For this issue of TQ, which has called up a theme of the relationship between poets and their physical/geographic wellsprings, I asked Henry Lyman to share some of his work with us, and something of a place I’ve had the recent, if too-brief, opportunity to stay: Fort Juniper, Robert Francis’ house in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The connections here to things that matter deeply to me are legion: Amherst is where I grew up, when not at the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton, Vermont; it has remained very much my hometown. As a result, many of the poets who have stayed in Fort Juniper are ones whose work and being I have come to know well. Henry’s tireless support of the house and the poets in it are valiant gifts I honor. The Frost connection adds a dimension of family legacy I cherish.
But well beyond these personal dimensions, and perhaps not as obvious, is that many of these storied places of our common legacy as writers and artists are vulnerable.
Time and space to work is the gift among gifts, for artists, and often rare treasure indeed. The respect for and preservation of place—particularly place that artists have given to inspire the work of artists to come—is a responsibility we share. Just as Bianca Stone, Chard DeNiord, and a host of others are working to preserve and share the celestial poet Ruth Stone’s house in Goshen, Vermont so it may become a place for artist’s residencies and a continuing treasure for the larger community, Fort Juniper is a place that speaks, and listens, and deserves our gratitude and maintenance.
In my own short time there, I applied carpentry and solitude, bleach and time spent grieving, long discussions with the barred owls who have so very much to say every night in the trees immediately overhead, the making of this journal with all the attendant immersion in the art of others, daily walks up and down Market Hill, the Frost Trail, the loops around the Atkins Reservoir, the Whitman and Cider Hill Trails, the slant-light of pine and maple-filtered afternoons, the discovery of moth species I had not yet met, and the presence of many ghosts of many kinds to the creation of new work of my own.
I also spent time considering our various legacies, and what it takes to pass them forward. If I didn’t know about Fort Juniper and someone told me there was a simple, rugged cabin in the woods that offers all the solitude, wellspring, and retreat an artist could wish while also being in the heart of the Five Colleges and all they offer, I probably wouldn’t believe them. For it to also be a place of retreat and support for working artists? That is something to protect and nurture. To attend. So here, for you, an introduction to the place and some of its many stories.
– Jessamyn Smyth
Pacifist though he was, it was typical of Robert Francis to call the tiniest house in Amherst a fort. To this he added juniper, the lowest-growing of native Massachusetts evergreens. In 1940 there were few if any junipers on the half-acre knoll he had bought for seventy-five dollars. But there were junipers enough on the other side of the road. Having heard that the house was being named for them, they decided to cross over, as he said, and move in.
The house is of hurricane pine, free lumber left by the hurricane of ’38, and cost less than fourteen hundred dollars to build. Francis had designed it for thrift. With just three rooms—a living room with fireplace and kitchen nook, a narrow bedroom, a bath—there was nothing in excess. Nor, for a writer needing only solitude in the woods, was there anything lacking.
The poems Francis wrote during his nearly half-century stay at the Fort are no less economical than the building itself. Without a word too little or too much, they have the solid integrity of its frame, the sinuous grain of the pinewood in its walls and floors. But they are far from housebound.
AS EASILY AS TREES
As easily as trees have dropped
Their leaves, so easily a man,
So unreluctantly, might drop
All rags, ambitions, and regrets
Today and lie with leaves in sun.
So he might sleep while they began,
Falling or blown, to cover him.
The price to pay for liberty was spending little. Francis managed to survive on his meager royalties, the violin lessons he gave to neighboring children, and soybeans, but for years his income was scarcely higher than his property tax. He considered himself wealthy nonetheless—in his surroundings, in his freedom—and readily shared his riches with his visitors, offering them dandelion wine or pure maple sap served in cordial glasses.
One fairly frequent caller was Robert Frost, who would come out from town and talk with him for hours. Frost admired the younger Robert’s work, referring to him as “the best neglected poet,” and tried to find a publisher to take him on. Years later Francis returned the favor by publishing a memoir titled Frost: A Time to Talk, and subtitled Conversations and Indiscretions Recorded by Robert Francis.
Francis was indeed neglected, and still is, partly because he kept a low profile, partly because he remained in the shadow of the mentor whose initials he happened to share. He had learned much from the older Robert, but his voice is distinctly his own. Being an almost deceptively quiet one, it tended to be obscured. He nevertheless published seven books of poetry in his lifetime, all of them highly praised. His Collected Poems, 1936-1976, presents the whole spectrum—pastoral, satirical, political, and more.
blood stains how to remove from cotton
silk from all fine fabrics blood stains
where did I read all I remember old stains
harder than fresh old stains often indelible
blood stains what did it say from glass
shattered from metal memorial marble
how to remove a clean soft cloth was it
and plenty of tepid water also from paper
headlines dispatches communiqués history
white leaves green leaves from grass growing
or dead from trees from flowers from sky
from standing from running water blood stains
I first set foot in the Fort in 1975, a year before the publication of the Collected, and spent many an afternoon recording Robert for radio, or sitting with him in conversation, or sitting with him in silence. He was a great raconteur, and his stories, a number of them recounted in his autobiography The Trouble With Francis, ranged from the poignant to the hilarious. He was also a great and gentle teacher.
One piece of advice he gave me, which I followed, had to do with my one-year-old daughter Christina, who liked to crawl on the floor at his feet. “When you take her to the woods,” he said, “be sure to let her go ahead of you. Let her find the way herself.” After a pause he added “It’s much the same with poems.”
