Where to begin? Perhaps with the publication of Robert Milby’s book, Ophelia’s Offspring, which set to page the declamatory poems inspired by Baudelaire, Shelley, Tom Waits, and doomed Romantics everywhere that Robert delivers night after night in the coffee houses of the Hudson Valley poetry scene. Often dressed in a suit coat and carrying a briefcase, Robert is serious about being incendiary. Here’s his welcome to spring at the start of “Awaiting Equinox.”
Winter has lost his credibility and intends to abdicate.
Frost advisors rescind edicts of death.
Buzzards hold council in arcane hickories,
pondering the fate of fresh carcasses,
which must be engorged upon when the snows retreat.
Gothic grey skies are pained.
Green fingers push through wet leaf corpses,
Crocus cuts…icy sod with talons…reaching towards Aries….
No, not for Robert the pretty poetics of daffodils. Yet I get a charge out of his gothic bravado, his shaking off of the rueful politeness that afflicts contemporary poetry. Robert is a man with something to say, not merely something to suggest. So far as I can tell, the only thing holding him back is gas money, and too many conflicting events. I’ve seen his datebook for April, National Poetry Month, all thirty boxes penned in with places and times, a cobweb of commitments. Now, you might not think of him as a logical introduction to Michael Czarnecki, who writes some of the quietest poems around, but poetry isn’t a logical business. So far as I can tell, it operates on kindredship and chance.
When I sent my check to FootHills Publishing for a copy of Ophelia’s Offspring, I received the nicest possible reply from Michael, the publisher, who invited me to submit a manuscript of my own. His timing couldn’t have been better. Months earlier my dear friend and poetry mentor, Saul Bennett, had suddenly died of a heart attack, scaring me at last into compiling my first full length manuscript of poems culled from my favorites written and published over the previous fifteen years. It was a chore to revisit and revise my old work, but Michael’s letter catalyzed me to finish. For a deadline, I chose the first anniversary of Saul’s death, and beat it by a week, e-mailing my submission to Michael on a Friday afternoon. Then I did what any smart poet would do: my best to forget about it. Poetry is a glacial business. It takes months, if not a year to hear anything from anybody. Impatience will kill you. On Saturday I even went so far as to attend the local Democratic town caucus under a lawn tent, since there’s nothing like watching Democrats eat their own to drive you to distraction. Alas, I have little patience for politics. After an hour, I slipped out to do something worthwhile with the bright August afternoon. But first I stopped at the library to check e-mails. There was Michael’s reply in my in box, one of the greatest gifts I’ve received.
I was in a reading mood and when I received your manu I read it immediately. That doesn’t happen often.
I love it and am sending out an acceptance almost as fast as I ever have.
The poems certainly connected with me personally and I think it’s a good manuscript.
Carrying around “Turtle Island”–yes, I have stories about doing that too.
In any event, let’s go with it.
Thanks for submitting,
What more could a poet ask for? At that moment nothing. Though I’d get to know Michael better in the coming years, I did know at the time that he was a back-to-the-lander in western New York. That my reference to Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island caught his eye didn’t surprise me. Here’s my poem, which lies halfway between Robert’s gleeful gloom and Michael’s meditative contemplations.
Remember the week military helicopters played hide-and-seek
in our mountains, hopping ridges and raking the forest
with propeller gusts? How fast they vanished?
Training for Bosnia we read afterward in the papers.
So little did I know about that strife during my first years alone
in my cabin with no radio or health insurance,
my doorway guarded by nothing more than a phoebe’s nest,
I decided to hike up for my own war rehearsal.
You ask, Why carry somebody else’s misery
along with your day pack of fruit bars and compass,
spare socks and weathered copy of Turtle Island?
Isn’t your own sadness good enough?
Yes, but please understand how little is needed
to imagine a pileated woodpecker hole as a stray explosion
the size of my face. What about the scattered bones,
the hobblebushes’ heart-shaped leaves already turning
the bandage blood of autumn? My cherished solitude
grows sick with silence, as if a sniper is waiting for his shot.
This moment could be my last, kneeling
for nothing more than to check the freshness
of porcupine scat piled before a wedge in the rocks.
Or this: wondering if Bosnians heard the same song
after the helicopters left, the red-eyed vireo in the canopy:
Here-I-am. Where-are-you? Here-I-am. Where-are-you? Here-I-am.
You say, Perhaps you have a weakness for death.
We’ve seen you in our headlights, The one who stops
and wears work gloves to drag dead fawns off the road.
Haven’t you learned how many are still to come?
Hungry, I choose a mossy log and unwrap a fruit bar,
while a chipmunk hunches at the end, fiercely shivering its tail.
I would answer these questions, but the contrail
climbing the blue sky has lost the innocence of clouds.
