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Mornings? Ask Me. On Stafford’s Poem, Kitchens, and Rivers

It’s a fortunate morning when you get up early enough. Before packing of lunches. And finding of violin. To dig into one of the poetry books that stack around the kitchen. Heap in baskets. Pile on tables. Sometimes in use as a coaster.

Just a few more minutes before the kids wake up. You could spend some of those minutes to enter the stream of another poet’s vision. Choose at random. Just start.

For the reader no poetry book is ever done. (Well, none that are worthwhile.) Like traveling to a place once lived but long-since visited, returning to a poet and their poems is an act of living. Beyond plot or character. The poem lives. Sits on the kitchen counter and waves to you. Invites you to drink a cup of your own coffee. This is what morning could be. (I say to you. I say to myself.)

Today, it’s William Stafford’s “Ask Me,”100 essential poems. I pause at the title poem and join him on the river bank. Ask me.

How does this poem work? It is among my favorite questions to ask of poems. In poetry workshops they like to spend time on what does a poem mean, but I often prefer how does it work. How does it mean? Like a mechanic looking beneath the hood, I want to know what makes the poem go? In the bowels of vowels. In the din of words. Sometimes meaning is almost an artifact. For me, the awe can rest in considering how the artisan shaped his or her vessel.

Stafford uses two stanzas and a powerful refrain - ask me. As in, try me. See what I might say. It’s a provocation. The reader imagines what’s under the surface of his river. He has asked us to inquire of his mistakes. Dares us to ask this unsettling question of ourselves. There’s some heaviness there for any of us. Three times he repeats. Echoing the trinity and the mistakes of Peter. Giving the first stanza a cadence.

But there we are. Gazing at the river bank. Feeling the chill rising from the ice - the possibility between what is frozen in time, what still courses through us. He shifts his gaze in the second stanza to include us. Now, he turns to us, to his reader. He will listen to us. Our grievances, mistakes. The invitation screws us into him more tightly, as readers. As river bank sitters. He calls to us directly - You and I. The togetherness sealed at the beginning of the second line. And that perfect finish of we look at it together and wait. For the thaw. For the possibility.

I love what happens within me in this poem. The possibilities of what is running just beneath - what might break out of him, out of me. But he chooses not to go there. He (and we) do not let these sorrows gain voice. That which happens far from us is held as “stillness exactly before us./What the river says, that is what I say.” Nature speaks for us. Our strongest loves. Our strongest haters. Silent before us. Awaiting the thaw. "What the river says, that is what I say." We are done here, he says. The rivers says. We say. It is ok to let go and move on. Like the river. What an amazing poem. What a beautiful morning.

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