Ray Whitaker : Poetry!
SOUTHERN LEGITIMACY STATEMENT-
Been living in North Carolina regular-like some forty years now, and was in-and-outta ‘here all my life before that. I have always thought of myself as a citizen of the world, however I notice that I say “ain’t” a lot, as well as “ya’ll” a good bit. I love my Carolina woods, and love my Carolina Blue. Did you know that there is a wrong color blue, here in North Carolina? There’s the ‘right’ Carolina blue, and then there’s that funny darker one the Duke fans think is blue. They be wrong ’bout that one, tho.
ROBINS IN WINTER
Outside on these manicured, stately snowy grounds
Robins are passing thru
They are all over the holly trees with their red berries
Now caught by winter’s sudden return
Their cries are different, not songs at all
Like they are talking about firing the lead Robin
From being the tourguide
After leading them north too soon.
Having camped by the Jacob Fork many times
Another timeless afternoon is here this day in twenty-sixteen
Relaxing by the river, the air is full
Of water gurgles from the fast moving mountain river
And yellow swallowtail butterflies sortie-ing
Up and down, buzzing each other
As if they don’t play well with others.
A doe and two fawns move thru the brush
On the other side, that bank rustles with
Movement away from something, now turning up
Dry leaves marking the progress, noises crunching
Those footfalls sounding further and further up the mountain
Nothing was following them , that I heard
Maybe they were just intent on getting
I thought of the law chasing thru this North Carolina jungle wilderness
Revenuers chasing mountain men
Like in maybe nineteen twenty-five during the prohibition
Following the wisp of smoke from a still.
One set trying not to be seen
Not letting the other get too close
The chasing lawmen tracking their prey then…
Listening to the noises of dry crackling leaves
Like the deer’s progress.
Choppers are suddenly in the sky above with rotors cutting the air
Shattering the stillness of this Carolina mountain wilderness
I hear at least three of them
I’m thinking they wouldn’t be too much use
To chase Mountain men into them woods.
I am reminded of the Ashau in nineteen sixty-seven
And some having learned a thing or two
From Luke the Gook
Like deception, hidden locations…
About evasion in the jungle there.
Feeling so much younger back in oh-eight
Camped here, wading, cooling off
The river felt good running over bare feet immersed
Way different than feet just wet from a city puddle
Coming here since eighty-seven, I know where that big river pool is for swimmin’
Big yellow swallowtail butterflies here then that summer too
So nice. Quiet.
No cell phone reception in this mountain cove a’tall.
What will it be like in twenty forty-six in these wild woods
When I am too old to come here anymore
To relax, to imagine historical meanderings…
Will it be like the Camino de Stantigo trail in Spain
Packed with hikers doing an antiseptic walk before
Getting off the trail into hotels having walked only a few hours.
The only wild thing being the absence of smog.
Or, Would these laurels here be blooming pink blossoms in April still
Bringing their freshness to this mountain air?
The attraction of hearing the woodpeckers pecking the tall trees
Bringing folks to clean, talking water.
MIRRORED POND REFLECTION
Reflections on our lives
Reflections of your success’s and fails
Hunting there in the mist
Walking quietly to your stand
Looking to see the beauty…. oh, so fair
Sometimes confronted by the confusion there.
Can you feel it in this
The coolness of the early morn
Or are you still digging, hands all soiled
To find the places where you got foiled…
To find the places where your Love got hidden
When Life didn’t do your bidding.
Is it that you are swimming against all the currents
Just as likely walking on the sidewalk with everyone else coming at you
You see your image in the shop windows as you go by
Wind blowing your long coat open with the rush, as if to fly
Like the parakeet that only knows the extent of it’s cage
Perched at the open door, not daring to go out into perceived rage.
The Carolina pond this morning is still
The trees nearby stand quiet as if sentinels
Creating the reflection of an exact upside down mirror image
You pause your walk and enjoy the timeless view, as if in an older age
And you’re thinking: It’s not just your house of make believe…
Perhaps you’re seeing things there, that will not leave.
Remembering Mom’s death, some three years ago
Cannot forget the impostor that she became
There her stage was slowly falling down
It’s that Alzheimer’s is not just only a noun
I ask the memory of who she really was to come talk to me
God, I miss her. Please help me, with this, to just be.
