Fred Waring and other Pennsylvanians

The first four photos in this post were taken with the kind permission of the curator of the Fred Waring collection at Penn State, Fred Waring’s America, which I visited on a sudden whim yesterday morning. Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians “taught America how to sing,” they say; I can’t begin to imagine what that means. All I know is that this golfing buddy of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, this once-renowned purveyor of bland, inoffensive, beautifully choreographed arrangements of big band music grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, the only genuine celebrity my home town has ever produced. I went to grade school in the former high school that had been built on the site of Waring’s childhood home.

But it seems Fred Waring had his wild and crazy side, too. He devoured the comics, and his archives include hundreds of original graphic artworks drawn for or about him by the cartoonists he befriended. He was apparently also fond of wearing “distinctive and original, sometimes ‘wild-looking’, jackets,” as one display put it.

I grew up listening to the five-string banjo. My older brother started learning the melodic clawhammer style when he was ten, after a few lessons from my banjo-playing uncle, who was part of the New York City folk revival in the 60s and 70s. I love the sound of this most African and most stigmatized of American instruments.

The music Waring got his start with wasn’t Appalachian string band music, however, but the kind of post-minstrel proto-jazz then popular among the hipper white folks. It makes perfect sense that Waring would go on to become the Pat Boone of the swing era. Someone had to do it, and who better than a genial, slightly funky, nice-looking white boy from smack in the middle of a state which was synonymous, then as now, with middle America?

It must be said that Pennsylvanians come in all stripes, however. Later in the day I attended a function at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center — also part of Penn State — and took the opportunity to visit the birds at the raptor center.

The birds on display are permanent residents, too badly injured to survive in the wild — less shadows of their former selves than living ghosts, some of them. They may never again rise on thermals over farm fields or ride the wind currents along a Pennsylvania ridge, but they and their handlers regularly tour the state, visiting classrooms, county fairs, and the like. I’ve seen them in action, and I think it’s fair to say that these birds, however diminished, are celebrities everywhere they go.

I can’t help wondering whether some such diminishment might not be a prerequisite for achieving celebrity status, in fact. We crave an encounter with wildness, with what we dimly sense to be a more authentic reality than our own, but without the danger and disorientation full contact might entail.

Shaver’s Creek also includes several miles of trails, a boardwalk over a wetland, and a beautiful little herb garden with a lily pond. Yesterday, the water lilies were in full bloom, and when I bent down to snap a photo of one of them, I realized that a green frog (Rana clamitans melonota) was sitting in meditation right next to it, like a Buddha that had just decamped from his lotus. I circled the pond, snapping photos. He never moved.

Fox tales

black cohosh

Walking down the hollow road this morning, I find a white breast feather from a large bird — a hawk? An owl? — lodged between a stem and leaf of foxtail millet. There’s a story here: some small mammal squirming in the talons, raking a feather loose.

Foxtail millet, fox grape, foxfire: pale imitations of their namesakes, lures for the unwary. The wild seen as deviance and degeneration from an original garden. Perhaps. It makes a good argument.

For more than a week, an ambush bug has maintained the same position near the top of a black cohosh inflorescence while the white bloom has migrated up the stalk. I nudge the insect with the tip of my pen to see if it’s alive, and it moves slowly to the other side of the stalk. Fairy candles, some call these midsummer blooms.

So many woodland flowers are white this time of year. Across the road, enchanter’s nightshade is in bloom, delicate white flowers that will turn into sticky little fruits — minimal burrs — and ride away in the silky fur of small animals: skunks, raccoons, foxes.

Viking Burial

The skiff rides inside a wave
of sand. The grave-robbers
peel back the sod on the old dune
& take everything but
the bronze hammer of Thor,
an odd coin or two
& several crosses — hammers
on their way to being men.

They re-bury the skeletons
from seven graves in
this one small craft:
three males & four females,
all dead before the age of 30
from disease or famine
& now jumbled together
like beads from a broken cord.

The pastures are poor,
trees have grown scarce,
the land is hungry for wood.
With its sod roof back in place,
the boat can melt into the soil
until only the iron nails remain,
orderly rows preserving the shape
that faith once took.

Revised 7/24/07.

Translating Cernuda


Translating Cernuda on a cool summer morning, my body slowly warms as the sun clears the trees & begins beating on the porch. The cold drains out through my fingers & gets caught between the pages of the dictionary. A family of wrens — one adult & four juveniles — drops by to give me a thorough scolding. It’s true, I have no business doing this. To my ear, the words are single notes with few overtones, & I can rarely hear the whole music. The temperature climbs toward 70 degrees Fahrenheit — 22 degrees Celsius, according to the thermometer on the wall behind me — & I pull off my shoes & socks, prop my bare feet up on the railing & stare between my toes at a yard full of thistles. Two bees have already found the first purple bloom.

It Didn’t Speak in Words

by Luis Cernuda

It didn’t speak in words,
It could only draw near: an inquisitive body,
Unaware that desire is a question
Without an answer,
A leaf without a branch,
A world without a sky.

Anguish opens a path among the bones,
Travels upstream through the veins
Until it comes out on the skin,
Upwellings of dream made flesh
To question the clouds.

