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From the Publisher"As a book written by a son warily loving an enigmatic, elusive father, this is a masterpiece."—Robert Bly
"I don't want to write good poems. I want to write inevitable poems."—William Stafford
A prolific writer, a famous pacifist, a respected teacher, and a literary mentor to many, William Stafford is one of the great American poets of the twentieth century. His first major collection—Traveling Through the Dark—won the National Book Award. He published more than sixty-five volumes of poetry and prose and was Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress-a position now known as the Poet Laureate. Before his death in 1993, he gave his son Kim the greatest gift and ...
A prolific writer, a famous pacifist, a respected teacher, and a literary mentor to many, William Stafford is one of the great American poets of the twentieth century. His first major collection—Traveling Through the Dark—won the National Book Award. He published more than sixty-five volumes of poetry and prose and was Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress-a position now known as the Poet Laureate. Before his death in 1993, he gave his son Kim the greatest gift and challenge: to be his literary executor.
In Early Morning, Kim creates an intimate portrait of a father and son who shared many passions: archery, photography, carpentry, and finally, writing itself. But Kim also confronts the great paradox at the center of William Stafford's life. The public man, the poet who was always communicating with warmth and feeling-even with strangers-was capable of profound, and often painful, silence within the family. By piecing together a collage of his personal and family memories, and sifting through thousands of pages of his father's daily writing and poems, Kim illuminates a fascinating and richly lived life.
"I don't want to write good poems. I want to write inevitable poems."—William Stafford
A few days after my father died, I needed to sleep alone at the home place, to go back to the room I shared with my brother when we were young. Mother was away. I came to the house after dark, found the hidden key. In the home labyrinth, your feet know the way. Down the hall in the old garage, I turned into the study my father had built, where I stood a moment: dark walls, dim rows of books, papers on the desk, the making place. Then up two steps to the kitchen, a turn down the hall, and into the room of childhood.
For the fist time in years, I slept deeply from the moment I lay down - until I woke at around 4 A.M. Mother had told me that since his death she, too, had been wakened at my father's customary writing time. As I opened my eyes, the moon was shining through the bedroom window. The house was still, the neighborhood quiet. Something beckoned me to rise, a soft tug. Nothing mystical, just a habit to the place. Lines from a poem of his came to mind:
When you wake to the dream of now from night and its other dream, you carry day out of dark like a flame.
This beckoning before first light brought a hint from my father's life and I accepted it:
Your life you live by the light you find and follow it on as well as you can, carrying through darkness wherever you go your one little fire that will start again. - from "The Dream of Now"
I dressed and shuffled down the hall. In the kitchen, I remembered how my father would make a cup of instant coffee and some toast. Following his custom, I put the kettle on, sliced bread my mother had made, and marveled at how sharp my father had kept the knife. The plink of the spoon stirring the coffee was the only sound, then the scrape of a butter knife. My father's ritual pulled me on: I was to go to the couch and lie down with paper. I took the green mohair blanket from the closet, turned on the lamp, and settled in the horizontal place on the couch where my father had greeted ten thousand early mornings with his pen and paper. I put my head on the pillow where his head had worn through the silk lining and propped my notebook against my knees.
What should I write? There was no sign, only a feeling of generosity in the room. A streetlight brightened the curtain beside me, but the rest of the room was dark. I let my gaze rove the walls - the fireplace, the dim rectangle of a painting, the hooded box of the television cabinet, a table with magazines. It was all ordinary, at rest. In the dark of the house my father's death had become an empty bowl that filled from below, the stone cavern of a spring. I felt grief, and also abundance. Many people had written us, "Words cannot begin to express how we fell without Bill...." I, too, was sometimes mute with grief. But if my father had taught me one thing about writing, it was that words can begin to express how it is in hard times, especially if the words are relaxed, direct in their own plain ways.
I looked for a long time at the bouquet of sunflowers on the coffee table. I remembered sunflowers are the state flower of Kansas. I remembered my father's poem about yellow cars. I remembered how we had eaten the last of his summer plantings of green beans.
I thought back to my father's last poem, the one he wrote the day he died. He had begun with a line from an ordinary experience - a stray call from an insurance agent trying to track down what turned out to be a different William Stafford. The call had amused him, the agent's words had stayed with him. And that morning, 28 August 1993, he had begun to write:
"Are you Mr. William Stafford?"
As he often did, he started his last poem with recent news from his own life before coming to deeper things. But I wasn't delving into his writing now. I was in the cell of his writing time, alive earlier than anyone, more alert in welcome, listening.
The house was so quiet I heard the tap of my heart, felt the sweetness of each breath and the easy exhalation. It seemed my eyes, as in one of my father's poems, had been "tapered for braille." The edge of the coffee table held a soft gleam from the streetlight. The stack of magazines was jostled where he had touched them. Then I saw how each sunflower had dropped a little constellation of pollen on the table. The pollen seemed to burn. The soft tug that had wakened me, the tug I still felt, wanted me awake to ordinary things, to sip my bitter coffee, to gaze about, and to wait. Another of his poems came to mind:
How still earth stayed that night at first when you didn't breathe. I couldn't believe how carefully moonlight came. - from "Letting You Go"
The way moonlight touched the curtain seemed to be instructing me how to breathe, to think, to wonder. My father had said once that time alone would allow anyone to go inward, in order to go outward. You had to go into yourself to find patterns bigger than your life.
I started to write ordinary things. Then I same to the sunflowers. This could be told wrong if I tried to hard. My father's way is not about trying, not about writing poems, not about achievement, certainly not fame. His way is being private before first light, with your breath, the scratch of the pen. His way is something like worn silk, a blanket, and that dusting of pollen from the sunflowers.
My head fit his dent in the pillow. My hand moved easily with the pen: Pause at the gate to take off the one big shoe of his body, step forward light as wind.
In the uninterrupted abundance of my own time, I finished a page, closed my notebook, and rose for the day. As my father would say at such a time, there was much to do but I had done the big thing already.
Who will take my father's place in the world of poetry? No one. Who will take his place in this daily practice of the language of the tribe? Anyone who wishes. He said once the field of writing will never be crowded - not because people can't do important work, but because they don't think they can. This way of writing is available to anyone who wishes to rise and listen, to put words together without fear of either failure or achievement. You wake. You find a stove where you make something warm. You have a light that leaves much of the room dark. You settle in a place you have worn with the friendly shape of your body. You receive your own breath, recollection, the blessings of your casual gaze. You address the wall, the table, and whatever stands this day for Kansas pollen.
"There's a thread you follow," my father wrote. Deep night, and early morning, my page of writing, pollen on the table - these were the filaments I would need in the work he left me.
Excerpted from Early Morning by Kim Stafford Copyright © 2002 by Kim Stafford . Excerpted by permission.
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