In the early 1990s, I wrote my first poems on a whim one weekend at a Zen monastery in the western Catskills. At the time I lived in Manhattan with my wife, worked at a small environmental magazine, and didn’t care about Zen beyond the fact that we could stay at the monastery for $50, a bargain compared to a country inn. At this austere Japanese-style retreat center miles down a dirt road, I tried the walking meditations and the sitting meditations that nearly paralyzed my pretzel-folded legs, but what I really enjoyed was sneaking off for an afternoon hike up a nearby mountain. Returning, I found a freshly killed porcupine on the road, a sad but fascinating sight, for I’d never seen a porcupine up close before. The quills surprised me by being dark at the tips, giving the animal its brown color, but otherwise as blond as plastic toothpicks. I gathered a handful as a souvenir. I decided to compose a short poem.
Now, I had no interest in poetry at the time. Not as a journalist, an once-aspiring novelist, a diarist, or as anything else. To me poetry was an obscure, pretentious, self-important art form. Occasionally, I read a New Yorker poem aloud to my wife for a laugh. By being breathy and by pronouncing such words as “dust” as earnestly as “God,” I could easily ridicule the piece. I hadn’t written a poem since a few sarcastic rhymes as a teen.
But my wife had recently given me Gary Snyder’s No Nature: New and Selected Poems, not because he was a poet but because he was a prominent environmentalist. His poems, so simple and affecting, took me back to my college days backpacking and ski bumming in the High Sierras. I’d loved the first one in the book:
Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout
Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
I remembered moments like that in the Sierras. Now I’d just been up a fire tower in the Catskills. I decided to write a Snyder-like poem about the porcupine. Already, metallic green beetles like jewels were invading its quills, preparing its burial. I won’t say that this first poem of mine was worth sharing. But I did enjoy it. So I wrote a second about a massive cow standing dumb in a pasture. Then a third about swallow bird droppings on the monastery porch. Rather than babbling in my journal, I was slowing down and observing, capturing a moment rather than writing past it. Suddenly, in my mid-thirties, I’d discovered poetry.
From ninth grade on, I’d grown up intending to write the Great American Novel. I’d taken crazy road trips, gone hitchhiking, studied creative writing, consumed John Updike—all the things I needed to do to prepare. After college, I settled in Hoboken, New Jersey in an apartment upstairs from the Clam Broth House. At a wooden desk I inherited from my grandfather, an author of books and church sermons, I sat down to write my magnum opus. And got the Great American Writer’s Block. Mine was worse than staring at a blank page. Euphoric with inspiration, I’d scribble several pages in my spiral bound notebook, a brilliant start to a story that would launch my career. A few days later I’d read those pages with a desolate feeling at how awful they were. I’d abandon them to try another story. I made a misery of my early twenties.
After several years of crappy jobs, I found my way into book publishing as an editorial assistant at Viking Penguin, the second thing I’d done right since college. (The first had been meeting the woman who’d become my wife.) In time I dared to write again. I started one story after another, until one Sunday morning I stared at the scribbled pages in my blue spiral notebook and felt the death of every story I’d initiated but hadn’t finished. I couldn’t bring a single one back to life. So I tossed that notebook and all the others contaminated by years of frustration into a Hefty garbage bag that I lugged down to the sidewalk and dumped by a parking meter for Monday’s trash pick-up. Back upstairs, I gathered my college newspaper clippings and prepared a story pitch for the weekly Hoboken Reporter that I walked to the other end of town and slid under their door. I got the assignment. Within months, I quit Viking Penguin to be a freelance journalist for Publishers Weekly, Poets & Writers, and many others. If Journalism Block exists, I never had it. I loved this excuse to meet people from all walks of life. One day I’d tour a homeless shelter in Jersey City. The next, interview a hot shot literary agent on 57th Street. I got published all the time. I got paid. I was a writer at last.
