Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"For the Unknown Enemy" by William Stafford

For the Unknown Enemy
By William Stafford

This monument is for the unknown
good in our enemies. Like a picture
their life began to appear: they
gathered at home in the evening
and sang. Above their fields they saw
a new sky. A holiday came
and they carried the baby to the park
for a party. Sunlight surrounded them.

Here we glimpse what our minds long turned
away from. The great mutual
blindness darkened that sunlight in the park,
and the sky that was new, and the holidays.
This monument says that one afternoon
we stood here letting a part of our minds
escape. They came back, but different.
Enemy: one day we glimpsed your life.

This monument is for you.


jdaviddark said...

Deep thanks for this, Philip.

Philip Metres said...

I'm glad you got something from it. Stafford is a poet whose work I find myself going back to--a principal test of the value of poetry.

Lyle Daggett said...

I've long had a good liking for William Stafford's poetry. I probably first read him 40 years ago, or nearly so -- I would have been in high school at the time.

Without a doubt one of his poems that's a great favorite of mine is "At the Bomb Testing Site," included (I believe) originally in his book The Rescued Year, and in one or two later Selected and Collected gatherings of his poems. The poem is online here, for anyone who's curious.

I had a chance to experience Stafford's presence close-up a couple of times, at the Port Townsend Writers' Conference when I was there in 1987 and 1990. I wasn't in his workshop classes either time, however he was one of the "faculty" poets who chose to move freely among the other conference participants (rather than retreating to the faculty cottages, as many of the writer-teachers did). He ate meals in the cafeteria with everyone else, was relaxed and easily approachable, took part sometimes in the round-robin open readings the conference participants would hold on the lawn in the late afternoons.

At the 1987 conference, Stafford did a reading on the last evening of the 10 days, to a large packed theater full of people hungry for good poetry, and he didn't disappoint. At one point during the reading, he read a poem called "Religion Back Home," a dryly humorous, fairly short poem in short sections. The third section of the poem is subtitled a "Book Report on Samson Agonistes" for an English class in the town of Liberal, Kansas, and runs just three lines:

Our father who art in Heaven
can lick your father
who art in Heaven.

He read that and the crowd in the room roared with appreciation.

(I should say here that I don't have the poem in front of me, and quote the above from memory -- I think I've got it pretty close.)

Liked also the poem of his you've posted here. Thanks much for posting this.

stephy said...

That was fantastic. Thanks also to Dark for tweeting it.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks for the reminiscence, Lyle. I recall a reading of his at my alma mater, in which his talk and poems seemed to emerge into one long meditation; he veritably seemed nimbus'd by some invisible light. His energy was so different than anyone I'd ever encountered.