Since then, I’ve published two books with FootHills, My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges, and twice visited Michael and Carolyn Czarnecki at their unpainted house at the back corner of a hay field on Wheeler Hill several ridges west of the Finger Lakes watershed. At first, I took Michael to be a back-to-the-land hippie from the Seventies, an enterprising do-it-yourselfer with a big woolly gray beard and woolly gray hair to match. He lived with his wife and two teenage sons in a spartan homestead with an outhouse and a long dirt driveway across the hay field that didn’t always get fully plowed in the winter. Yet they cherished their independence and closeness to nature. After growing up as a blue collar kid in Buffalo, Michael had hitchhiked some 30,000 miles across America in the early Seventies, changing his life forever. He hadn’t returned to upstate New York to work in a factory.
With time, I’ve learned that he’s following a specific plan, namely, emulating his beloved classical Chinese wilderness poets, beginning with T’ao Ch’ien of the fifth century, an educated aristocrat who quit government service in disgust to live on a family farm near the mountains as a spiritual recluse who wrote poetry. Unlike, say, John Clare, who truly was a peasant farmer who wrote verse admired by the English Romantics, the Chinese wilderness poets were intellectuals who exiled themselves from court society and its corruptions in order to experience the purities of nature and the simpler life. Perhaps it’s the translations, but their poems still sound fresh a thousand years later. Here’s Michael declaring his pledge of allegiance:
As Autumn Approaches on Wheeler Hill
Oak bench, open fire, lamp light, wineglass, poems of Yang Wan-li. Beyond flames, cool air, cold stars. Nearest neighbor out of view. Who is there to share this moment with me? Yang Wan-li would pour wine, chant poems. So too, Han-shan, T’ao Ch’ien, Su Tong-‘o. A far light of a car miles away down in the valley catches my eye. Distant, distant the dust of the world. Distant, distant the poets whose hearts are like mine. Capella rises in the northeast, autumn soon to follow. A great horned owl calls out beyond western woods. What a poem that is! “Heaven my blanket, earth my pillow.” The words of Yang Wan-li reverberate as I gaze up at late-summer constellations, think of the coming season. T’ao retired at age forty, grew rice and vegetables, wrote poems, drank wine. Han Shan lived in a cave at Cold Mountain, writing poems on walls. Su Tung-p’o, in exile, the poet of the Eastern Slope. From where we will soon build our house I gaze at endless rows of hills. Staying put, traveling far, what difference does it make? Basho walked the back roads of Japan writing prose and haiku. I think of the granite coast of Maine. Who is it will walk there with me, writing poems, sipping wine as we go? A gust of wind kicks up from the west, a few leaves tumble near fire. I blow out lamp, close book, walk off to bed.
Back in 1994 at the age of forty three Michael decided to follow T’ao Ch’ien out the door of working life—for the previous half dozen years he’d been a traveling salesman for a local winery—to spend his remaining days as a poet. Carolyn gave her blessing. And he quickly learned, as he now jokes, how closely related the word “poetry” is to “poverty.” But he rushes to add, “The poverty is only in dollars, not in life.” Since then, he has divided his energies between road trips near and far to give readings and workshops, often at venues off the traditional poetry circuit, and FootHills Publishing at home, which produces twenty to forty books a year. Though printed off the computer, the books are assembled and hand stitched by Carolyn at the rate of ten per hour, producing unique paperbacks that feel special in your hands, old fashioned labors of love in an age otherwise enamored of e-books.
Michael also started with two bold principles: no grants, so as not to be bound by grant makers’ agendas, and no reading fees, so as not to milk the hopes of poets who are typically paying for the privilege of being rejected. When I heard of these two “nos,” I immediately added my own, “no money,” for I’d never heard of poetry presses that eschewed grants or reading fees. Nor did Michael have the third key to small press success, i.e., a family fortune, his own or a supporter’s. Yet, somehow, FootHills Publishing has persisted for more than twenty five years. The Czarneckis do live frugally, as I’ve learned on my visits. One night, lending me a flashlight lantern to get out to my tent by the hay field, Carolyn showed me how to adjust the switch in order to use only one of the two lantern bulbs, thus saving on the battery. Every penny counts in this household. Yet they’re generous in spirit. Upon learning that my mother had spent her childhood summers in Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island in Maine, Michael handed me gratis a copy of his book Sea Smoke and Sand Dollars with a cover photo taken at the Seal Harbor beach. During his 30,000 miles of hitchhiking, he’d discovered Acadia National Park, which became a second home that he’s returned to many times. If only my mother was still alive to read his experiences:
Walking Seal Harbor Beach With My Son
Snow lies above high tide mark
waves crash below our footsteps.
He finds first sand dollar of year
exclaims excitedly his discovery.
I find another, he hears me
exclaim excitedly my discovery.
Forty-one years separate us.
One could never tell.
