This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
by Kim Stafford
It’s July, a week of rainy weather here in Oregon, and I’m teaching a class in the Library
at Lewis & Clark College. Now and then, I remember how odd this undertaking is: I’m
teaching a class called “Stafford Studies” about the writing and life of my late father, the
poet William Stafford. A Stafford teaching a Stafford. We delve into the Archives,
looking closely at his daily writing pages (22,000 of them to consider), his photographs
(some 16,000 images), his correspondence (around 50,000 pages there)…while in exhibit
cases we can study his beat up Stella guitar, his rusty double-bitted ax, his camera and
battered felt hat.
It’s all a bit spooky for me. It’s the centennial of my dad’s birth, a fact that I and others
have magnified into something we’re calling The William Stafford Centennial 2014: 100
Years of Poetry & Peace. There are seven new books out, by him or about him, and
events in his honor in libraries and schools all over. Here at the college, where he taught
from 1948-1978 (and where I have taught from 1979 until now), he’s a big deal this year,
and as I try to make my innocent way down the hall on my way to class, the old man
suddenly looms up before me on the screen for campus events:
There he is with his camera, in a stern self-portrait that, under the circumstances, seems
to be interrogating me: What are you up to, my boy? Big brother gazes from the wall.
I must say, those eyebrows are amazing, still. And the hungry gaze of his camera
startling. Staring into his glare, I recall what a kind person he was—most of the time. But
he was always also, as he described himself, “Friendly, but not tame.”
When I walk into the library, the old man is everywhere:
At such a moment, I experience the arresting, surreal nature of my endeavor: teaching my
father. My students are studying the work of a writer, teacher, and witness for peace, an
enigmatic artist at a safe distance … but I am blundering into the inner life of my father,
and now and then I’m brought up short.
Today this happens when one among us, Steve—my old friend, and the son of my
father’s close colleague Kenny Johnson—hands me something that turned up at his house
this morning: it’s my father calendar and diary from 1956-57, when I was seven years
“I thought this was my dad’s,” Steve says, “but it’s your dad’s. I wonder why it was with
my dad’s stuff. Here, you take it.”
In my hands, the book feels like the fifties, stationary store, cheap tool for simple order.
But as I leaf through the brittle pages turning sepia at the edges, I think I know why my
father exported it to Kenny’s. This book could be upsetting, even incendiary, if left at
home and found by one of us, for it is filled, along with notes about errands and actions
and tiny financial decisions, with private counsel about the struggles of life.
I heard my boy crying in the mountains. I had crossed a river, climbed a slope
found a cave. He stood far below.
I said today, Are you tired of living with me? Can you like the way I am?
Almost trapped at school for faculty meeting.
I distrust the good things I say.
Biked thru clear, sharp afternoon, like living in a diamond.
Letter from Lulu in Alabama, about her experience being hit by a star.
Men at school gloomy about Christmas. I told Dorothy & she blew up,
feeling that the spirit is gone, that the feeling of Christmas is missed
Day Adventist at door with carol & asking for help for the poor;
by time I got to kitchen Kim was emptying his purse for the man.
There is my father, brooding about his relations with my mother (“Can you like the way I
am?”), with his college (“trapped at school”), with relatives and friends (“Letter from
Lulu…”), and with his writing (“I distrust the good things I say”). And there is me, an
impulsive child in my father’s gaze (“Kim was emptying his purse…”).
First I think of his poem “What in My Journal,” which came back to me this summer
when we were emptying the house, my parents both gone. I opened my father’s
“miscellaneous drawer,” and the poem leaped to mind:
What’s in My Journal
Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone's terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.
The stuff in the drawer … the stuff in the journal … the stuff in his mind he never shared
… it all begins to mix richly in my head. It’s like there is this telescope I am looking
through—looking the wrong way, gazing back down the tunnel of time to find my
father’s fountain pen scribbling his daily assessments in private for then, but also for this
moment, for his inquisitive child Kim….
I almost speak aloud: Daddy, I’m trespassing on your privacy, yes … but I’m caretaking
your legacy, too … and I’m your fellow seeker delving into the mysteries of daily life and
I’m seeing through time by this telescope, but I have the prickly feeling I’m also looking
in a mirror. I’ll be gone, someday, like him. My pages, my images, my half-completed
schemes will be layered in boxes, a kind of delayed-action life for someone, or no one, to
What fishhooks may be there?
I remember when my father and I would give a poetry reading together, now over twenty
years ago, he would read two or three of his concise acts of witness, and I would follow
with a song, a passage of rapturous prose, or a poem like some incantation. After my
performance, my father would shake his head, and the audience would laugh. Was he
disapproving? I think not. He was indicating to me, if not to others: You are different
from me, my boy. And that’s good.
At this point, I have to close the diary, and step outside. The rain has stopped. On a stone
bench, water has gathered in a tiny pool reflecting the tops of trees. In the long struggle
of a layered life, I have managed, yet again, to return to the primary world of grit and
water and air. Bowing low, I savor the rim of light around the periphery of the sky.