Visitors 1

“At John Hall’s Farm”


   He was at the college for a brief teaching assignment. Before and after a walk around “the wetland” we sat in the sun on the kitchen patio and talked. On my mind was recent “trouble” with a teen-age neighbor I’d apprehended dumping trash in Caney Creek, who tied dead coyotes to my pasture gate and had to “apologize,” as the game warden decreed. And how (I told) on a recent “white Christmas” I received a special “gift,” sighting a “crowd” of noisy red cardinals decorating the bare bright branches of a tree. Lou and Sandra had flown off to Costa Rica at dawn; I’d agreed in Dallas to set out their bags of trash and return to be at home alone. On my walk in the snow I’d seen the red birds gathering. We did find a dead heron on the levee of the wetland, and Sam may have noticed a mockingbird. I think he’d recently been in West Texas where the land and the sky do indeed seem “endless.”

    I mentioned that I’d recently discovered the poetry of Maria Rainer Rilke, saying it struck a deep resonate cord in me. Sam was dismissive: “... he’s become a cult figure.” I didn’t know; our conversation moved on. It was some months later that a friend brought a copy of Sam’s book with, “At John Hall’s farm...” starting at the bottom of page 205.

New York, White Pine Press, 1995: “Publication of this book is made possible by grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.” Copyright by Sam Hamill. 

    “[Sam Hamill was] born in the spring of 1943, probably somewhere in northern California. His father, an itinerant illiterate World War II veteran, left him, ca. 1972 [1952?], with an agency in northern Utah with instructions that he be adopted by someone who would teach him to read and write. Adopted by a Utah farm family, he left school to live on the streets during the Beat heyday of the late fifties. He served in the U. S. Marine Corps, much of sit in Japan, where he became a Conscientious Objector. He attended L.A. Valley College at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on the GI bill. Since founding Copper Canyon Press in 1972, he has taught in prisons for thirteen years and in artist-in-education programs for nearly twenty years, and has published more than thirty books, including translations from classical Chinese, Japanese, and ancient Greek, Latin, and Estonian poetry, three volumes of essays, and a dozen volumes of original poetry. He is contributing editor at American Poetry Review and at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and has been the recipient of  fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the U. S. Japan Friendship Commission, and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation.”

At John Hall’s farm in Mulberry, Texas,

I walked out to the pond,

paused to pluck a long gray feather

from a great blue heron’s carcass--

shot by some witless kid--

it held the blue of the sky and nightfall gray

and the sound of the sea in its form.

But it was only a dead heron

like so many others, putrid, buzzing flies.

Walking back across the fields, I watched

a crowd of cardinals gather in a tree,

the mockingbird called again and a ragged

old coyote zig-zagged into the wash below                                                                

    the hill warily,

not to be hung by his heels from a gate--

the way they do in God’s country.

Little white-tailed mockingbird,

Saint Mimic

in the cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual


little down-and-outer, God’s dog,

tattered trickster,

show me the way.

I’m journeying out again

don’t ask me why,

soul spreading shabby feathers toward both


of the oncoming dawn,

embracing the breadth of

this endless sky.

   A professor at the college was looking at the books in my library. He’d come with wife and children to ride the ponies we still had. And they had seen the beginning of “the park.” He turned and commented, “You’re creating an island here that nobody would suspect.” And when the Irish poet came (1978), this visitor also spent time before my shelves. Not finding Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, he asked, “Why?”

    “Any good books?” my New York army friend had asked. In a paperback copy of All Quiet on the Western Front, a favorite he mentioned, I found that I’d already marked the author’s (Remarque’s) last visit with his books at home:

    The backs of the books stand in rows. I know them all still, I remember arranging them in order. I implore them with my eyes: Speak to me—take me up....

    I wait, I wait.

    In February 1994 when Sam Hamill visited Mulberry he was at work on the title poem of Destination Zero, Poems 1970-1995. Lines from that poem reflect our conversation, what we saw that day.

“In God’s country,” Sandra visits coyote,


When I visited Paris and Prague in the autumn of 1991, the year my mother died, I had Rilke’s “selected poetry” in a translation by Stephen Mitchell, with introduction by Robert Hass, who wrote,

... he [Rilke] knew how immensely difficult it is for us to inhabit that place, to be anything other than strangers to our own existence. To learn not to be a stranger is the burden of the Duino Elegies....

So I was “hooked” in Rilke’s “cult” and knew why.

the capacity to be alone”

    from The Beginning of Terror; A Psychological Study of Ranier Maria Rilke’s Life and Work by David Kleinbard (New York University Press, 1993):

    D. W. Winnicott’s  Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment is cited, where the capacity to be alone is “one of the most important signs of maturity in emotional development.” ... It means also that one can achieve a sense of personal unity which makes it possible to say to oneself, “I AM, I am Alive, I am myself.” It enables one to be at ease with “creative apperception,” the fertile interaction between “subjectivity and objective observation,” the mental interplay of private “inner reality” and what we experience as “the shared reality” of an external world....

    Winnicott observes that the capacity to be alone originates in the infant’s assurance of his mother’s dependability...[which] defends the infant against impingements which might disrupt his sense of his continuity of being. Her protective presence makes it possible for him to relax, ...enjoy the spontaneous flow and play of his thoughts and feelings...he develops the ability to be alone in her presence...with the result that an individual may continue to be gifted with a strong sense of his distinctive, personal reality in the absence of parents and surrogates...he has internalized the “protective environment” of  infancy... with Rilke in mind, the source, voice, and vision of his own unique and original genius.

    Rilke, from the “Third Elegy”:

But did he ever begin himself, really? Mother, you made him small, it was you who started him; in your sight he was new, over his new eyes you arched the friendly world and warded off the world that was alien. Ah, where are the years when you shielded him just by placing your slender form between him and the surging abyss? How much you hid from him then. The room that filled with suspicion at night: you made it harmless; and out of the refuge of your heart you mixed a more human space in with his night-space. And you set down the lamp, not in that darkness, but in your own nearer presence, and it glowed at him like a friend. There wasn’t a creak that your smile could not explain, as though you had long known just when the floor would do that... And he listened and was soothed. So powerful was your presence as you tenderly stood by the bed; his fate,  tall and cloaked, retreated behind the wardrobe, and his restless future, delayed for a while, adopted to the folds of the curtain....


    An essay by Anatole Broyard, “On Illness,” winds up like this:

    The British psychoanalyst W. D. Winnicott began an autobiography that he never finished. The first paragraph simply says, “I died.” In the fifth paragraph, he writes, “Let me see. What was happening when I died? My prayer had been answered. I was alive when I died. That was all I had asked and I had got it.” Though he never finished his book, he gave the best reason in the world for writing one, and that’s why I want to write mine - to make sure I’ll be alive when I die.