The Darkness Around Us Is Deep by William Stafford 1993

This book is one of the three poetry volumes that I chose when invited to peruse the library of a Vermont friend who had died a year earlier.  His wife, a retired MIT professor like her late husband, and I had spoken on the road a number of times, and she had indicated her wish that I have some of his books.  I chose volumes by three favorite poets—Ted Kooser, Jane Hirshfield, and this one by William Stafford.

I hadn’t read that much Stafford but had loved his poem entitled “You Reading This, Be Ready” and several others, but I was not prepared for the bleak and dark vision in these poems and implied in the title.  Stafford, honored by a National Book Award in 1963, and much anthologized grew up, like Kooser, in the Midwest and spent most of his adult life in rural Oregon.  He has been called the Robert Frost of the West writing about nature, the land, and man’s too often destructive relationship to it.

The poems in this book focus on nature, his parents, the Native American influence on the West, and his own pacifism which during WWII resulted in his being confined to work camps.  He developed the habit of writing every morning, starting without any specific ideas and then writing poetry as it came into his consciousness.  The extensive bio of him in The Poetry Foundation web site refers to his relationship with nature as follows: “In all his volumes Stafford makes clear his allegiances to all those elements of existence capable of teaching him something about how to live.” and he translates those lessons about how to live into his poetry—straightforward, accessible, and deeply moving.

His poem ‘Waiting in Line’ about the ‘very old’ ends with this final stanza:

There have been evenings when the light
has turned everything silver, and like you
I have stopped at a corner and suddenly
staggered with the grace of it all: to have
inherited all this, or even the bereavement
of it and finally being cheated!–the chance
to stand on a corner and tell it goodby!
Every day, every evening, every
abject step or stumble has become heroic:–

You others, we the very old have a country.
A passport costs everything there is.”

Read Stafford for wisdom, insight, beauty, but not for very much comfort.  He sees a world that has abandoned and often destroyed the natural beauty and wisdom that were the hallmarks of how the Native Americans lived in harmony with the West.  Read him to appreciate the power and insights of poetry. In addition, this volume’s cover art is Rubens’ hands, a beautiful depiction of the grandeur of man and what he can create when those hands are not used for violence.