It is a cool, rainy day in Chicago—the kind of cool, rainy day that a Northwesterner like me responds to immediately, and gets the feeling of home and homeliness deep in his bones. I’ve walked around today in the light misting rain too gentle for an umbrella (for the most part), the temperatures just chilly enough for a coat but not so cold that you zip it, and immersed myself in many old memories from similar days back in Seattle and the surrounding area, where I lived for my first three decades. It’s been a while since I shared one of my own poems on Poetry Friday, and so perhaps on a day when I mull over thoughts of home, you can indulge me as I share another. This is the poem I’ve read in public most often, in part because it’s maybe the oldest poem I have (or among the oldest, anyhow) that I would be willing to inflict on an unsuspecting audience. For that reason, though, it’s a poem I have an increasingly strained relationship with—I still admire its strengths but am more and more attentive to its flaws, and furthermore it’s a poem that’s personal enough to feel like it’s saying “this is where James is at” but now that over a decade has passed it’s really not where I’m at, at all. Or maybe it is, and that’s what rankles. You will be able to speak to that better than I can, I suspect.
So here is a poem I wrote when I was a student teacher at Mount Vernon High School in Skagit County, Washington. It comes late enough in the semester to be affected by the chaos imposed on that experience by my dreadful supervisor, but early enough that I have yet to experience that moment of triumph I wrote about last Halloween. Since it’s me and not another poet, I won’t rush in afterwards to explain it or offer my thoughts—you’re getting enough of me in one dose already. But if comments are left, I’ll happily respond to them and continue any conversation you want to have (positive, negative, or indifferent). This is “Insomnia”, by James Rosenzweig:
“Four in the morning, alone, on the
boardwalk above the flooding Skagit River, I
am pacing along the east bank
in the gusts that follow the storm,
watching the wind whiten the water in shivers,
as pieces of the national forest float
downstream faster than I can walk.
Sleepless, between careers, ears freezing, I
hear in the distance the whistle of the train.
Then louder, closer in, the whistle leans into
the air—three, four blasts. I think
there is a man wailing that sound, partly
out of habit, and partly out of the human desire
to wake the children of Mount Vernon
with the news that the steel rails and boxcars
are still America’s backbone,
or maybe he just wishes they were.
At the end of the boardwalk I turn back upstream,
the snags racing past me now, making
their driftwood way to the Pacific, where their
white forms will be children’s playgrounds
and lovers’ benches beneath the stars.
Halfway back I see a salmon fighting upstream,
shaking his body like a whip. He takes his swimming
sideways across the current, as though hoping
to overcome the torrents with geometry
and sheer force of heart. I do not tell him
he is gliding backwards three feet
with every swipe of his weary fins.
He will admit it to himself soon enough,
and win the river later when he can.”