Every summer’s a little different, you know? Not one since I’ve lived in Vermont has had the same feel or character. It was just a couple of years ago when it was so hot and steamy in the end of June I wasn’t sure I’d make it through to see August. I did, and when July came it was one of the most comfortable, finest swimming hole months I’ve had here yet.
Last year it rained almost every day in August. The fields couldn’t be hayed and the hay that was baled, molded. Then the world dried out to make way for a spectacular, colorful postcard of a New England autumn. (The long, extended panoramic view kind of postcard that you sometimes have to mail in an envelope because the post office won’t accept odd-sized mailings like that.)
It was rainy this June, and the pattern has held so far for the first couple of weeks of July. It may clear up, hard to know. But I do know that every year the festivals go on regardless. Indoors, if not out. The marathons and bikeathons and Dragon boat races continue wet and undeterred, and we also enjoy the many other less weather-dependent constants of this short season.
The Readings in the Gallery series at the St. Johnsbury Athanaeum is happily one of these.
All summer the free series offers readings by regional poets like Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, Jane Shore, and – a couple of weeks ago – Donald Hall.
There is much to be said about Donald Hall: he’s prolific (not to be mistaken with “verbose” – he writes much, but the writing itself is compact.) He lives on Eagle Pond in New Hampshire, and has for the last 3+ decades. He was the US Poet Laureate in 2006. He writes essays, children’s books, and more than anything else he writes poetry. Because he loves it more than anything else, he says, and because it’s what he wants to be best at.*
I appreciate the forthrightness and clarity in his work. Life is not easy, as Hall’s poetry chronicles, but the rewards for living it are bountiful and the very best of those are simple ones: precious, papery heirloom roses – “old roses” – , their small blooms fighting for a place on the vine amid all of the equally hardy heirloom thorns. Baseball, always baseball (as referenced in many of his works, including Nine Innings – nine separate poems that act as a continuously unfolding homage to the sport). The beauty of life is elegantly illustrated in the poem where the author accidentally disturbs a young couple making love in an autumn graveyard even as he tries to quiet Gussie, the companion canine, whose only concern on a perfect fall day is reveling in his loud, unbounded tennis-ball induced joy.
In Hall’s world death is not romantic, it’s death. It leaves an open hole. And it hurts.
The July 1st reading at the Athanaeum opened with a poem Hall described as new, and still wanting for a permanent title. He said, “tonight I’ll call it Needles“.
For all that I appreciate about the honesty in Hall’s writing, that night it blindsided me. The words unfurled in a loving, unblinking remembrance of Gussie as the young, energetic family dog. Years pass, and we find Gussie an old dog now, whose days are spent sleeping and trying to stand to drink water even as his back legs stop wanting to support the rest of the dog. Gussie, who gets to ride in the pickup truck’s front seat on that last ride to the vet. Gussie, a good dog right to the end, lying still even as the needle administers the pink fluid that extinguishes his life.
Two weeks before that reading I had lost my own “Gussie”, a big goofy white mutt we called Divot. He was a special soul who entered our lives one cold night in Denver around 12 years ago. A January night, 1997: black at 6pm, snowing with a temperature not many degrees above zero. On the way to dinner, following a speeding firetruck on a call, I saw him run into the street and get hit by the truck. The vet techs later guessed he was maybe around three or four at the time. A dislocated shoulder and much roadrash later, Divot stayed in a care facility for the next three weeks or so until he was ready to be adopted. He came home still wearing the red cast on his left forearm, limping but still unstoppably energetic: “the candle” we called him, the dog who burns twice as bright and half as long. (Except he ended up living long AND burning brightly for all of that time.)
Over the many years he camped, walked and sniffed around endlessly, and swam with the beavers in our favorite swimming hole here. He shared the house and our attention with a couple of other dogs and (eventually) five cats, and always welcomed new animals joining the family. New friends to play with! Even the cranky kitten got a big sloppy Divot welcome kiss on her first day in the household.
Divot endured the move to LA in 1998, spending the many hot afternoons lounging in the shade of the backyard lemon trees. One July 3rd, neighbors over the back fence thought it great fun to shoot fireworks into the yard to watch our dogs bark. Divot jumped the fence that evening and wandering the busy city streets until animal control rescued him. Never very street savvy (or savvy in general, to be honest – ), we worried ourselves crazy knowing he could easily have another encounter with a vehicle and not come out as lucky this time. The next morning we were more than happy to go bail him out of dog “juvie” at the Burbank Animal Shelter. I was so grateful for their care of Divot I later became a volunteer at that shelter and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I had while living there.
He was a great friend on bitter cold snowy days when life eventually brought us to Vermont and we reclaimed the sweet wintertimes we had left behind so many years ago in Colorado. Looking back at pictures recently I realized how many of them were taken on the many long winter walks we have enjoyed here together.
Like Gussie, Divot rode in the front seat of the truck on his last ride to the vet this past June 17th. His 15+ year old body had just worn out and the kidney disease he had been fighting for years wasn’t going to be held off any longer. Divot met the needle in a way that seemed respectful of his lifelong love of being outdoors: we brought him outside to lie under the full afternoon sunshine, in the grassy yard at the vet’s office. He was peaceful, and in his last few minutes even as the awful pink fluid began to slow his heart, it was a great relief to finally see the pain wash away and the light return briefly to his beautiful brown eyes.
Donald Hall’s new poem resonates with the equal measures of love and pain that characterize a life’s richest relationships. Inherent to the precious trust of giving and receiving love is the unspoken acceptance that someday, in one way or another, it must also come to an end. Acknowledging that makes our brief time together all the sweeter.
Poetry – or, “spoken music”, my grandmother called it – helps us to remember these important things.
The St. Johnsbury Readings in the Gallery series continues tomorrow night (July 15) with poets Garret Keizer and Rigoberto Gonzalez at South Congregational Church; and with Marge Piercy on September 9th at St. Johnsbury School.
Also: Divot was adopted through the Denver Dumb Friends League, a great organization that finds homes for hundreds of animals like him every year. There are similar organizations in every community. I encourage you to make a huge difference in the humanity of our world and please support your local animal shelter however you can: give an animal a loving home, donate some of your time or cash, become a foster home for animals in transition. It matters.
* Quoted from the 1996 Atlantic Monthly A Conversation with Donald Hall