NOTHING IS FAR
Though I have never caught the word
Of God from any calling bird,
I hear all that the ancients heard.
Though I have seen no deity
Enter or leave a twilit tree,
I see all that the seers see.
A common stone can still reveal
Something not stone, not seen, yet real.
What may a common stone conceal?
Nothing is far that once was near.
Nothing is hid that once was clear.
Nothing was God that is not here.
Here is the bird, the tree, the stone.
Here in the sun I sit alone
Between the known and the unknown.
A few months before his death in 1987, I helped Robert compile a manuscript of newer and older poems titled Late Fire, Late Snow. He was eighty-five by then, legally blind, and needed an extra pair of eyes. Its publication a few years later assured that virtually all his poems were in print. Copies of it still sell, slowly, with his other books, and he still appears in anthologies. He keeps on.
So does Fort Juniper, which has remained a writer’s residence. For a couple of years it housed the legendary Jack Gilbert, who completed his long-awaited collection The Great Fires at Robert’s small oak desk, and it was there that Doug Anderson wrote a substantial portion of The Moon Reflected Fire. Renowned or not, every occupant has accomplished something of note—a book begun, a book finished, or just a handful of worthy poems.
Each in turn has given to the Fort. Kevin Goodan and Kimberly Berwick cleared brush from the land, as did Alex Phillips after Hurricane Irene. Jennifer Swender and Paul Jacobs scraped and painted, Linda Gregg sowed new curtains, Wally Swist contributed his carpentry skills. Jessamyn Smyth scrubbed the walls, plugging the occasional mouse-hole.
And the Fort keeps giving back. Some have said that this unassuming place in the hills, with the brook below, brought them to a turning-point in life. Others claim that the house honed their words. I say it has a friendly ghost.
From where I live, from windows on four sides
I see four common kinds of evergreen:
White pine, pitch pine, cedar, and juniper.
The last is less than tree. It hugs the ground.
It would be last for any wind to break
If wind could break the others. Pines would go first
As some of them have gone, and cedars next,
Though where is wind to blow a cedar down?
To overthrow a juniper a wind
Would have to blow the ground away beneath it.
Not wind but fire. I heard a farmer say
One lighted match dropped on a juniper
Would do the trick. And he had done the trick.
I try to picture how it would look: thin snow
Over the pasture and dark junipers
Over the snow and darker for the snow,
Each juniper swirl-shaped like flame itself.
Then from the slow green fire the swift hot fire
Flares, sputters with resin, roars, dies
While the next juniper goes next.
Are rich in points of view if they are rich
In anything. The farmer thinks one thing;
The poet can afford to think all things
Including what the farmer thinks, thinking
Around the farmer rather than above him,
Loving the evergreen the farmer hates,
And yet not hating him for hating it.
I know another fire in juniper,
Have felt its heat burn on my back, have breathed
Its invisible smoke, climbing New England hills
In summer. Have known the concentrated sun
Of hard blue berries, chewed them, and spit them out,
Their juice burning my throat. Juniper.
Its colors are the metals: tarnished bronze
And copper, violet of tarnished silver,
And if you turn it, white aluminum.
So many colors in so dull a green
And I so many years before I saw them.
I see these colors now, and far, far more
Than color. I see all that we have in common
Here where we live together on this hill.
And what I hope for is for more in common.
Here is my faith, my vision, my burning bush.
It will burn on and never be consumed.
It will be here long after I have gone,
Long after the last farmer sleeps. And since
I speak for it, its silence speaks for me.
Read “The Dinner Bell,” “Madeline’s Library,” “Two Old Gents,” “Generations,” and “Filial” by Henry Lyman
“As Easily as Trees,” “Blood Stains,” “Nothing Is Far,” and “Juniper” are drawn from Robert Francis: Collected Poems, 1936-1976 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976) and are reprinted by permission of the Estate of Robert Francis.
Henry Lyman’s work has appeared in The Nation, New England Watershed, The New York Times, Poetry, Talking River, TQ, and other periodicals. He edited Robert Francis’s posthumous collection Late Fire, Late Snow and an anthology of New England poetry, After Frost, and has published two books of translations. For twenty years he hosted Poems to a Listener, a radio series of readings and conversation with poets. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and serves as a trustee of Fort Juniper and an executor of Robert Francis’s literary estate.
Bruce Myren is a photographer and educator based in Cambridge. Myren’s research centers on issues of place, history, and memory; projects include The Fortieth Parallel, and Fort Juniper, in his hometown of Amherst. Exhibited nationally, his photographs have been published in PDNedu, Fraction Magazine, View Camera Magazine, Huffington Post, Petapixel, and Slate. In 2014, he received a Cambridge Arts Council grant to photograph the Washington Elm on Cambridge Common. He is represented in Boston by Gallery Kayafas. His photographs, titled “Lower Mill River” and “A Small, Small House,” are included in his essay Fort Juniper, 2011-2012, which can be viewed on his website www.brucemyren.com.
Doug Anderson has published two books of poetry and a memoir, Keep Your Head Down: Vietnam, the Sixties and a Journey of Self Discovery (W.W. Norton, 2009). He has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.His photographs of Fort Juniper can be seen at http://doctorlumiere.smugmug.com/Other/Fort-Juniper-Robert-Francis.