Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Wood Lily

[I'm taking some risks with this post: I've never shared any of my poetry, other than a few haiku, with the Marshall community before, but taking risks is part of learning, part of becoming more resilient, which, as you know, is one of the qualities from "The Portrait of a Hilltopper."]

In the last year, a lot of folks in the Marshall community have experienced the death of loved ones. Last winter, I wrote about how reading poetry can help one deal with death (and I hope to return to that subject). But writing poetry can also help. Grieving is a lengthy, chaotic process, and writing poetry about it helps give shape and form to confusing and conflicting feelings. 

On October 28, 2014, my teacher, mentor, and friend John Dings died of complications from a fall down a flight of stairs. He'd been dealing with Parkinson's Disease for a long time. I'd known him since I started teaching almost 30 years ago. Much of what I know about writing, about literature, and about teaching in general, I learned from him. 

Beyond our common interests in education and literature, we shared a love of hiking and wildflowers. He taught for many years at the University at Buffalo, NY, where I earned my MA and Ph.D. When he retired, he moved back to his home state of Colorado and lived in Boulder until he died. I visited him a few times there, and we hiked in the mountains, staying at the Dings family cabin. I remember the delight he took in the wildflowers, especially the miniature alpine versions that grow at high altitude. He and his wife came to Duluth once to visit me, and we spent a day hiking at various places up the North Shore.

Ever since his death, I've been working on a sonnet-series about a wildflower that was an important part of his life and that I saw for the first time in our region last year, only a short time before he died. I never had the chance to talk to him about it...
John Dings on Ouzel Creek Bridge, Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National
Park, taken in the late 1990's and digitized last year.
The Wood Lily 

in memory of John Dings (1939—2014)

        Drink and be whole again beyond confusion. 
     Robert Frost, "Directive"

Years ago, I was sore and tired from hiking.
You were proud of having worn me out.
Pulling off the road, you said I could stay in the car.
I wish now that I hadn’t.

You wanted to see if the Wood Lily was blooming
And walked off into the Colorado woods.
I saw a hint of scarlet through the trees.
Gone only for a moment, you came back smiling,
Said your summer was complete.

I’d forgotten the Wood Lily,
Until I found it here, last summer, on a cliff above the Lake.
I’d meant to ask, next time I called, if you remembered,
But by then, all your summers were complete,
And you were gone for good.  
Wood Lily, Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, July, 2015. 
My brother Bill showing John a deep crevice in the rocks on Palisade Head,
taken sometime in the 1990s, I think, and digitized last year.

Each year, you searched for it, except your last,
When it was perhaps beyond you, a climb too steep,
Or maybe already far behind you,
A lantern left burning in a distant cabin.

Would it have been there, had you gone looking?

I never thought I'd see it here along the Lake, 
Its flame leading me off the trail, out onto a ledge 
Where once you laid your length along the Earth,
As if fallen forward, to see more clearly the depths below.

But there it stood, burning and unblinking in the sun,
Where you would never find it,
And it told me nothing of your coming death,
Gave no hint of summer’s ending
Or impending fall.
Wood Lily on Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, taken on August 1, 2014. This
is one of the first photos I ever took of this flower; my iPhone camera had trouble
processing the color contrast. I had much better luck this last summer.
John on Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, taken in the 1990s and digitized last year.
If I remember correctly, John was diagnosed with Parkinson's not long after this visit to
Minnesota. I told him later that I thought I could see in this photo the effects of
Parkinson's in his face. 
You’d have been glad to know I’d seen it, and
In the very spot we’d spent a summer day, all those years ago.
You might’ve laughed, to think your Lily came to visit me
When you could not because of the disease that,
Even then, that day, had shown itself in you.

We’d have traded memories of its signs: 
The fearful strangeness in your face,
The halting hesitation in your step…

But then, you’d have told me stories of your Lily: 
When you found it first, how each summer’s search became a quest,
What it meant to you, and how its meaning changed,
Shifting slightly over time, how from its jeweled cup
You still drank deeply of the past,
All your rich history and its bright wine.             
Wood Lily on Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, July 15, 2015.
Wood Lilies, triple blossom, on Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, July 15, 2015.

It’s tall and shameless--flaming--with three 
Huge blossoms on one stalk, completely unabashed 
By its incongruous opulence on this glacier-scrubbed cliff.

Even the camera is bewildered by its blaring brightness,
Unable, at first, to process such scarlet heat against the
Deep-green cedar and the cooler, bluish spruce.

I’m tempted now to think you sent it, that its bold display,
So unlike you, was yet your way of saying goodbye. 

All it would take--to be true--is for a few 
Green atoms and grains of thought 
To hop and skip through space and time.

Isn’t this what the poets always say of death?
From fickle memory and a few wildflowers,
We manufacture hope, tease a hollow solace out of chance. 
A view from Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, July 15, 2015.
Wood Lilies on Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, July 15, 2015. I must've caught them at their
peak--they were everywhere.