This Carolina pond is more than still
No mist rising, sort of a bit surreal
You see that, what is reflected, apparently so
The mirrored reflection won’t let your eyes go
Do you know when to quit?
To just stop there, and sit.
PTSD, IN FIVE PARTS
He closed his eyes, remembering 1969
That fateful insertion into the Ashau Valley
Where their marine force recon squad took fire un-assing the chopper
Like they had been put down into
A Viet Cong field exercise.
Flashes of light from the treeline
Sounds of rounds impacting on the side of the huey
And two of the team shot even before they left the chopper
Leaving the five of them on the ground
To take further casualties.
In the melee that followed,
He had put the rifle down to tend to his
Wounded, dying buddies, it’s what corpsmen do
Afterward, when they had been extracted
He was ashamed that he had lived, when several of his friends did not.
Mom and Dad, years later
Could only shake their heads wishing for better for their son
Sometimes as the anger was too much
And damages ensued to walls and lamps
It was too late to drop that burden he used to lug around.
He shook his head, remembering 1992
The noisy, shaky flight away from the USS Saipan
As a part of Operation Sharp Edge
Landed to fight the “locals” and
Evacuate our people there.
When it turned sour
Firefighting began losses inflicted
Blood flowing on both sides
Hardened marines killing those that dared to try
To kill them first.
He can still see the faces
Of the fourteen year olds…
Boys with AK 47’s trained at him
As he shot them down
To save himself and his buddies.
Years later, his wife has separated from him once
Somehow they patched it up, to be together again
He controls everything, or thinks he can
Sometimes leaving the loved ones around him unable to breathe
Always right, as his self defense rally point.
There is that thousand mile stare, again
I see in my good friend
We are deep in the Linville Gorge woods, hiking
He goes hyper-vigilant, and I know to
Just follow his eyes, and his lead.
Drawing his weapon,
I see that there isn’t an objective up front for it
I sense that it’s instantly some fully present memory
As we pad silently thru a grove of trees, suddenly “on patrol”
Taking cover, vigilant again for snipers.
Afterward, later. I see his eyes are now present
Just like my old friend again
And I ask him: “what happened back there?”
“The trees there, too much cover…”
“Just like it was over there.”
I am drinking with my younger Marine veteran friend
Several beers have gone down the hatch
We are smoking, talking out in the yard,
I again see the “eye shift” I have come to know
….I am the only one talking now.
Suddenly, he turns to me
I see a tear in his eye
“When a fourteen year old points an AK
At you, you HAVE
To pull down on him.”
“Africa was a bitch.
A lot of personal ideals
Bit the dust there for me.”
“I had to do what I did…” I wonder if he was also thinking
It is too late to drop this burden he is lugging around.
Our American wars
All call for our young men.
And women, to be
Highly trained , um, well, killers.
It’s amazing just how much damage can be
Inflicted by a nineteen year old with a M-16.
In our wars of the past 200 years
There has always been this stress disorder, after…
Only the “Post Traumatic” part added recently.
Forty five years after the war in Vietnam
My friend and I spoke last night
He told me that his new psychotherapist, he liked.
The score is: Corpsman, twelve; PTSD, eleven… on this now
I was glad the VA had finally had someone there good enough.
We were both there at least twenty years ago
Or was it thirty… when the process of healing up
Began, with the first small steps towards acknowledging
That if you don’t pick at it,
It might just heal.
My younger Marine friend still apparently thinks
That it’s not too late
To lose the burden he thinks he is now used to throwing around.
I admire his resolute toughness, as futile as it is
In trying to keep that box tightly shut.
However you can’t hold a beach-ball under water but for so long…
Then it comes bursting out, violent, bruising, scattering drops on everything
This is the shredding of whomever is nearby
That soldier does not always recognize himself
As an instigator, the propagator indiscriminately spreading that pain.
There is no easy answer
No quick fix for this sometimes after-effect of combat
When personal ideals get shattered in the violent arena of war,
By your own doing, committing this in the name of the country you hold dear
You get profoundly angry. You stop dancin’.
TOLD ME TO DRINK MORE
Thomas Wolfe told me I need to drink more
As he pulled my quilt off my bed for the fourth time
I saw his ghost, like so many other ghosts
I have had the occasion to meet
His was the one so full of almost comical mischief
Different from the many others I have seen.