After Earth Day 1990, I switched to environmental journalism, a field that felt like a homecoming. I’d been an Eagle Scout, a teenage backpacker on the Appalachian Trail, a lover of the High Sierras in college. During my first years in Hoboken, I’d felt trapped, but by 1990 I’d found my way by bus or train to the Hudson Highlands for weekend day hikes. I’d become a born-again nature boy. In my favorite illusion, seen from select summits, Manhattan appeared nestled between green ridges on the horizon, a ship of silver spires docked against the wilderness.
For three years I worked at E: The Environmental Magazine, then quit to freelance again, this time for In These Times, Mother Jones, and as a contributing editor to The Amicus Journal, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council. I enjoyed journalism. But the creative writer who’d been blocked by the Great American Novel had now found a way out through poetry. I didn’t stick to Gary Snyder’s model for long. Instead, I wrote storytelling poems about my childhood, adulthood, friends, family, failings, and triumphs. Sometimes I wrote poems that were pure fiction. Here’s one of my earliest:
Remember the werewolf double feature
at the old porno theater on upper Broadway?
The seats had no room for our knees;
sticky paint covered gum barnacles.
We howled at the full moon slipping free
of bruised clouds, then the actors’ faces growing
into wolf snouts with sounds like breaking furniture.
Their blue eyes kaleidoscoped into green.
They peed on hedges and hunted subway tunnels,
leaving shredded raincoats, a beggar’s cup, teeth marks
on the turnstiles. By the office cooler the next morning,
they laughed at blood stains on their tasseled loafers.
In the end they died from silver bullets
to the heart. Filing out, we discovered snow swirling
like torn pillow feathers. A cab tried to splash us with slush
and missed. We celebrated our new lives
in Manhattan by howling at the “Don’t Walk” light
and walking. Within a year you moved home,
joined our father’s timid life. You burned
pork chops, overboiled beans, made bowls of popcorn
that lasted into Letterman. You slept in fire engine sheets
in your boyhood bed, let the clock radio whisper
soft rock all night, as if you didn’t trust
silent dreams. Your degrees
didn’t matter. You worked the Christmas season
at the Post Office, rang bells for the Census, added blank years
to your resume. Maybe you were happy. I suffered
the hunger of wolves in Manhattan.
In 1996 I quit urban life for a Catskills log cabin. I didn’t just want to cover environmental issues. I wanted to live in a wild place. So I found one, a cabin perched like a tree house on a hillside of hemlocks, yellow birches, and deer paths. It had a wood stove, a porch with a tree growing through it, a footbridge across the stream out to the road, electricity for my computer and the stove, and mice, lots of mice. The cliché about writers’ cabins proved true. I flourished in forest solitude. The low expenses gave me financial freedom. The lack of distractions gave me time. The only loss, a huge one, was my marriage. A lifelong Mahattanite, my wife didn’t share my Thoreauvian yearnings. She had a good career, an extended family in the city, and all her friends. She did her best to part amicably—she gave me decorating magazines for log houses—but she didn’t join me.
I suffered this loss, yet I loved my new life in the woods. Continuing as a journalist, I became a special correspondent for the Adirondack Explorer and an occasional contributor to the Woodstock Times. I climbed all 35 Catskill Peaks above 3500 feet to join the Catskill 3500 Club, then snowshoed them again in winter. I gave myself a poetry education by attending the Catskill Poetry Workshop and the Frost Place Poetry Festival. I drove down to Manhattan for workshops at the West Side Y and Poets House. I joined writers groups. The bumpersticker on my rust-spotted Nissan Sentra may have read “Welcome to Woodstock: Roll up your windows and please don’t feed the poets,” but I felt fortunate to live in a creative and supportive community. In the late 1990s I published my first poems in literary journals, a deeply satisfying achievement after my blocked twenties. In 2001 I published two chapbooks, When I Had It Made (Pudding House) and The Fish Are Laughing (Pavement Saw), which won $500 in a national contest, no small change in the poetry business.
