Prepare for Joe-Anne McLaughlin Carruth
"Why don't you write me a poem that will prepare me for your
death?" you said.
It was a rare day here in our climate, bright and sunny. I didn't feel like
dying that day.
I didn't even want to think about it -- my lovely knees and bold
shoulders broken open,
Crawling with maggots. Good Christ! I stood at the window and I saw
a strange dog
Running in the field with its nose down, sniffing the snow, zigging and
And whose dog is that? I asked myself. As if I didn't know. The limbs
of the apple trees
Were lined with snow, making a bright calligraphy against the world,
messages to me
From an enigmatic source in an obscure language. Tell me, how shall I
And a jay slanted down to the feeder and looked at me behind my glass
Prepare, prepare. Fuck you, I said, come back tomorrow. And here he
is in this new gray and gloomy morning.
We're back to our normal weather. Death in the air, the idea of death
settling around us like mist,
And I am thinking again in despair, in desperation, how will it happen?
Will you wake up
Some morning and find me lying stiff and cold beside you in our bed?
Or will I fall asleep in the car, as I nearly did a couple of weeks ago,
and drive off the road
Into a tree? The possibilities are endless and not at all fascinating,
except that I can't stop
Thinking about them, can't stop envisioning that moment of hideous
Hideous and indescribable as well, because it won't happen until it's
over. But not for you
For you it will go on and on, thirty years or more, since that's the
distance between us
In our ages. The loss will be a great chasm with no bridge across it
(for we both know
Our life together, so unexpected, is entirely loving and rare). Living
on your own --
Where will you go? what will you do? And the continuing sense of
From what we've had in this little house, our refuge on our green or
Hill. Life is not easy and you will be alive. Experience reduces itself to
Including the one which says that I'll be with you forever in your
memories and dreams.
I will. And also in hundreds of keepsakes, such as this scrap of a poem
you are reading now. --from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995, Copper Canyon Press.
The Cows at Night
(According Betty Smith-Mastaler in her tribute on Vermont Public Radio, Carruth told the audience at a reading in 2002 that this was as good a poem as he had ever written when he was in "his bucolic mood.")
The moon was like a full cup tonight,
too heavy, and sank in the mist
soon after dark, leaving for light
faint stars and the silver leaves
of milkweed beside the road,
gleaming before my car.
Yet I like driving at night
in summer and in Vermont:
the brown road through the mist
of mountain-dark, among farms
so quiet, and the roadside willows
opening out where I saw
the cows. Always a shock
to remember them there, those
great breathings close in the dark.
I stopped, taking my flashlight
to the pasture fence. They turned
to me where they lay, sad
and beautiful faces in the dark,
and I counted them - forty
near and far in the pasture,
turning to me, sad and beautiful
like girls very long ago
who were innocent, and sad
because they were innocent,
and beautiful because they were
sad. I switched off my light.
But I did not want to go,
not yet, nor knew what to do
if I should stay, for how
in that great darkness could I explain
anything, anything at all.
I stood by the fence. And then
very gently it began to rain.
While most people know the story of poets turning down an invitation from Laura Bush because of their opposition to the war, Carruth turned down the Clintons in 1998, writing,
This is to acknowledge your invitation to attend a "Millennium Evening" at the White House in celebration of American poetry on April 22nd. Thank you for thinking of me. However, it would seem the greatest hypocrisy for an honest American poet to be present on such an occasion at the seat of the power which has not only neglected but abused the interests of poets and their readers continually, to say nothing of many other administratively dispensable segments of the population. Consequently, I must decline.