Poems on William Stafford
By Kim Stafford

My Father’s Mottos

Do it now, he said, and do it all, as he

stepped from the mailbox with his daily

bushel of letters to answer before marking

a hundred student essays in time for the Ohio

circuit—thirty poetry readings in thirty days.

Do the hard part first, he said, rising at 3 a.m.

to run his round through the dark. His leisure?

I think I’ll read all of Thackery again. In short,

he didn’t mess around. No dithering, he said—

his hero’s message left to a wayward son.

Our Father Teaches Night School at the Coast

They were working people who wanted

to write, so he drove the mountains down

the Wilson River road to Tillamook, stars

or rain, dark miles of thought to a room

of pens and questions, his students giving

stories, troubles, enigmas, now and then

a fish bedded in fern, shy encounters

and farewells one night a week, eight years

of shadows flaring and fading, his loyal car

traveling through the dark where the land

had burned, his drive turning with the river

to bring him home to us to wake and hear

his stories of the long dark road.

Ten Years After the Last Words

Ten years after my father, as he helped my mother

clean the kitchen when the blender had exploded

scattering lime pie filling everywhere, said,

Better get another spatula…

and then fell dead to the floor,

I was standing at the wall with the sheetrock trowel

buttered with finish mud to cover the dimples

of the nails, the panel seam snug against the stud,

and I asked my father in my mind, “Daddy,

have I done enough for you?”

His voice bloomed in my head:

Years ago. Years ago you did enough.

“But how can I choose between your work

and mine?” Again, his voice, fine as dust:

Do the work that is most alive.

Some days it may be mine,

Most days it will be your own.

And finally you won’t know the difference.

With one stroke I closed the seam.

My Father’s Bread

Humble in most things, he took pride

in his loaf dropped hot from the pan

to cool under a towel on the board

dusted with cornmeal.

First he’d whet his farm knife by the sound

of slink, slink across the stone,

then slide the blade through his heap

steaming as it fell open, as earth scent

baked from dirt rose to cloud his face

in quiet satisfaction. So many things

he could never solve, never save,

could never stop wars and sorrows.

But always there was this—a dab

of jam on the corner of his slice

taken in one ravenous bite where,

for one moment, all was forgiven.

Back Then, His Words

Were Not Enough…Now

They Are Precious

We stopped on a road in Montana.

My father sat on the passenger side.

I turned off the car and poured out

my sorrows, my life falling apart,

all my landmarks gone.

He was silent. We listened to the river.

Two crows flew over. They could go

anywhere. The river flowed silver.

My father put his hand on my sleeve:

“Be of good heart, my friend.”

Gone to the Garden

In Viet Nam, when one retires,

people say, về vườn … Our friend

has ‘gone to the garden’

Now my garden appoints the seasons.

Now I take calls from jay and crow

as I open a row in dark earth.

Now I confer with seed of beet and gourd,

and with a tent of sticks and string

I offer the bean vines a path to heaven.

Instead of paper, mulch.

Instead of clock, dawn and dusk.

Instead of memo, memory—

bowing over potato ground

I greet my father’s shadow

lifting the hoe.

Rainy Day in the 40s

When my parents were in love and poor

just after the war, a hungry Sunday on Filbert street

in San Francisco they trod the pavement feeling glum.

Where Telegraph Hill came down they heard a sound,

looked up to see no one but an apple gleaming red,

rolling down into my father’s hand, and with his knife,

divided, it became their gritty sacrament they taught us:

bounty in small will be enough to fill your hand or cup

when hard times come.

Be kind, hold on, and remember to look up.

Wood too Good to Cut

Under the porch, this cedar plank,

impossibly wide, thick as my fist—

this one Curtis gave when he retired.

First I must build a room worthy

of the table it could be.

Behind the house, this redwood post

I pulled from the dump at Metolius

leans fragrant under the eave,

honored long in fragrant shade,

still standing as a sacred tree.

And this bolt of yew I cut north

from Fish Lake, bowing in the grove

with my folding saw, old snow still

on the ground around me, so my father

could make a bow, but then he died.

I need to be a boy again standing

at his knee before he can split it

with his hatchet from the war, then

shave it to a stave, gripping his

shattered knuckle of glass.

In Virus Hardship Now

I Remember How My Father

Pulled the Plow

That summer deep in the dirty thirties—dust bowl,

no job, bread line, lean time—my father and his

high school friend found an island in the Ninnescah

unclaimed under the fiery Kansas sun, drew straws to see

who would guide—or drag—the plow, and to my father

fell the horse’s chance, climbed into harness, bent low,

and pulled. From face to dust, sweat dripped as furrows

opened for their few seeds of corn and beans, pearling

buckets of Ninnescah slathering the rows, my father

growing strong enough for war.

Dew in the morning when he wore leather and brass

to drag old iron through earth, scant willow shade

at noon, whippoorwill at dusk, and then, over lazy

waters of the Ninnescah, the moon.