The dead mallard roastsin the picnic sunnext to our table,unknown to our potato salad,discovered by the green trash canand the green flies.A robin sings above the scene.
Small Green Plant in Vietnam
Next to the great wall of sandbags,a small green plant survivesdefoliations,incursions,infrastructures,pacifications,saturation bombings,surviveswith no name,like the Tasadaywho have no wordfor God.
–Ronald F. Smits
Party Line: for William Stafford
“Friend are you there? Will you touch, when you pass, like the river?” This morning when I wake to a hard freeze,ice crystals, shaken loose by the sun, at dawn,rise like souls of the dead, the waywe’d always heard they would,ascending in flocks from the frost misted field.I am reading the last poems of William Stafford,trying to listen, as he listened, to the first burstof morning: voices of fog and the river.As I cast my 8th grade writing class along the bankto find poems in the dark current, I remember,at 14, Miss Melvin’s English assignment:”Who would you choose to speak to in heaven?”I believe she had been reading a biography of Edison,who died before completing his greatest invention,a telephone to the other world, a hot line to the kingdomof the dead. I don’t remember who I asked for;I would like to think Gandhi or Chaucer, but mostof us chose Jimi Hendrix or our grandmothers.And in the end, like Edison, like my 8th grade English teacher,we were left with a few dumb questions without answers,wrong numbers, like the random phone log my grandmother,with firm hand, etched, for fifty years, in the soft pineof her kitchen table. Thirty years later, if I close my eyesand allow my fingers to graze the worn table top,I can find them still–phone numbers of the dead.Tonight, when I place my call, I will listen,quiet as prayer, for the whispered voice on the other side,”Is this Stafford,” I ask, or just the party line of shared silence.
Ronald F. Smits is a professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and lives in Ford City, PA. His poems have appeared in College English, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Southern Review, The Texas Observer and many other publications.
Mark Johnson teaches English at the Holland Hall School in Tulsa. I was standing with him there on Sept. 11, when the TV monitors first broadcast the horrifying images of the planes flying into the World Trade Center. Mark had just given me his poem, since we both love the work of William Stafford. It took on a larger, haunting resonance in that moment.
–Naomi Shihab Nye