Wednesday, October 2, 2013


In memory of Tom Ormesher, who loved Autumn, and, every October, became for all of us, "Mr. Moundshroud."1

I. Someone has described Ray Bradbury as “having one foot on Mars and the other on his grandparents' shady front porch in Illinois”—a wonderfully apt picture of this imaginative and humane man, who died last year. His Mars (The Martian Chronicles)has something of the homey porch, and his novels of midwestern boyhood (Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Halloween Treeare always dreamily adrift in the fantastic. 2

Bradbury's poem, Byzantium I Come Not From is both dreamy and rooted. It is like a psalmic prelude to the charmed stories of childhood noted above. (It is, in fact, part of the preface to Dandelion Wine.) The poem can be read in its own light, but it may be instructive to note that it is written with both homage and ironic reference to Yeat’s poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree and Sailing to Byzantium.

“Byzantium I Come Not From"   (Ray Bradbury)

Byzantium, I come not from,
But from another time and place
Whose race was simple, tried and true;

As boy
I dropped me forth in Illinois.
A name with neither love nor grace
Was Waukegan, there I came from
And not, good friends, Byzantium.

And yet in looking back I see
From topmost part of farthest tree
A land as bright, beloved and blue
As any Yeats found to be true.

The house I lived in, hewn of gold
And on the highest market sold
Was dandelion-minted, made
By spendthrift bees in bee-loud glade.
And then of course our finest wine
Came forth from that same dandelion,
While dandelion was my hair
As bright as all the summer air;
I dipped in rainbarrels for my eyes
And cherries stained my lips, my cries,
My shouts of purest exaltation:
Byzantium? No. That Indian nation
Which made of Indian girls and boys
Spelled forth itself as Illinois.
Yet all the Indian bees did hum:

So we grew up with mythic dead
To spoon upon midwestern bread
And spread old gods' bright marmalade
To slake in peanut-butter shade,
Pretending there beneath our sky
That it was Aphrodite's thigh...
While by the porch-rail calm and bold
His words pure wisdom, stare pure gold
My grandfather, a myth indeed,
Did all of Plato supersede
While Grandmama in rockingchair
Sewed up the raveled sleeve of care
Crocheted cool snowflakes rare and bright
To winter us on summer night.
And uncles, gathered with their smokes
Emitted wisdoms masked as jokes,
And aunts as wise as Delphic maids
Dispensed prophetic lemonades
To boys knelt there as acolytes
To Grecian porch on summer nights;
Then went to bed, there to repent
The evils of the innocent;
The gnat-sins sizzling in their ears
Said, through the nights and through the years
Not Illinois nor Waukegan
But blither sky and blither sun.

Though mediocre all our Fates
And Mayor not as bright as Yeats
Yet still we knew ourselves. The sum?

II. John Stewart (not to be confused with the comedian, Jon Stewart), who died in 2008 at age 68, was as much a folk artist as Grandma Moses (though slightly hipper). He painted with his guitar and his heart, his pictures tinged with both the golden sunlight of a California boyhood and the earthier tones of the midwest. His folk-rock style influenced many whose names are known better than his own, and his songs were steeped in an “Americana” that evoked a love of country through images of waving wheat rather than waving flags. His Bradbury-like reminiscence in “Pirates of Stone County Road” (which he described as being set "in Nebraska or Kansas or Oklahoma") makes us see a particular scene that also manages to depict a sort of universal childhood.

“The Pirates of Stone County Road” (a song)
~John Stewart

Henry! It's getting t'wards suppertime you know.

There she calls from her second floor room,
the end of a back porch afternoon,
where we'd stand on the bow of our own man-of-war,
no longer the back porch any more.
And we'd sail, pulling for China,
the pirates of Stone County Road
all weathered and blown.
And we'd sail ever in glory—
'till hungry and tired,
the pirates of Stone County Road
were turning for home.

Henry! You better be getting on up to bed now, don't ya know…

There she calls from her high wicker chair,
as I climb to my room up the stair,
where the wind through the shutters
sends the mainsail to fall
from the shadow of the bedpost on the wall.
And we'd sail, pulling for China,
the pirates of Stone County Road
weathered and blown.
And we'd sail ever in glory,
'till hungry and tired,
the pirates of Stone County Road
were turning for home.

Henry! Can you hear me, Henry
 Are you up there Henry? Henry?... 3

III. I’m no poet, but occasionally the muse gives me a nudge anyway, and I try my hand. My muse in this early attempt was obviously Ray Bradbury.

"943 Colorado Southwest"

The big white house that once held me
I now hold in memory.

It had no ghosts then,
though fifty years old--
sixty years ago.
We are the ghosts now,
wandering through rooms of light
Slamming doors to meet in front
for games of autumn nights.

Spirea-lined and lilac-hedged,
front steps were base, but
back yard stretching into dark
was the place to hide,
to crouch—unbreathing—
Till the seeker passed,
Then to breathe again!
And leap, and run….

I’d hide forever now,                             
till sounds the "all-in-free!"
And mother, apron aflutter
at the front-door confluence
of darkness and light,
calls me in,
then up
the tall staircase,
to that high bedroom,
to sleep,
a ghost, exhausted.
1. "Mr. Moundshroud" is the spirit of Halloween in Bradbury's "The Halloween Tree." Tom put on a fantastic Halloween party every October.

2. It's October! Find a copy of Bradbury's "The Halloween Tree" and read it with a child 6-12 years old.

3. Here is a Youtube audio of John Stewart singing "The Pirates of Stone County Road." (I think the producer's slide show gets in the way, but it's all I could find. I suggest you turn around and just let the words paint the picture.)

4. Thanks to my friend Warren Hanson for the sketch of my boyhood home.

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