American poet and man of many classy words, John Ciardi, passed away on Easter Sunday twenty-eight years ago. He had prepared his own epitaph to mark the occasion of his passing. It reads simply:
"Here, time concurring (and it does)The past few days in the Ozarks have been beautiful, allowing me to work outside and ready the farm for summer. One of my primary chores has been to get the old chicken coop and chicken pen cleaned up and ready for the new baby chicks - which will arrive either later this evening or tomorrow. The chicken pen encircles a sprawling tree whose many branches reached over the fence and grabbed the ground beyond the pen, allowing some predators easy access to the anticipated new arrivals - so I spent quite awhile trimming it back.
Lies Ciardi. If no kingdom come
A kingdom was. Such as it was
This one beside it is a slum."
One of the basic implements that I use as I work about the yard and on the chicken pen / coop project is my father's old wheelbarrow, vintage 1950's. Pushing that heavy thing around forms a secure bond with my dad, even though he has been gone nearly five years.
John Ciardi's poem, "Tree Trimming," talks about the bond that is formed between generations through the sweat of hard work. Ciardi was a master wordsmith, and I particularly like the images that he creates with this piece.
by John Ciardi
There's this to a good day's sweat
high in the branches trimming and down
into the ground rooting - I'm not used to it
any more but it reminds me when I'm done
and sprawl shaky with tiredness, wet
in the sun's wringer. Sweat tells me again
who my people were. And yes, there's more
to it. But without sweat I wouldn't want
it. It takes the whole body to be sure
of what you're remembering. I can't
say my father's or my grandfather's name
a better way than this dog-tired numb
joy of having touched green growing
and the dirt under it and the day going.
Even then I can't really touch them. Not ever
again. They had first things and the power
and the ignorance that go to the receiver
of first things only; that and no more.
I've lost it. I'm my own first. There never was
a man of my blood before
who spoke more than one tongue, or that
in a way courts wouldn't laugh at.
My father did read some, but it was
his mountain he came from, not the mind
of man. He had ritual, not ideas. His
world I cannot find
except as my body aches and sweats hewing,
was holy and dim. But doing
his work, I rest. I remember this:
it is good to be able. To hold axe and saw
and do first things again. I miss
this the desked days I go. I see
him here. I know him. But he is
more than I can teach my children. They
have for first life. That is their loss.
I wish we were Jews and could say
the names of what made us.
I could weep by slow waters for my son
who has no history, no name
he knows long, no ritual from which he came,
and no fathers but the forgotten.
He who could sweat down, tree by tree,
a whole wood and touch no memory.