Tender to the Ground (Reposted from 2006)
Coleridge's simple definition of poety was "the best words in the best order." Many modern poets
would embrace a more pedestrian definition, but Coleridge's thought is not too far from Korg's 1966 book, The Force of Few Words. Even so, most poems, if taken as a whole, miss the superlative mark Coleridge set. They are not pure poetry from start to finish. Even if each line contains discernable poetic elements, most of the rhythm and flow and meaning of millions of attempts to "write a poem" fall short of truly distilled poetry of "the best words are in best order."
Take this poem I wrote in 1995. It was written from a broken grieving heart, and the sentiment is genuine, but I was somehow bound by sing-songy lines of good intention. Yet, there is a nugget of poetry to be found among the elements of otherwise poetic effort. Sometimes a single line can serve as a hook to hang a hat on and make something worth knowing and quoting.
First some background:
My father died in April 1995, now twenty years ago. My wife, two daughters and I lived in Iowa at the time and traveled 570 miles east to Michigan for the funeral. Some Iowa friends were watching our little Yorkshire terrier, Corky. They lived only two streets from our Iowa home and one night the little fellow ran off and went missing 'til the next day when they found him trembling at the back door of our house. It happened three times while we were gone. (We had never left him behind for any other trip, and he could simply not believe that we were not at home.)
He was never the same after that week without us. He had literally never left our yard in eight years, but he now knew what was beyond. In the weeks to follow, whenever we let Corky outside (as we had done without incident for eight years), he wander off into broader and broader circles of exploration. One night in May he disappeared, and the next morning we received a phone call from a lady who said his body was lying on her lawn near the street in front of her house. I've written about it elsewhere at POI, but my point here is that watching my daughter Kim work through the sadness of that experience just a few weeks after I had laid my father to rest, prompted these lines. Oh, they are sincere and there is rhyme and rhythm throughout, but the lines that come closest to "poetry" are these at the end:
"...in time, all those who watch and wait
...are tender to the ground."
The three words "watch and wait" may be a subconscious hat-tip to Milton's "stand and wait" in "On His Blindness." Twenty years later, I used the same "watch and wait" in this year's Easter poem, "Crossing the Path." (previous post).
Not until I scribbled those final two lines did I see the root-word relationship between being tender and tending something... like tending a garden. The word "tender" implies affection, as in "tender loving care" and "tender mercies." Tender also implies lingering pain. When we walk on a sprained ankle, we may say, "It's still a little tender," meaning the hurt is still there even as it heals.
To this day, 20 years later, "tender to the ground" seem to be the best words in the best order to describe how we the living feel while visiting to watch and wait and whisper as we preen a loved-one's grave.
Tender to the Ground
There’s a patch of ground beside the path
...that runs between the trees,
...and yesterday my little girl
...was there down on her knees.
Her hands held clumps of lilac,
...both lavender and white,
...and she carefully arranged them
...on the stones that marked the site.
The day before, at twilight,
...we laid our dog to rest.
She tried to whisper something
...but fell sobbing on my chest.
Yet on this second visit
...no tear had traced her face,
...and her eyes showed calm contentment
...for having touched the place.
There’s a plot of earth just off the road
...that runs down to the shore
...where one by one, we’ll all be drawn
...by some endearing chore.
We may kneel to leave a single rose
...or brush back autumn leaves,
...and we’ll ask how hands find comfort
...so near a heart that grieves.
But the same heart will remind us:
...such acts aren’t for the dead—
...they are "rather for us" the living,
...as Lincoln aptly said.
Whether seventy or seven,
...wherever love is found,
...in time, all those who watch and wait
...are tender to the ground.
© Copyright 1995, Tom Kapanka, Patterns of Ink
A few weeks after my father's funeral, our little family dog was killed and buried at the back of our property. Lakeside Cemetery, where my father (and now my mother) and many other relatives are laid to rest, is on the shore of Lake Huron in my home town of Port Huron.