A witty nomer for Robert Francis (1901-1987) might be The Beau of Amherst—for like The Belle of Amherst he lived a mild, retiring life in that small Massachusetts town, occupying a cabin which he built himself and dubbed Fort Juniper in reference to his favorite tree and, one assumes, his desire for steely sanctuary. His father was a minister, his upbringing austere. Austerity is an element in his poems as well, along with keen insight and a well-crafted lyricism. His are deeply humane poems, as the poems of loners often are.
RF’s reputation has been overshadowed by the other RF, his fellow New Englander Robert Frost. The more I read him, though, the less I think of Francis exclusively as a poet of place. Indeed, most of the poems I’ve chosen here do not rely on the New England landscape at all; rather they conjure a more psychological landscape. In any event, despite the pigeon-holing and unflattering comparisons, Robert Francis was a successful poet who published ten volumes of verse, a novel and a memoir, and he was awarded prestigious prizes. The University of Massachusetts Press named its annual Juniper Prize in his honor—though Francis himself disliked the competitive side of publishing.
To interested readers, I highly recommend Alan Sullivan’s essay on his life and work.
A formless shadow from a far-off light.
Then in the sand the sound of moving feet—
And we have passed each other in the night
On any sandy, dark, deserted street.
Whether you turned your head trying to peer
At me, also a shadow and a sound,
I cannot tell. Or whether out of fear
You passed, then after passing looked around
How can I say, I who could only see
Against the night something a deeper black?
This, this is the one dark certainty:
There was no touch, no word, no turning back.
One certainty: the sound of moving feet
And shadows passing in a sandy street.
We are the lonely ones, the narrow-bedded.
Our last “good nights” are interchanged below.
Then up cold stairs alone—the odd, the unwedded.
What do we know of night? What do we know?
What do we know except that night is blindness,
That on a bed one sleeps, or lies awake,
That after too long waking sleep is kindness,
That for the unsleeping, day will sometime break?
Oh, we know more. We can tell you how wind sounded
On windy nights, and how the writhing rain
Hissed on the roof, mice gnawed, and something pounded
Over our head—or under the counterpane.
We are the lonely ones. When we are dead
We’ll be well suited to a narrow bed.
JuniperFrom where I live, from windows on four sides
I see four common kinds of evergreen:
White pine, pitch pine, cedar, and juniper.
The last is less than tree. It hugs the ground.
It would be last for any wind to break
If wind could break the others. Pines would go first
As some of them have gone, and cedars next,
Though where is wind to blow a cedar down?
To overthrow a juniper a wind
Would have to blow the ground away beneath it.
Not wind but fire. I heard a farmer say
One lighted match dropped on a juniper
Would do the trick. And he had done the trick.
I try to picture how it would look: thin snow
Over the pasture and dark junipers
Over the snow and darker for the snow,
each juniper swirl-shaped like flame itself.
Then from the slow green fire the swift hot fire
Flares, sputters with resin, roars, dies
While the next juniper goes next.
Are rich in points of view if they are rich
In anything. The farmer thinks one thing;
The poet can afford to think all things
Including what the farmer thinks, thinking
Around the farmer rather than above him,
Loving the evergreen the farmer hates,
And yet not hating him for hating it.
I know another fire in juniper,
Have felt its heat burn on my back, have breathed
Its invisible smoke, climbing New England hills
In summer. Have known the concentrated sun
Of hard blue berries, chewed them, and spit them out,
Their juice burning my throat. Juniper.
Its colors are the metals: tarnished bronze
And copper, violet of tarnished silver,
And if you turn it, white aluminum.
So many colors in so dull a green
And I so many years before I saw them.
I see those colors now, and far, far more
Than color. I see all that we have in common
Here where we live together on this hill.
And what I hope for is for more in common.
Here is my faith, my vision, my burning bush.
It will burn on and never be consumed.
It will be here long after I have gone,
Long after the last farmer sleeps. And since
I speak for it, its silence speaks for me.
The Goldfish BowlThe year is nineteen forty-one, the season winter,
The earth lies naked to the wind. The frost goes deep.
Along the river shore the ice-sheets creak and splinter.
Under the frost the tree roots and the woodchuck sleep.
The time is winter night, but in the swimming pool
Is summer noontime, noon by the electric sun.
The young men dive, emerge, and float a while, and fool,
And dive again. The year is nineteen forty-one.
The tropic water is safe-filtered and the room
Is air-conditioned, kept an even eighty-five.
Outdoors a shivering newsboy is proclaiming doom.
Inside the pool a naked youth is poised to dive.
The time is ten o’clock in nineteen forty-one.
Somewhere a bell upon a tower begins to toll,
While hour by hour the moon, its fat face warm with sun,
Gloats like a patient cat above a goldfish bowl.
It May Not Comfort YouIt may not comfort you to know—
But if the time should ever come
When lily and delphinium
Are trampled to their doom
And only weeds are left to grow—
(Where has the gardener gone?
And who will mow the lawn?)
It may be comfort in your need
To find the goldenrod in bloom,
To find it flower and not weed.
Boy SleepingDon’t wake him. Let him sleep a little longer.
Give him another hour. Breakfast will keep.
He will be hungry but for now his hunger
And food are less to him than bed and sleep.
Waking can be almost as slow as birth is—
A boy his age—and Sunday morning. Let
Him be slow and sleep, as slow as April earth is,
And after all he’s only April yet.
Evening RideThe world lay still and clear like a long mural
And we who watched were all that moved and we
Could overlook that we ourselves were moving.
There was no wind to flaw the level sunlight
And the long shadows lying on the hills
And chimney smoke pale blue on deep blue air.
Three children by the roadside stopped their play
To gaze. A woman sewing on her porch
Paused with the lifted needle in her hand.
Two farmers with a load of hay half loaded
Stood with their pitchforks idle as we passed.
Even a dog looked and forgot to bark.
The road was always upward. Now it was day,
Now twilight, and now day again. Now warm,
Now cool. We felt the cool grow ever cooler.
Woodsmoke was in the air, late supper cooking,
Fragrance of newmown hay and ancient woods
And evening vines in sudden deep ravines.
We reached the summit but only after the sun
Had gone. The road beyond dipped down to darkness
While higher hills on either hand were bright.
Remind Me of ApplesWhen the cicada celebrates the heat,
Intoning that tomorrow and today
Are only yesterday with the same dust
To dust on plantain and on roadside yarrow—
Remind me, someone, of the apples coming,
Cold in the dew of deep October grass,
A prophecy of snow in their white flesh.
In the long haze of dog days, or by night
When thunder growls and prowls but will not go
Or come, I lose the memory of apples.
Name me the names, the goldens, russets, sweets,
Pippin and blue pearmain and seek-no-further
And the lost apples on forgotten farms
And the wild pasture apples of no name.
Comedian BodyForgive comedian body
For featuring the bawdy.
For instance the poor fanny
So basic and so funny.
Forgive the penis pun
That perfect two-in-one.
Forgive the blowing nose.
Forgive the ten clown toes
And all the Noah’s zoo
Of two by two by two.
Forgive a joke wherein
All love and art begin.
Forgive the incarnate word
Divine, obscene, absurd.
StatementI follow Plato only with my mind.
Pure beauty strikes me as a little thin,
A little cold, however beautiful.
I am in love with what is mixed, impure,
doubtful and dark and hard to disencumber.
I want a beauty I must dig for, search for.
Pure beauty is beginning and not end.
Begin with sun and drop from sun to cloud,
From cloud to tree, from tree to earth itself,
And deeper yet down to the earth-dark root.
I am in love with what resists my loving,
With what I have to labor to make live.
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