The Light Before Dawn by Drum Hadley
(Tucson: Chax Press, 2010)
TO THE OTHER SIDE
Whether you know the long life of Drummond Hadley the poet, or just some of it or none at all, this book will move you. It may well be the last we get from him. He is quietly and quieteningly slipping in the direction that these poems indicate. I have known him only a little and for a few short years, but his books have been with me all my poet’s life. His Strands of Rawhide was there on my father’s bookshelf for me to inherit back when my dad died; it had been my gift to him many years before. It is a book of the cowboy life on the borders at the corner of Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora; one prominent much-crossed border in that book was the one between this life and the life of the poet. Hadley’s masterwork, put out on the page and on CD too late for my father to enjoy it but certainly a full joy to me, is Voice of the Borderlands. This book told the stories of a number of people whose voices collected in Drum’s head over the years down in that corner of the world and in that life of land and plants and cattle and horses and water.
The light too was always a focus in those works. The light in that land and that life with its early and late hours is primary. And now we have The Light Before Dawn. This is another smaller, quieter masterwork. It joins a longtime tradition not just among poets but among meditation masters and even public servants; it is the reflection book of someone entering the twilight of life that casts a new kind of shadow illuminating things and thoughts. There is a kind of narrative here, in the best sense of story-telling; it is a flow toward knowing. These poems find their illumination in the landscape, in an imagery that feels experienced by the time the reader has reached the last one of them:
Because of the circling
Of the earth circling the sun,
Each dawn lit light is there for us forever
In that last of the first morning’s light.
So we come then into that forever,
Again and again and again and again.
Drum’s “Preface” tells us that these poems stemmed from the experience of a prognosis of rapid decline toward death and a choice of a wellness regimen with which to face that. This makes the poems engagingly both poems of recovery and poems of dying. Each one makes sense in both of those ways. There is an almost unique middle ground that is created out of that. Even quoting Dante as he came to his hinge point, Drum Hadley puts one of those experiences into terms of the other all at once in terms of the landscape he has lived:
Through the canyons
Of the desert country of Guadalupe,
And the lives of the desert,
For better or for worse,
In the middle of the journey of our lives,
We find ourselves.
There are poems and images in the poems that comment on this meaningful blurring together of contexts usually kept separate by our feeble logic. One poem begins with a huge metaphor:
As if reality seen through changing mists
Like the nebula of a story
Were the only true reality.
And it ends with his own morning practice of a swim:
And so I greet another morning
By the edge of the pond.
This kind of grounding is present throughout the book; it comes from his life, of course, grounded in a place and a practice—a way of life. That practice has been one of attention. The attention has been at times that of the working cowboy, that of the storyteller listening, that of the lover, or that of the writer. We see it and feel it in poems like this one:
Whoever you are who wrote this poem
Waiting to open inside of my hand
I know you.
I will come here to meet with you tomorrow
When the wind blows by the sycamore tree
By my hand, along the lingering dust.
That tree is real. It stands above a creek near the house. It could be anywhere too in that landscape, and it is a symbol—as my high school English teacher Betty Ellis would have insisted. There is another poem that incorporates it:
The landscape of conversation,
What is coming towards,
And what is leaving,
Let’s talk till we get to that tree.
The landscape forms the conversation
Once you’ve talked under a certain tree
This is a central poem for my reading of The Light Before Dawn. I see significance in every feature of it, down to the lack of a final period end stop. Line by line it tells something simple that has occurred to the poet, and each line opens out to something more. The first, for example, says here we have a landscape and here we have a conversation. The “of” implies that one is made of the other, and that is the simple point of the poem. But which is made of which? The “of” allows us to have it both ways and more, as does the poem. There is a conversation that is shaped by and in some way about the landscape outside it, and there is a metaphorical land shape made of conversation through which the talkers roam. The we have “The bridge,” which also contributes to the sense of that first line. The conversation is a landscape that is a bridge as well; we all know that about good talk. The next two lines tell more about the bridge and take up the book’s two threads of coming into something new and going away, the two directions suggested by a bridge. These delicately play back and forth too. Is death “coming towards” and life “leaving,” or is a new way of life arriving and old life habits being dropped? Yes, both, and more. “Let’s talk till we get to that tree,” might be said by a walker or a rider in company, based on the understanding that there must be a parting of ways. This tree stands like the “message” rocks or big trees around the southwest where trails have long met and parted, a shady spot to stop awhile and maybe take a bite together before one turns back and one goes on or where a sign or word might be left for another who would pass that way. The last two lines are both literal to that kind of scene and, in the larger context of the book, symbolic of a certain point in the journey of life. That there is no end stop speaks for itself, but I’ll say I don’t care if it’s only one mistake Charles Alexander might have made in setting the type; it allows the poem to go round again and again. The last line is the kind of phrase we open a thought with, not an ending.
This theme of conversation is in other poems throughout this cycle. It is the style of this book to be talking to you. From what I have heard, these poems were said by Drum before becoming writing. Some are talk, and some are song. They are addressed to “you men and women / Who I have loved” (40). The enigma of goodbyes is in this talk:
Each time I say goodbye to you,
Each time you say goodbye to me,
So then, is the last:
The last one that we will ever say again.
This poem takes up the old sentiment that goodbyes should be said with the sincerity of knowing the possibility that they may be the last exchange between loving people. And this becomes a poetics:
So tell carefully then, what you will call,
As each word then is a call to you and to me.
The seriousness in each word choice comes from that other call:
… the earth called to us to come and to go away
and shows up in one word on the next two pages:
He knew who he was
And then he was gone
and then a poem/song made only of the word “gone” repeated at intervals with intervals of silent space around them that seem to slow its pace and echo its meaning.
Mid-book, nel mezzo del cammin di questo livro, is a poem of leaving that emphasizes the facet of the book that is about dying. One could also read recovery into it by making it be about the dying away of difficult habits. But I would be in pretending denial if I didn’t admit that to my ear it echoes the end of the Prajnaparamitra sutra used in Japanese Buddhist memorial ceremonies. That text is also one for daily meditation, though, on letting go. It reads that way, and it brings this all home to the landscape of Drummond Hadley’s life:
Gone from the wind,
Gone from the leaves,
Gone from the rocks,
Gone from your hands,
Gone, gone, gone,
Down the arroyo flows
From your horse’s shod hooves
T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.