LUNATIC IN THE TREES
Dennis Sampson's THE LUNATIC IN THE TREES, does everything we could ask of a book of poems. It has its own peculiar bent, is unique in its preoccupations, is well crafted and, ultimately, refreshingly humane. Of Sampson’s earlier work, Philip Levine has said, “In an era of . . . books of poetry largely about their own skill with language, it’s more than a little breathtaking to encounter a poet who writes for the most basic reason: because he has to.” As he has done in previous collections, Sampson continues to expand his vision doing justice to his subjects—from the inchworm and the ant to the mystery of the universe—as no other poet in America today.
Dennis Sampson was born and raised in South Dakota. The author of six previous collections of poems, his work has been honored by the National Endowment of the Arts, the North Carolina Council on the Arts and the Alabama Arts Council. He has taught at numerous colleges and universities, including stints as poet in resident at the University of Tennessee, Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Excerpts from The Lunatic in the Trees
AUGUST ELEGY FOR MY MOTHER
So there lies my mother
in the profound pose of the dead,
capable only of one emotion.
I put my hand on her forehead.
Her eyes are closed.
Where now is that woman?
And I remember her knuckles
in the light of that modest yellow bulb
of her Singer sewing machine
sliding blue denim underneath
the stuttering needle.
Remember too her sleep
when she leaned away
from reading Of Time and the River,
lips parted, there in her blue velvet chair
beside the white latticed window.
My mother’s presence has become
the absence of there. For her
no more there—none.
I touch those clasped arthritic hands,
her mouth a crease.
One final unsatisfying stare
at my mother who walked
the golden wind-blown leaves with me,
wind in her brown hair,
pressed her cheek against my forehead,
dismissed me, called me back.
One more fierce look before they
load her away—away!—
never asking me again,
there, in terror: Why are you so late?
Where have you been?
THE LUNATIC LIES DOWN UNDER THE MOON
He’s got a little moon up there
that seems as if it could just topple out of the sky
if someone touched the gossamer
that holds it up. Who’s staring up at this same
fingernail of light like him tonight,
this innocent half-smile?
—a daughter almost finished with her homework,
her math book fallen aside?
Gerard Manley Hopkins warned of a moon like this in June of 1876
after he had endured the terrible sight
from his monastery room in Stoney Hurst
of his beloved ash tree
chopped down. Who came up with moon, with sickle, with harvest,
with full and crescent? The Lunatic would like to know.
Meanwhile, he stares and stares
up at this fanged light that wanders over every one of us.
TO SPEAK WELL OF THIS WORLD
Those diminutive blue star-shaped violets on the hillside
with a sunset of yellow
in the center—the Lunatic can love them. They have waited
such a long time for him to be finished with his business
so he could keep his appointment in the meadow above the ravine,
the way Giotto waited for Dante,
Vincent van Gogh for Gauguin. The way the Lunatic too
waited for the one he loved last spring. Soon it will be evening
and the quarter moon will appear above that staid silver maple,
the juniper, that rose of Sharon,
and those cerulean blossoms that accepted what
attention the Lunatic had to give will withdraw into a solitude
as silent as the prayer he has always said,
the prayer for the peace of men, for charity,
for pity—and for the soul
that wants what it wants, if a little egotistical: yours, his.
A logarithm, a moving freckle,
a fierce divinity,
goes in search of the grail
throughout the day
and finds this fleck of Wonder Bread on the table,
lifts it like a little Hercules,
carries it away.
It is part of a delegation,
silent in several languages,
like the magisterial reflections on the sea.
It has set out from its priory
knowing exactly what will be,
traveling the broad escarpment
of the porch, under the closed door,
along the wall
and up the pedestal of drawers
leading to this crumb that means so much,
left on the table. Over the course
of time, eternity, an ant
argues in favor of continuance,
creeps, flees, fearful that what it wants
belongs to another.
And takes it anyway.