Thursday, March 3, 2011

In A Hungry Winter Season

My dear friend John Haines passed away in Fairbanks yesterday evening. John was 86 and in failing health in recent months and it has been painful to follow his slow descent from so many miles away. I wish I could have been there to talk to him and tell him all the things I still had left to tell. Thankfully he was surrounded by good friends who read his poems to him in his final hours. As perhaps it should be, one of his early popular poems, “Winter News” was read as last rites.

They say the wells
are freezing
at Northway where
the cold begins.

Oil tins bang
as evening comes on,
and clouds of
steaming breath drift
in the street.

Men go out to feed
the stiffening dogs,

the voice of the snowman
calls the white-
haired children home.

For most of his life John cherished his solitude in the quietness of the natural world, yet he also celebrated his many friendships around the world. As one of his friends said upon learning of John’s passing. “Thankfully he did not lose himself in age.” He has been called home.

Born into a naval family in Norfolk, Virginia on June 29, 1924, John and his family moved around the United States before arriving in Washington, DC in 1938. He resided at the Old Washington Navy Yard, attended school in the city, and he always enjoyed his occasional return visits. He served in the United States Navy during World War II, first on a subchaser in the Atlantic before seeing service in the Pacific theater on board the destroyer USS Knapp. After the war he attended the National Art School in Washington before pulling up stakes in 1947 and moving to Alaska where he established a homestead at Mile 68 on the Richardson Highway, southeast of Fairbanks. There he constructed a simple cabin on a wooded hillside above the Tanana River. Although he would travel and teach in the Lower 48 throughout his life, he would always return to the Alaskan interior, his spiritual home for the rest of his life. Perhaps Dana Gioia said it best in his introduction to John’s New Poems: 1980-1988. “Many young men, hoping to become writers, embark on romantic lives in the wilderness. But exhausted by responsibilities, unsupported by colleagues, and hungry for human society, few have the discipline to achieve their literary ambitions. Through patience, strength, and uncommon intelligence, Haines did. He is virtually unique among the significant poets of his generation in having emerged outside of either the university or an urban bohemia.”

Just a month ago I joined Dana and others at the annual meeting of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs here in our nation's capital where we shared our recollections and stories in a touching tribute to the man and the poet. John was with us in spirit if not in body, and the warmth and good feelings in that room were palpable. In my closing remarks at the tribute I read John’s “Last Words on the Poet.”

He owed his enemies a debt of gratitude.
Enemy or friend, those who could not see,
excused from failure by their nature;
those who saw a little way, by laziness
or habit unable to see farther;
and those who followed nearby to the end,
then in some latent disposition
turned aside before their eyes knew light.

Acquaintance or relation, loved or not,
in ignorance and fear they set up walls
before him, switched the roadway signs
and sought to mine the very ground
beneath his feet. Some beckoned
from a pleasant meadow, bidding him
stay awhile; and others merely laughed
to see him climb the barriers,
stumbling at the crossways, and hesitate
before the smile and languor of reclining
ladies. But he could not condemn them,
their fortunes and solace were not his,
and likely enough their hearts
would have rejoiced if they had understood.

They had all served; their walls and
misdirections, snickerings and enticements,
only served to set his foot the firmer
and slowly teach his eyes to fasten
on the troubled slope ahead,
as tooth and claw develop keenness
in a hungry winter season.

Though blind before it all, his enemies
were spurs, through that perhaps
his friends; and those who turned away
disclosed the road he was to travel.

I told the audience of John’s condition and why he could not be with us that day. “John is now living in his own hungry winter season. He is afraid when his time runs out, he will be forgotten.” Little did I know at the time that perhaps John had written his own epitaph. Now I am haunted by these words.

I am the writer I am today due in large part to John and the decades of friendship he offered to me unconditionally. A man as hard and uncompromising as the Alaskan tundra yet in possession of a soft and tender heart, he was a rare presence and one that will be greatly missed. It was a good life lived the way he wanted to live it. I know he is in a better place, but I will miss his words and the images and feeling they have always aroused deep within me. John was a poet, of this there can be no doubt.

I rose and left that room,
the house of my grief
and my bondage, my book
never again to be opened.

To see as I once saw,
steadied by the darkness
in which I walked
and would make my way.

I am certain John is listening now. Rest in Peace, my friend.

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