Four Poems by David Wagoner

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Introduction by Jane Hirshfield

David Wagoner is one of our greatest poets. His poems feel to me a Grand Canyon of the art–poem after poem carving beauty of bedrock material, and the body of work as a whole indelible, awe-inspiring, lasting, while at the same time each poem lives utterly intimate, particular, and individual in my heart. There is no one like him, and I treasure his presence and gift to us all.



Thoreau in the Rain

He liked bad weather best. He would keep walking
when others hurried home, then he would be
the only one on a road or a pathway
or trespassing through an orchard, lifting his boots
and putting them down among the windfall apples.

Rain beat on his cape. He felt it urging him
to deepen like a bush or a wildflower,
to change his shape, to smooth away his crotchets
and quirks, and as he walked through cloudbursts
or almost balmy feathers of mist when the wind
would sigh and sweep its long curtains and scarves
and pleated skirts and antimacassars and tassels
across his home away from home, he would sit
content, absorbed, on his favorite furniture,
all morning long, on a stump like a toadstool.



A Footnote for Isaiah 40:3

The other kinds of voices
that cry in the wilderness
were much too numerous
for Isaiah to mention then,
concerned, as he must have been,
with the coming of his Lord.

The desert had heard it all
before: the cracked lips croaking
Help! or For Godsake,
or maybe forecasting
disasters or Doom! again.

But for those lost in the woods
(which is also a wilderness)
a shout is a warning meaning
Here I am. Stay away.
And even singing or talking
announces personal space
and a claim of territory,
and whistling, squealing, and crying
are dangerous strange attractors
that call all predators
to come to the chaos now,
to join in the consumption
and quick reorganization
of a living organism,
namely what used to be you.



After Take Off

I’m up. I didn’t flounder,
skid sloppily to a stop,
or hesitate just a little
too long down there on the level
            in the earthbound company
            of trees and been snagged there
            with the rest of the poor groundlings,
            hung up for good. But here
I am, up, and have been
for a respectable while,
with a privileged look
at what it was like to be
            down there, a barely visible
            speck of living matter
            among vegetable and mineral
            matters of fact, and now
I have to go back down,
like it or not, because
everybody else
who’s tried to stay up here
            hasn’t. They’ve all found out
            that staying above it all
            is just as improbable
            as being above themselves,
and I know if I lessen my impulse
forward, fall short of keeping
the distance between me
and Earth, I’ll make an end
            to this flighty behavior, and if
            I insist on trying to flap
            and flap a little higher
            till nothing occurs to me
by choice, till nothing remains
except for a last quick chance
to memorize the sky,
I’ll go plummeting down,
            not having learned or changed
      enough in the breathless, giddy
            meanwhile to justify
            having been lighter than air.




I bring them from the mountains,
from the sea, from the edge
of streams and look at them,
heft them, hold them hard
while they keep holding themselves
harder. Is it because
they haven’t had to change
their surfaces in our time
though, in theirs, they’ve suffered
the blunt demands of ice
and water and wind and god
knows fire, been cracked and frozen,
thawed, made molten again
and again have started over
grinding and being ground
from monument to boulder,
to rock, to river stone,
to gravel, to pebbles, to sand,
to slurries of grit, to dust?




David Wagoner has published 20 books of poems, most recently After the Point of No Return (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). He has also published ten novels, one of which, The Escape Artist, was made into a movie by Francis Ford Coppola. He won the Lilly Prize in 1991, six yearly prizes from Poetry, two yearly prizes from Prairie Schooner, and the Arthur Rense Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2011. In 2007, his play First Class was given 43 performances at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle. He was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets for 23 years. He edited Poetry Northwest from 1966 to 2002, and he is professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington. He teaches at the low-residency MFA program of the Whidbey Island Writers Workshop.

Read two poems by David Wagoner and three poems by David Wagoner also appearing in Terrain.org.

Photo of stacked stones on lakeshore courtesy Pixabay.

On Symbols

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.