A brush in passing,
A stolen glance among the shadows
Are enough to make the body divide in two,
Eager to take another dreaming body
Into itself,
Half with half,
Dream with dream,
Flesh with flesh:
Equivalent in shape, in love, in craving.

But it never gets farther than a hope,
Because desire is a question whose answer nobody knows.


No Decí­a Palabras

No decí­a palabras,
Acercaba tan sólo un cuerpo interrogante,
Porque ignoraba que el deseo es una pregunta
Cuya repuesta no existe,
Un hoja cuya rama no existe,
Un mundo cuya cielo no existe.

La angustia se abre paso entre los huesos,
Remonta por las venas
Hasta abrirse en la piel,
Surtidores de sueño
Hechos carne en interrogación vuelta a las nubes.

Un roce al paso,
Una mirada fugaz entre las sombras,
Bastan para que el cuerpo se abra en dos,
Avido de recibir en sí­ mismo
Otro cuerpo que sueñe;
Mitad y mitad, sueño y sueño, carne y carne,
Iguales en figura, iguales en amor, iguales en deseo.

Aunque sólo sea una esperanza,
Porque el deseo es una pregunta cuya repuesta nadie sabe.

Luis Cernuda (1902-1963) was a Spanish poet and literary critic who spent most of his life in exile. He incorporated all his poems into one, regularly updated volume, La realidad y el deseo (Reality and Desire).


The garden is a map that redraws itself daily.
Two paths meet in a head of grass.

Route of wind & route of the ichneumon,
her witching sticks tap-tap-tapping
for the green blood of her quarry.

A bumblebee circumnavigates
the purple abdomen of a coneflower
like the hour hand on a lover’s clock
which always moves too quickly,
albeit sometimes in reverse.

The sun priests of the Aztecs
thought of the heart as a flower
& the dagger as a hummingbird’s beak.
A bad metaphor can be fatal.

The poppies’ sea-green pods
swell like thought-balloons in the comics,
each one empty except for an asterisk.

Where lilies are concerned, I like
the word better than the flower,
the idea better than the word,
the lilies of the forest better than the lilies of the field.

The children were tired of lawns & streets
and being watched.
They found a blank spot in the garden’s map
& never came home.

Updated to add text at 5:35 p.m.

Money tree

Back in the 1970s, when I was a kid, an old vineyard covered most of the slope behind my parents’ house. At the bottom of the slope, near the edge of the woods, there was a medium-sided red maple with big, spreading limbs where I used to climb and sit by the hour, dreaming of the tree house I would build. Sometimes I lay on the ground underneath the tree, gazing up at the imaginary floors of a several-story structure.

The horizontal part of the lowest limb contained a crack parallel to the ground, about an inch wide and 6-8 inches long, and one spring, on an impulse, I hid a couple of quarters in it. I liked the idea of keeping money in a tree, for some reason. I left it there all summer while birds nested and fledged in other trees and foolhardy hornets dangled their paper cities within easy slingshot range. Sometime in late October, after all the leaves had come down and I was no longer tempted to dream of green rooms, I remembered the coins in the crack.

Thirty years on, long after the last of the grapevines were killed by the burgeoning deer herd and the maple tree died and fell over, I find I have two competing memories about this. In one, I retrieved the coins, which had become a little rusty around the rims, and put them with the rest of my allowance money, to be spent probably on Edgar Rice Burroughs books. In the other, equally plausible memory, the quarters were gone — found by a raccoon, perhaps, or by one of my brothers. One way or the other, I’m sure I never climbed that tree again.

Remember to send tree-related blog posts to me (bontasaurus [at] yahoo [dot] com, with “Festival of the Trees” in the subject line) by the end of the month for inclusion in the next Festival of the Trees.


magnolia blossom

The little boy with hemophilia
speaks in a whisper, they said.

The female traffic cop was too attractive.
People kept stopping to ask directions, I said.

While you were picking berries behind the house,
a bear walked down the driveway, they said.

A tanager, an oriole & a goldfinch, all males,
in a single tree at dusk: three flames, I said.

In Newfoundland’s only remaining ancient forest,
the trees are six inches tall, they said.

We stopped on the way home from D.C.
to read a historical marker for the Shadow of Death, I said.

Three tanka

A tiny spider
has spun its web across
the lens of my camera.
I check the memory stick
for pictures of flies.


Slender bodies,
legs impossibly long,
translucent wings:
stranger than any daydream,
the crane flies float through the trees.


On the damp woods trail
my boots scarcely make a sound.
Squirrels keep throwing fits —
as startled as me, this July morning,
by the apparition of my breath.


On the third & last day
of bear season, the hunter returns
to his perch on the boulder
more from habit than any realistic hope.
But every rustle in the leaves
still summons up the childhood
excitement of static on
a shortwave radio: some signal
that might come in, given patience
& a delicate touch.

So when the bear appears,
his breathing scarcely changes,
the rifle rises to his shoulder,
the scope to his eye
& the world
grows closer
by a power of ten,
centered on a plus sign
that moves along the great neck

to the suddenly immobile head,
snout riveted on something
just under the moss.
Then the claw’s shattering descent,
a fountain of dirt.
He watches as
the yellow jackets form
a furious halo.