins the mother tells her children listen to the quietness listen a long time, then you hear the small fur of the rabbit, the dark voices of the roses, the feather listening.
Where the small hands open into the wilderness the children with large eyes say they begin to hear the small fur of the rabbit the dark voices of the roses, the feather listening, and the dead and rusty men who are still growing toward the light.
For My Son
Sam, we took you to one of the best zoos in the East Riding,
saw scarlet flamingoes, no,
they were flamingo flamingoes.
And many, many people.
You found a peacock perched high above you on his swing, his great harp spread wide as his cage.
You looked up at him.
"Please, Peacock" you said,
"throw me down a feather."
And that's how you gave me this feather.
Excerpted from "Sam's Book"
Copyright © 1987 David Ray.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents<P>Praying for Signs<BR>The Snapshots<BR>Teaching<BR>In the Gallery Room<BR>Son<BR>The Apple That Fills the Room<BR>For Samuel Cyrus Ray 6/6/65<BR>At the Washing of My Son<BR>The Shoelaces<BR>A Polaroid on the Porch<BR>Calabria<BR>In Greece<BR>The Temple at Paestum<BR>In the Evening<BR>For My Son<BR>Innocents Abroad<BR>Statues<BR>The Iowa Farmhouse<BR>The Old Days<BR>The Night Sam and Wes Stayed in Their Own Hotel Room<BR>The Father<BR>A Visit to Amana<BR>Thanksgiving in Sioux City<BR>The Visit<BR>How to Be Loved<BR>Ropewalk<BR>When My Children Left for the Alps<BR>The Witness<BR>End of the Road<BR>Thanks, Robert Frost<BR>On the Photograph "Yarn Mill," by Lewis W. Hine<BR>Scroll<BR>Burial<BR>Treasuring the Snapshot<BR>Neighbors<BR>Mom<BR>Not at All<BR>In the Third Month<BR>Ghosts<BR>At the Opera<BR>First Snow<BR>Sam<BR>A Plastic Cube<BR>Thanksgiving 1984<BR>The Weeping Session in Italy<BR>Brief Song<BR>Haiku<BR>The Birth of Woe<BR>Beads, Pony, Prayer<BR>The Question<BR>Between Alp and Sea<BR>Regrets<BR>The Search<BR>In the Children's Library<BR>Writing<BR>Bhopal<BR>The Parting<BR>And April Arrives<BR>To Sam<BR>Tricks of the Mind<BR>Another Trick of the Mind<BR>The Cypress Root<BR>The Return<BR>The Petrified Forest</P>
What People are Saying About This
"A very original book. It is a book of love poemsof that there is no doubtand yet these are father and son love poems. I don't know of any other book in American literature like it."Robert Bly
"A very original book. It is a book of love poems--of that there is no doubt--and yet these are father and son love poems. I don't know of any other book in American literature like it."