©Poems of R.F.Mueller- Other Times, Other Thoughts
THE ODYSSEY OF GLOOMY GUS
( in honor of a favorite uncle, August Deschler )
Look out into the night, into the star-embossed
pre-ragtime sky, where Orion's drift is hailed
not by motor sounds, but by the far-seeking
steam whistle's cry. Few wires yet to sing
in the zero wind, nothing to master the
great owls gliding overflight, and there beyond the
snowy field's sullen drifts, the shadow-grated
woods still holds its witnesses to the
Menominee hunter's snowshoe tread,
a few years only from the passage
of the myriad pigeon wings.
It's Christmas time and you are four months' old.
Yours is the legacy of blind emergent time
with no gift of airwave's electrifying news
but only newsprint some days behind.
Born into heaven's monopoly of what
is to be, your choices are worn and forking roads
with all else obscured beyond the horizon's bend
and on this night by drifting snow.
Tomorrow and in the years ahead
there will be rumors, advertisements
in thumb-worn print of work to the north and west
in ranches, lumber camps and mines.
Born into labor's day in the expansion
empire's time, how will you make your way?
Born into labor's time and place but still
an incline will draw you to the printed word.
Yet as your eye follows the staccato page
you'll not ignore the waving branch,
the plume of cloud.
Hear now the warrior wind that creeps
across the frozen plain, through cedar, ash
and pine and down the farmstead lanes.
It snaps the clapboard covers over hewn logs
in the glittering night where old houses
cluster thinly. But the spring wind will bring
back again the green-gold peace of
sugar beets and oats, here where the dairy barns
are red and neat, Germans beside the `Wolf
and Poles along the Peshtigo;
while there below the Big Lake the
ice-shelled rapids already churn
the squatting mills to vertigo.
And listen, listen then also for the water
that will always be your backdrop's sound,
or at least its silent glint, water rushing
in rapids, millraces and over dams,
dark muskeg~-oozings of wild streams walled
by balsam fir and spruce against the granite's glitter,
water lapping in slowly-heaving log booms
and stilted, cliff-encircling flumes.
More intimate water that you'll know also,
boggy beneath osier banks, where a boy
will learn from you something of its muskrat-heaped
shells and the startling, contrary history
of those locked in rocks of nearby hills.
Still, unspoken will remain the deepest
thoughts you'll pass along.
Now as you sleep the sleep of children
beneath the cold rafters and hear faintly
the knock of frost across the fields,
so also rest the shimmering ores
of the new iron age, the gravel banks
in the winding eskers and steep-walled kames
beneath fresh logging burns where young aspens
filter to yellow spring's first light.
And you rocks: keep-soundly for five decades yet
your Pre-Cambrian sleep, then stir to the
portentous tread of the summer geologist
and winter miner, to break out in a
ferment of girders, engineer-banked interstates
and final, fatal gantries pointing to the sky.
For good or ill, here is your epic part in time!
As a boy I awoke to the tapping of
father's shoe hammer and the east window's light.
O light of my youth's longing beyond the
nagging unrest of that quiet scene in
those luminous days when rumors were everywhere.
Stories of fortune's trails, in school and in all
my reading - and from the returnees,
the walking wounded with tree-felled arms and legs
and horse-inflicted limps but with the
crazed mountain vision still in their eyes.
Such were the restless century's fields
drawing all needles north and west
out of my little room.
In Montana the ranches were so far apart
you could ride for days, and where we
chased the cows among the sage-blown,
snowy hills, and at night in the slat-walled
firelight spoke of other things, of home
and all that family brings. But with the spring
I headed west again across the shining
Bitterroots on to the Palouse with wheat
homesteads in a milder clime. There I
knew lots of big men, tall as nightmares and strong.
Though small I kept up with them all day in the sun,
staying in the fields till last seeing,
then slept quietly in my sweat and dreamed
of my brothers and sister - till we rose
in the sparrow-voiced dark and later
saw the hills in soft light and away off
dark pines waving.
Time came when Taft was elected and I, then
wandering worker to the nations in British Columbia,
marveled to see two hundred foot Douglas firs
march up the wet snow mountains and come down
like bullets in bent-barrel flumes to the rivers.