“You need to loosen the reins,
Be more than a bit more extravagant
And definitely drink more than you are doin’”
His advice to me.
I tried to ignore him the first night there at Weymouth
The second night was more difficult to slough off
Upon waking the next morn,
I had a nearly overwhelming urge
To have a shooter of bourbon, or two
Just to start the day off right.
The second night, after the third time the quilt hit the floor
I sat up and asked him if he was having fun yet
He blinked as if an eight year old boy caught
Doing something he shouldn’t have
“All my friends that are creative, have rich histories
or wished they had…” I said irritatingly…
“I have been described as one that
Could hold that up with the best of them, WHILE drinking too…
And still write better in the morning
Than either F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway”
“Perhaps you have heard of them?” he asked with a deadpan face…
I just wanted to sleep warm some more, not to match wits.
Of all the things for a ghost to say…
No “boo,” or what someone might think usual incantations from the spirit world
I see his advice certainly has some merit
Knowing that I am far too serious too hyperviligilant at closeness
To think of light-hearted poetry that rhymes
It’s just a sign of my particular times.
Walking around Weymouth, his name is there all over
I am residing in the Thomas Wolfe Room for Christ’s sake
I see his portrait over there on the dresser
And suspect that he dried his underwear on the radiator just like I am doin’ now
Perhaps he had an accumulation of his cigarette butts in a beer bottle, as well
Behind the easy chair, where I am keeping mine.
How did you write such inspired works?
I would like to ask him….
However he has disappeared as ghosts have want to do
And I am left to contemplate why I should drink more….
Nonetheless, when I look him up
I see that he was a raucous character
too tall, towering talent
prone to eating and drinking a lot
liked lots of sex
And wrote prose better than any six people I can think of.
A world traveller just like I
His family shite was different than mine
However no different than anyone’s family stuff
Reinforcing the saying: there’s no shite like family shite.
Because I believe that genius, in the world, will have out
Those facets that shape us as children can be left behind.
I’ve taken care of far too many drunks
To ever want to be like them
Even tho I have liked many of ‘em,
And loved only a few after my own fashion.
Besides that, there’s not enough coffee in the world
To make my morning’s hangover go away completely.
I have to consider that all my…. those reasons why
Are just the stalling
Hindering the certainty of creativity’s flow
Another expression, yet again, of fear of success
Mr. Wolfe’s encouragement of drinking more
Perhaps was his mystical expression of dismay over my wasting time.
For angst nails creativity to the floor
Not allowing the rising of recognition
The stifled sharing with others using poetic verse
All this because
I suffocate I becomes a very small “i,” and
Still, that “i” doesn’t write.
Thomas Wolfe’s ghost returned again the next night, waking me
Satisfied that my quilt, under which small “i” was so warm and comfortable
Was on the floor, my complacency thus removed so that large I could stand
Completely naked, shivering… now standing long, hard, tall and able
You remember this, he said: “I don’t know what I am capable of doing, but, by God,
I have genius — I know it too well to blush behind it.”
“I wrote that, in one of my books,” he said
As if I did not know….
I asked him then, “ did you write: what we reap we sow” with a sarcastic smirk
He got ghostly larger, filling the room, and i got this as in an insight, a flash…
In the standing up, the getting off of one’s knees, so to speak
“Get off your butt, off inactivity…”
As quickly as he came, he was gone.
Quite by accident I found that ghosts do not like sarcastic ways
Possibly as much as they do not like the days
I think they prefer the nights to bring one out of one’s blurry haze
Thomas Wolfe told me to drink more
To free myself off the frozen ground, to soar.
**“Ray has been writing both prose and poetry since he was seventeen. He has two
books published, “ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Poems From The ‘Nam,” [2015, available on
Amazon]; and “23, 18,” [2015, also available on Amazon]. Currently Ray is about to
publish his forthcoming book, “White Dog Speaking” -due out this winter. Ray does
readings around the state of North Carolina, and is a member or the North Carolina
Poetry Society, and The North Carolina Writer’s Network. He has been a ‘Writer-in-
Residence” at the North Carolina Center For The Arts and Humanities, at Weymouth,
in Southern Pines, NC. Ray is married to his wife Sarah for eighteen years, and both
of them are retired healthcare workers. He is the father of two daughters, and lives
in rural North Carolina.”