A year later, I stand on the cliff,
Looking out across the endless Lake, the empty sky.

I inch along the ledge to where the lichen’s black.
Bright Lilies reach up from rock and shallow soil
To cup the soft light, the still air.  

I stare for hours into spotted, scarlet depths,
Focusing, framing each shot, not
Thinking of you.

I don't need to think.

My hand is red with pollen.

The water I pour through my cupped fingers
Lifts some of the crimson from my skin
Before falling on dry Earth.

I lick the last drops from my palm.
Wood Lily on Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, July 15, 2015.
Wood Lily pollen on my clothes, July 15, 2015. I didn't know then that I'd be writing
all these poems, so I didn't get a picture of the pollen on my hand, but I took this shot
because I was surprised to find I had pollen all over my clothes, too.
Wood Lily, triple blossom, on Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, July 15, 2015.
(Note the seed-pods from last year's flowers behind it--I didn't see them when I took the photo. I'm pretty sure
I took a photo last year of this now-dead plant when it was in bloom.)

I saw the spider clinging to a petal,
Even spotted the ant among the stamens,
But I didn’t see you, silver with age,
Bleached to invisibility by the sun.

Your current incarnation, scarlet in its prime,
Blazed before me, commanding my full attention.

The camera, my third and better eye, saw through the glare,
Beyond the blood-red beauty, catching what I missed:

You, less tall than I remembered, paper-thin and
Brittle-boned, your three heads burst wide open, shattered,
All your brains now long-since scattered on the wind.

Fixed in the frame, where I found them later, were your
Patient bones, still standing behind the living Lily
To which you gave your ghost.

Spider on Wood Lily, Shovel Point, Tettegouche State Park, July 15, 2015
"Ant among the stamens" (look closely!), Wood Lily, Shovel Point, Tettegouche State
Park, July 15, 2015.

On a Minnesota mountain that is not a mountain,
In soil that is not soil so much as lichen-masticated rock,
There grows a cup-like flower that is no more a scarlet cup
Than it is an empty hand reaching up to meet the sun,
But you could say it is and take real comfort from the lie:
Feel the broken fingers of the year cohere into a spotted goblet
And drink your fill, in season, for as long as you can climb
This little mountain that is not a mountain;
Then later, when you are no longer able, move in memory
Through time and space to a moment and a place
Upon a mountain that is a mountain true 
When he grasped your hand before you knew
You were about to fall, having slipped on soil

That was not soil but dusty Colorado gravel.

"A mountain that is a mountain true." Both photos, above & below, were taken in Colorado in the '90's
while I was hiking with John and digitized later.
View of mountains from the Dings family cabin.
Some notes: 

*John laughed once at my reference to the Sawtooth Mountains of Minnesota, which by Colorado standards are not, of course, real mountains. Both full of state pride, we argued once about whether the sky was bluer in Minnesota or Colorado...

*Unless you read Robert Frost's long and difficult "Directive," a poem John loved and was fond of quoting, and which I quote in the epigraph to these poems, you won't understand Sonnet #7. 

*I thought very carefully about how I organized each sonnet, where I ended each line, and how I grouped lines into stanzas (there's a reason #7 is one stanza). I also tried to repeat and develop certain motifs (climbing and falling, losing and finding, forgetting and remembering, brokenness and wholeness), images (hands, cups, the sun) and colors (red and green) throughout the series.

*I don't always experience the wholeness I felt back in July among the Wood Lilies, but it's a memory of peace and clarity that I try to hold onto.

*Every time I think this series is finished, I end up starting another poem, so maybe there'll be a Part Two...
The two triple-blossom Lilies, both now gone to seed. Taken 10/11/15.


  1. A beautiful tribute, Susan. To John, to Wood Lilies, to life and oneness.

  2. Dr. Nygaard, your sonnets are spectacular. Thanks for sharing! I especially like the haunting nature in the third stanza of number 2 -

    And it told me nothing of your coming death,
    Gave no hint of summer’s ending
    Or impending fall.

    Your double meaning in these lines brings to mind the deceit of this particular time in which fall's usual phenological signs have been simultaneously matched with 75 degree heat and bright sun and clear blue sky - even today's rainstorm feels a bit too late, although someone told me it might be snowing in some places by the end of the day.

    I also appreciate the pairing of this second sonnet with your sixth sonnet, which takes on a ballad-like quality in the end with the lyrical nature of the internal rhyme and assonance. Truthfully, your words make me want to stop doing what I am doing and spend all day out in the woods. Beautifully captured imagery, both verbally and photographically.

    1. Matt,
      It makes me very happy, as your former teacher, to see that you picked up on these nuances! And I agree--we should all spend a day in the woods! Yes, this last bit of nice weather seems confusing, though if it snows today, I will think it appropriate... Thanks for your kind words.

  3. A beautiful tribute....And really lovely pictures.