scribbling dust when I turn...

William Stafford

            – a poem from Even in Quiet Places


When they criticize you how do you
hold your wings? I hold mine out
and down, descend a little, then more.
Cool air comes. Nobody cares how low
I descend, and the way my eyes close
makes me disappear. They have their sky again.

So thin a life I have, scribbling dust
when I turn, trailing as if to follow
something inside the earth, something beyond
this place. If I accept what comes,
another sky is there. My serious face
bends to the ground, the dust, the lowered wings.


This remarkable little piece is an exacting view of self and other. I’m always amazed by how Stafford – as he put it – “closed down a poem”. Ending with the wings lowered is an such inviting image for the reader.

I like the hush and near stillness in a Stafford poem. Here, the thin life that scribbles dust is quite strong. And the trail that is followed? … not spelled out. There’s no need. That would hinder the force of the poem. He writes, “something beyond / this place” – and leaves it at that.

One of his great gifts is his ability to always engage the reader. The writing is very direct. All the excess, gone. The words – in all his work – clean and minimal … but the thoughts are immense, unstoppable, life-changing.


esk said...

Nice poem w/simple, yet vivid imagery. Love the use of "wings" and how it correlates to receiving/accepting criticism.

When "they" criticize you...I wonder who he is referring to when he says "they"?

sam of the ten thousand things said...

I appreciate the comment, Erika. I've never read or heard a comment by Stafford about the poem's intention with the use of "they". When I read the poem, I can't move outside this relationship between self and other - but that's how I read the poem. No doubt, there are other readings in place. So, for me, "they" connects with anyone or anything that functions as "other". The "other" has its own view or use of the sky that is theirs.

The ending introduces an image of humility - the serious face bent to the ground, wings lowered. With that last image in mind, this could be read as the poet's stance - what he called finding smoke's way out a situation, rather than commanding the situation.

There are a number of levels to this poem that keep bringing me back to it. Thanks for the visit.

Pris said...

Oh yes...his sparseness is sheer beauty.

James Owens said...

Stafford gives such an impression of up-front plain-speaking that there is a danger of "getting him" too quickly and not noticing how skilled and mindful his poems are. Look closely, and he packs more into a line-break or into the choice of a word than most other poets can manage in a page. That's on display here (though Stafford would never be trying for "display"....). I don't think there a single word that could be changed without losing the whole thing.

What do you make of the title?

(The "word verification" for this comment is "bards" --- that's you, me, and William Stafford, I suppose.)

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks for the comment, Pris.

And James, the title puts me in mind of his engaging the reader with the famous title, "Ask Me". Also, the first two words of that poem: "Some time..." "Ask Me" has such a strong ending - "What the river says, that is what I say." "Sometimes," as a title, comes across as matter-of-fact, as though speaking directly to the reader, in a once-upon-a-time method. Very audible. I hear this poem aloud; I don't just read it on the page. Thanks for the visit.