There I learned to log the big trees and be handy
as a millwright so that the slap of belts on pulleys
and the whine of saws became my music,
where between nursing donkey engines
and growing sure in my calk boots
I twice pulled comrades from the stygian ponds.
There also on Saturday nights we sought
the boardwalk clubs floating in the bark-laced mud
for beer and ale and whiskey enough
to thin a logger's blood.
And so I grew my first beard in tree-hidden camps
and wild little towns where women were scarce
and informal times. Yet more than once
I got to know a face, a form, that set
my thoughts skidding, but always lost courage in the end.
Yet could I have ventured in what for me was sweet excess,
beyond those starved dreams there in the lonely bunks
of the world, I'd have given up all the bright dawns
of new country risings and all the rumbling
music of rails in those far blue mountains.
But then came the war to a century only
in its teens, and I like others was
swept along, first again to the scene of my
youngest dreams, the picture farms, the rivers that
flowed to lakes with sandy summer shores.
Then when the notice came I left for camp,
and for once no train ran north and west for me
but south and east, in time through limestone hills
and finally the deep south's pineland plain.
No neatness there but lapsing farms with shambly
tumble down of ornate eves and porticos
and at the end the rows of tents
like play shapes ruled in baking sand.
And there we learned to force march and shoot
but mostly did nonsense kinds of work,
yet were always near the half-familiar
Georgia woods, our happy refuge from the
discipline that some of us were born to laugh away.
Then after sidestepping the plague of flu
that brought so many comrades down,
it all ended with the war, and again
I saw that which I'd given up for lost:
those bright green hills and skies of coldstream blue,
that only home I'll ever know.
From the first I was of an independent bent,
surviving like a dandelion
in that priest-hoed garden, and fossils
were more to me than tracks of thunderbolts
in Adam's world, ages of rocks evidence
of time before the rock of ages.
Yet sometimes at night I thought of when
it all would end and felt a hollow here inside,
but it was a hollow ghosts could never fill.
And so my life moved on with each day
precious because it was me, and yet
almost as seen through another's eyes,
like those arrivals on fine spring days
at my sister's, leaving all the
weekday wheels and pulley belts behind
and roving over that lush green earth
I sometimes longed to possess, there in
those ice-sculpted hills, still with
a trace of boundless wilderness.
There was one year when the sun beat hot all spring
without rain, and I turned up the dried marsh for corn
that ended ten feet high in the black peat, made
raised vegetable beds and lavished great patches
of pumpkins and melons while neighbors' crops
withered in the highland dust. O but to
relive those bygone days and hear once more
the first birdsong before the new day's rising,
to stand strong again in those fields and follow
the crow's awkward flight against the wind-shaped
white of cloud.
Those were the Hoover days when I joked
about eating sawdust but lost my job in earnest,
and each week had to borrow enough for a
package of Plowboy. Then it was that old Dick
stayed away, avoiding me for the money
that he never would repay. His was a whole
business down the drain - and the mill where I'd worked.
But the loss of job and money never cost
me a sleepless night - or at most nearly none
when like a child I whiled away my gardening
sojourn there in the 30's summer sun.
After all the years it's not hard to say
what counted most with me: to see the world
come into flower and leaf in May,
the flight of a rabbit in the snowy woods,
a child's eyes where I was welcome.
Always it was the working life and nature's
unbounded sweep that gave me joy - and a job
well done, to stand back and view it then!
What's life for? In a way it's nothing but a show
but big, a gale that blows with lightning,
cold rain, and then a jagged patch of blue again,
ever warring with the clouds, yet all motion
directed toward some end, but an end
we'll never know, like the winged wedges
in the fall that make us wonder where they go.
Yes, everything has changed, is changing,
as did the great pineries I once saw -
all gone. And in the mills where we used
the river's flow, now electric motors run.
The passenger trains that fed our delight
in the passing scene - all turned to scrap,
while everyone sprouts wings. Each year
the metronome beats louder, faster, and
where our hope once sprang from the sound
of bright new hammers, we cower beneath \
the time bomb's throb - that shakes the world
and makes the children cry.
A poet once wrote that he could hear
America singing, another praised
what the Wright- boys did off Cape Hattera's shore.