As the years passed, I published enough poems to complete a full-length book, then more than enough. I planned to compile my favorites into a manuscript one day, but that day never arrived. Instead, I had new poems to write, new turns in my life. After 2001 I left the cabin to live south of the Catskills for two years beside cornfields, then returned north to live right in the village of Woodstock. I wrote poems for new chapbooks, one inspired by Night of the Living Dead, another by my Hoboken memories. One summer I stayed in the Adirondacks, the next in Pine Hill in the central Catskills. I might never have looked back to assemble My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse, if not for a tragedy.
On August 9, 2006, my dearest poetry friend and mentor suddenly died of a heart attack. He was Saul Bennett of Woodstock, a retired public relations executive who’d been compelled into poetry by the death of his oldest daughter at age 24. Though he’d started writing out of grief in middle age, he’d rapidly developed into a serious poet who’d published two collections, New Fields and Other Stones: On A Child’s Death (Archer) and Harpo Marx at Prayer (Archer). Every few weeks we spent intense afternoons together reviewing our poems. He was the perfect critic for me, enthusiastic about my abilities, yet merciless with his pen and suggestions. Best of all, he studied my poems as if listening to symphonies, sometimes with his eyes closed, concentrating on fully absorbing the emotional impact of every word. A stanza could take him twenty minutes. To have someone treat my poems so seriously was an irreplaceable gift.
His death stunned me. Although he was almost 70, I’d never imagined losing him. He’d seemed so youthful with his dark hair, trim physique, and vigor for life and poetry. Though he dressed in a conservative country style, he wore red Converse high-top sneakers to the monthly meetings of the Woodstock Poetry Society, a stylish throwback to his youth in Queens. The last time I saw him, though I had no inkling it would be the final time, we spent four hours over coffee and poems at an upstairs cafe in town. In particular, he told me how excited he was with his newest manuscript revisions. It was a book he’d been preparing for several years. In fact, he’d thought he’d finished it the previous autumn and had sent it to half-a-dozen publishers. Now he felt grateful that it hadn’t been accepted too soon. I couldn’t wait to read what he’d done. I’d been following this manuscript like the growth of a child.
Three days later he was gone. Soon afterwards, I spent two long afternoons on his computer, trying to find this manuscript he’d described, but failing terribly. I opened everything, dozens of files, but all I came up with were drafts of his poems, never the full manuscript. In his closet I did find copies of manuscripts that he’d shown me in recent years—several chapbooks plus a few earlier versions of the book. But not the manuscript he’d described in the cafe. Not the summation of years of work and dozens of drafts, the reward for his painstaking tinkering with line breaks and other small but critical details. His book was lost. And he was gone.
One night I dreamed I was on death row. Oddly enough, I felt serene and relaxed, complete with my life, free of regrets, proud to stand tall in my orange prison suit. Outside my cell I gave my final hug to a friend, a fellow poet who seemed as freaked out as I was calm. I thought, “This is harder for him than it is for me. I’ll be dead in an hour.” But the moment after he vanished around the corner, I felt overwhelmed by panic. “What about all the poems on my computer?” I wondered. “Who will ever read them?”
I woke up determined to complete the full-length manuscript I’d put off for years. With the help of friends, who offered comments in writing groups and in poetry salons that I hosted to test my work before audiences, I actually completed what I set out to do. Almost a year to the day after Saul Bennett’s death, I e-mailed my manuscript to FootHills Publishing. The next day I opened the publisher’s reply: “I was in a reading mood when I received your manuscript. 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.”
My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse is dedicated to Saul Bennett. And to my former wife, who has remained a great friend a dozen years after I left the city for the Catskills. The individual poems describe my late mother and other people in my life, some lost, but all important to me still. I’m glad that this project is no longer a good intention growing old in my mind. Now it’s a book free to lead a life of its own.