I spent all day Sunday on a bus with a bunch of poets. There had been a symposium over at the university on the work of Robert Bly, who is one of Minnesota's best-known writers, just as famous as F. Scott and Garrison and Frederick Manfred and Sinclair Lewis.
So early Sunday morning, as the symposium's grand finale, Bly and his wife and about 30 or 40 other people climbed aboard a chartered bus and rumbled west three and a half hours to Bly's hometown of Madison. I won't write much about that here, because I need to write about it for the paper. But I can tell you a little. I can tell you about the hammock poem.
We got to Madison at about 11:30. Plans had been made for us to eat lunch at The Pantry, a little cafe on the flag-draped Main Street. Normally, The Pantry is closed on Sundays because they cater the after-Mass lunch for the Catholic Church, but they agreed to stay open for us if we agreed to eat what they were making for the church members: roast turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans. At 11:30 a.m. After sitting on a bus for three and a half hours. Imagine.
If you click on the picture, you can see the little sign they pasted on the door: BLY DINNER.
At lunch, I sat down at a table with a slender woman who had a great pouf of teased hair and a stylish orange jacket. I introduced myself and asked her name. "Marilyn Duffy," she said, and when she saw me do a double-take she said yes, her husband was William--that William, the William in the poem.
He told me how he and Bly started their famous literary magazine, "The Fifties" (later called "The Sixties") in Pine Island, Minn. Duffy was a schoolteacher, and Bly was, well, a poet (and a farmer) and they used to get together every couple of weeks or so at Duffy's house on top of the hill and sort through submissions and write scathing rejection letters and sometimes stay up all night, drinking and talking.
After a few issues, Duffy left Pine Island; he moved to Tangiers, Morocco, to teach. In his hurry to leave, he left a few things undone: He left his hammock tied between two trees. And he left his basement door broken and in need of mending. So Bly and another guy went over there one day to fix the basement doors. Wright went, too, but he didn't help with the doors; instead, he lay in the hammock and wrote this poem:
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
Duffy, as I said, told that story to me at lunch, and then told it later in the afternoon to the whole group. And when he was done talking, Bly got up and read the poem.
He read it beautifully, in his melodic yet slightly nasal voice, and when he got to the last line, he said, "What's that line doing there? That line doesn't belong." And everyone, even Wright's widow, Anne, who was sitting in the front row, laughed as though he meant it.