The other secret to FootHills Publishing, I suspect, is that Michael seems to be a type A hippie. He may have the beard of a hillbilly who lazes away afternoons on a porch rocker, but he can’t seem to sit still or waste time. One Sunday morning, after I’d slept in my tent by the hay field where swallows swooped in and out of bird boxes on posts, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the family table, while he made coffee, toast, and scrambled eggs on the wood fired kitchen stone. As we conversed about poets and books, he darted about to retrieve volumes from the bookcases that serve as dividers for the first floor of the house, building up a browsing pile for me that I had to move to the floor when breakfast arrived. On a cell call with Carolyn who’d left at six am on a family trip to Massachusetts, he discussed gas money. Then he was back to a bookshelf to look up a yellow flower in a field guide that he and his son had seen the previous day, a new one to add to their plant list for the property. I remembered an Army recruiting slogan: You’ll do more before nine in the morning than most people do in a day. By quitting work at forty three, Michael had consigned himself to working harder than ever. But when he finally did sit down to eat his scrambled eggs, he shared a marvelous story about Turtle Island. After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, Gary Snyder didn’t need the prize money so he gave it to buy beer for the community members who’d gathered to raise a school in th e Sierra foothills where Snyder had settled in the early Seventies. Alchemizing the Pulitzer Prize into community beer money was an act of humbling generosity that made Michael smile. His own house had been raised with the help of his Amish neighbors.
After the Frolic
Horses and buggies gone
a pick-up, van, car remain.
Roar of chainsaws, pounding hammers
softening in mind’s memory.
This morning’s first-floor platform
this evening’s two-floor house.
A few friends remain, talking upstairs
gazing out over distant eastern ridges.
One points out streaks of falling rain
trailing off east from upper winds
evaporating before reaching ground—
virga—he names it, explains it.
A house risen from where there was none,
light rain falls from clouds, disappears.
One night on the porch I listened in as Michael sought to persuade a computer engineer who’d long ago graduated from MIT to lead his own peripatetic life that he had a poetic sensibility, even though the engineer insisted that he knew nothing about meter and rhyme, etc. That porch was the perfect place to watch time pass with its hilltop views spread for miles. Earlier in the evening we’d seen red globes of fireworks burst on the southern horizon, evidence that Wheeler Hill wasn’t as far out in the middle of nowhere as I’d thought. (In fact, it’s an hour’s drive south of Rochester.) Later, I’d see one of the fattest shooting stars of my life arc down the eastern sky, as if E.T. himself was landing by spaceship. For now I watched fireflies flitter about the hayfield tops, blinking entertainment far more soothing than TV. And I listened to what I realized was Michael’s belief about poetry. The issues of form that concerned the engineer were secondary. The basis of poetry was nothing more, or less, than the simple truth spoken from the heart. Michael recalled meeting a fellow at the laundromat in the nearby town of Bath years ago, who, upon learning that Michael was a poet, grumbled, “I wouldn’t know anything about about that,” a reaction that any poet in America has heard countless times. Yet, as the conversation continued, Michael learned that the man hunted ginseng, making him a special figure in rural areas where ginseng is prized like gold. Michael couldn’t resist asking if he might tag along. The man’s answer was so good that Michael wrote it down the moment he got back to his car.
I don’t take anyone along
if I do
I can’t find it
it’s like I’m possessed
I get lost
lose track of time
don’t know where I am
and nothing exists
that’s how I always find it.
A year later, same laundromat, and, much to Michael’s delight, the same man. This time Michael returned to the car to fetch his new book to show the man his own words shaped into a poem. The fellow was so pleased that he asked for a second signed copy for his son. It was such a happy reunion that Michael decided to try again: “Now will you take me ginseng hunting?” After a thoughtful pause, the man grunted, “Nah.” Recounting this story made Michael laugh, glad that the man hadn’t given up the truth in his heart so easily.
Though not a Chinese analogy, I think of Michael as a Johnny Appleseed of poetry, traveling the urban and rural byways of America to treat people who often aren’t poetry mavens to the simple but deep appreciations expressed by his words. Let me close with another one of his tales.
Liberty Street Poetry Reading
Bath, New York
Walking down the street
past a few young guys
standing by a pay phone.
One of them calls out,
“Hey, are you an artist?”
I look straight at him,
“Why do you ask?”
He hesitates, then replies,
“I, I, I.. don’t know—your hair.”
Not tied back, wild, bushy.
I smile, tell him
“I’m a poet,
an artist with words.”
“Tell me a poem,” he commands.
So I recite
“Fenced In By History”
Like animals behind electric fencing,
shocked once or twice
while trying to reach out
over the line
we keep well within boundaries.
What’s learned the hard way, sticks.
No need to catch that jolt again.
But have you checked lately?
Maybe the charger’s run dead.
A couple of other people
stand behind, listening.
I leave then
to keep testing fences
to never stop asking for poems.