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Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947
Graywolf Press, 2008
128 pp., $24.00
Paul J. Willis
We Few Dreamers
On a January afternoon, the kind in California when it is equally pleasurable to sit in shade or sit in sun, forty Santa Barbara locals lounge at attention on picnic tables along the Santa Ynez River. One by one, we stand and read a favorite poem by William Stafford.
We are here because he was here. Surrounding us in our oak-strewn meadow are the old stone foundations of the Los Prietos Civilian Public Service Camp, where Stafford served as a conscientious objector during World War II. Here, doing work for the U.S. Forest Service, he laid the foundations of himself. And here we have gathered annually, just over the ridge from town, to remember this man and his understated poetry.
Just now a local student rises to read "At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border," a poem that he has heard in class:
This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.
As he ends the stanza, I reflect that Stafford might as well be writing about the field we are in, this natural flat in a bend of the river—now a picnic area, once a work camp, and before that the site of a small Chumash village.
Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.
People nod as the student sits down. This is iconic Stafford—mature, assured, and quietly subversive. Most of us know this one by heart. But next up is one of several Forest Service personnel with a new green book in hand. She reads a poem called "Devotion." It begins:
Along my river frogs like thought
plop into depths before my foot.
We listen up. This one is new to us. And yet it was written right here, along this riverbank, on March 21, 1944. It says so, right in the book. This poem does not have the unsettling ...