O I too could hear the singing power
of what was and what could be, and great
it was. And I saw us get it all!
In the mountains of the Pacific coast
I cut the firs, in the chattering mills
tended the machines that cut the
straight run beams, the scaffolding of factories,
the roundhouses and workshops of tycoon's
dreams. But what for? All this to serve
no lasting end, all this to make a hole?
No. I didn't live to make it so!
But was it worth it then, the nights spent
in the little rooms with shirts hung over chairs,
the wrinkled suit in a dingy closet,
the few blankets, the bundle of precious papers
in the drawer, worn shoes beneath the bed
and little more? How could I stand this life
above some tavern's late night din
with raucous voices getting tight? Was it worth it?
Hell yes it was! Those voices in the bar
belonged to friends. The room gave me as much
shelter as I ever needed and privacy
to read and think. It was my base of operations
you might say, from which I roamed as free
as I might be. No one ever told me
what I could do when I was there,
and I came and went just as I pleased,
cashed checks and deposited in banks
or spent it on a round of drinks.
Yet it cuts me deep each time I think of friends,
the burden of one who's lived so long,
enough to pass a joke at many a
boardinghouse table, to see come into view
familiar houses on so many milltown streets
and know the welcoming smile of the men
and women I got to meet; but also
to see time's hard hand bend a back
and seam a face and fell them one by one
while only I lived on.
And now I stand on this lonely pinnacle of age,
look back on so great a voyage in time,
yet scarce enough to answer the few
questions that were mine. And even where
answers were clearly given the questions
themselves have changed like spotted
chameleons to my vision! Men are men
when they can decide, whether for life
and death or heaven and damnation.
Hemmed in by circumstance their spirits
narrow and their courage fades, then less
than men, fear drives them till they die.
Fear death? Indeed I do,
and when it comes the arrow of my life may circle back again
to childhood's terrors of the night and
all the ageless fears learned by me then.
But now, just now, as I view the scene
with rational eyes, I greet the world
and relish each new gift of day, and in my mind
I dare adventure still, free and unafraid.
This poem attempts what is possibly the impossible, the encapsulation of a life in formal stanzas. And unlike most of this collection it leaves me with little satisfaction as to style, although, barring some license, I believe it is true to its subject. This man "Augie" or "Gloomy Gus" was unusual in his culture and as one with his background, in that he was given to bold though gentle spoofs of religion and all its practitioners. Products of a generally questioning mind, these opinions were never hidden from even the youngest children, and may well have been a factor in the early formation of my own opinions on the subject. He was, despite an outdated and limited education, well read, particularly in science, and was the first to acquaint me with the fossils that abounded on our farm. I remember, also, with almost total recall, how, on a walk together along the swamp stream, we found a pile of empty water snail shells, that he attributed to the foraging of a Muskrat, which had also left its droppings. I've never since, on seeing such shell piles, failed to think of him and the original incident. I first became aware of him when he visited us while I was very young and he had a secure position as a foreman-millwright in a paper roll plug factory in Menasha. On those occasions he usually arrived with a large meat roast for our Sunday dinner. At those times also, he would delight me by holding me on his lap while he read the "funnies", and on departing again for town he invariably gave Mother a sheaf of greenbacks. He was loyal to his friends, which made him vulnerable to sob stories. An example was his disastrous loan of money, to his employer "Chick" L during the Great Depression, and which left him destitute and temporarily dependent on relatives. For some time, during this period, he lived with us, unsuccessfully seeking local work, but growing huge vegetables, particularly in a dried out part of the marsh. In one place, along the stream, he constructed elevated beds with black, peaty soil dug from the stream channel. This was also the time of Prohibition, which gave rise to strange events, as when an isolated barn about a half mile from our house sprouted a tall smokestack, which then began to spout black smoke around the clock! From this and the increased truck traffic on the road past our house, it soon became clear that this was an illicit distillery, and my desperately unemployed uncle considered seeking work there. However, before he could apply, the place was raided by federal agents, who destroyed the still and dumped the mash in a nearby forested wetland ( part of one of my favorite haunts,"Bauer's Woods", where I learned to identify many native plants ), which then for years marked the event by a stand of dead trees.