Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Desolation Angels

I began reading Desolation Angels on my 47th birthday (40 years and five weeks after Jack Kerouac died at the age of 47). I didn’t read any of his books until 2007, when I finally got round to reading On the Road. Perhaps reading Kerouac is my outlet in my mid-life crisis, but I think it makes more sense to read Kerouac in middle age, and Desolation Angels in particular drove that home for me. Kerouac was in his mid-30s when the events chronicled in Desolation Angels took place, and he was in his 40s when the book was published. There’s a weariness to the book—a weariness that I think a person in their 40s can fully appreciate. As with On the Road and Dharma Bums, Kerouac (in character as Jack Duluoz) is searching for something in Desolation Angels, but while there’s a palpable optimism in the first two that what is sought will be found, there’s a more pessimistic feel to the latter—that the search will not yield results, and only by not searching will one find happiness and success. This is clear at the beginning of the book as Duluoz/Kerouac realizes enlightenment is not going to be found in his hermitage atop Desolation Peak, where he has spent the summer working as a fire lookout (emulating fellow writers Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen). Desolation Angels draws to a close just as [On] The Road is published and Duluoz/Kerouac stands on the threshold of success and notoriety. Or is it the precipice? Kerouac/Duluoz realizes it is the latter, and anyone who has read Big Sur knows what is to come. But Duluoz/Kerouac cannot know the full consequences of success, of the impending doom (or can he?). His Beat friends don’t seem to be able to help him, and in a telling scene near the end of the book, even Cody Pomeray (Neal Cassady) realizes that his road buddy is changing, and not necessarily for the better. As Duluoz/Kerouac opens a box filled with copies of On the Road, success has arrived, but it will only be constraining and confining—Kerouac will be trapped in a world of his own making.

In the end, it’s Duluoz’s/Kerouac’s mother who is the sage. The humble French-Canadian-Catholic matriarch is probably the best Buddhist he encounters. In his words, she “speaks of tranquility” as she advises him that home is with family, and all that one needs is “… fun, good food, good beds, nothing more.” Sage advice for all of us who chase material and professional success only to wake up one day, one year realizing we were on the wrong road.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Skimino Cycle

The poems posted below are all part of a body of work I call "The Skimino Cycle." These poems draw upon events in my family's history. They are rooted in time, geography, personal relationships, religion, and how we approach life. The people are real, and the events and themes of each poem based on fact, but all else is imagined by me based on what I've been able to learn about each individual from various documents as well as on my belief that the way people act and interrelate really hasn't changed much over time.

I've posted them in chronological order, with the earliest poem posted ("Skimino") taking place farthest back in time. To read them in order, start with the first poem posted and work your way up through time. I plan to continue writing and posting new poems, but likely will not maintain chronological order.

This being a public blog, comments are welcome. Enjoy!


[Published in The Copperfield Review, Fall 2011]


The combination of farming without slave labor in a slave-dependent economy on land whose soil had become exhausted, along with a general economic depression led to mounting debt for John and Harriet Ratcliffe. In 1837, they lost the family farm in Skimino and sold off most of their personal possessions. They moved to Ohio, where they joined John’s father, siblings, and other relatives who had been part of the larger migration of Quakers from southeastern Virginia.

There is no life for us here
On this bitter ground grown cold.
We must leave this land, my dear.

Our debt’s grown too high, I fear.
The deed now in Barlow’s hold—
There is no life for us here.

The cows, the calves, John’s prize steer,
Farm tools, implements, all sold.
We must leave this land, my dear.

The earthen and chinaware
You thought you’d keep until old,
There is no life for us here,

Bedsteads, sideboard, all twelve chairs
Have been granted, bargained, sold.
We must leave this land, my dear.

O’er Virginia shed no tears
Our new life Ohio holds.
There is no life for us here,
We must leave this land, my dear.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


[Published in The Copperfield Review, Fall 2011]


In 1805, John Ratcliff, a Virginia Quaker, delivered 340 cypress boards to pay his deceased brother’s $6.00 fine for repeatedly refusing to appear for militia training.

Brother, I cut these boards for thee—
from the cypress trees thee planned to fell,
easily cut and worked by hand,
but strong and sturdy;
fine planks to side a house
or panel the room thee planned to add.

William, I cut these boards for thee—
memories of thee scribed in every board,
thy face in the swirls of grain,
thy hands in the rough edges,
as I grip each board and stack
for sale in Williamsburg.

Dear Will, I cut these boards for thee—
each board a fresh reminder
that thou art no longer here
to share these warm Spring days,
to walk the newly planted fields,
to break the silence of Meeting to share thy thoughts.

O Will, I cut these boards for thee—
three hundred and forty; every one
to pay the fine levied
for thy refusal to appear
on the militia field
and train in the ways of waging war.

O Will, I cut these boards for thee—
with each one my heart rips more
and the Inner Light is repelled
as the sour bile of anger rises,
as the saw blade rips through each log,
and the sapwood bleeds my pain.

Dearest Will, these boards were cut for thee—
at end of day, each cypress board,
straight and stacked with loving care,
and in repeated motions—lift and stack—
that of God refreshed in me
by these boards I cut for thee.


[Published in The Copperfield Review, Fall 2011]


I see him standing in his field, rough hands wrapped
round the handle of his hoe, watching the army march
down the Williamsburg Road. He hears the fifers’ reel;
the Continentals’ drums beat a cadence foreign
to the rhythms of his Quaker life.
His thoughts turn quickly to the farm—
corn stacked in the crib, tobacco hanging in the barn to cure,
sons and cattle in the safety of the woods.

On First Day he sits in the meetinghouse’s silence
listening to the cannons’ siege across the fields in Yorktown.
And, when the guns quiet, a world turned upside down.
In Williamsburg, eloquent speech on liberty gained,
freedom and the rights of men,
but there in Skimino plain speech and prayers
for freedoms that will not soon come.
In the meetinghouse clapboard and plain
he holds all in the light of peace,
and embraces a path at odds with the new America.

In Skimino I stand among the regrowth and the briars,
the southern pines and the shadowed light.
The meetinghouse is gone; the graves of Friends forgotten,
nameless underneath the road to Williamsburg, Yorktown,
and the fleet at Hampton Roads.
In this world tumbled down men still speak
of waging war and liberty
in the name of peace that will not soon come.
But here in Skimino,in the solace of the shadowed light,
so many years after him,
I embrace his path of peace.