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There was a girl, I remember, but I don’t remember her. There was a girl, someone I’d met just that day–someone we’d met because I was not alone that night and neither was she. She was camping at the park where I worked. I’d returned that night because they were there camping–those girls. They were from Normal, Illinois. Strange that I remember, but I do. I knew no one from Normal, Illinois.
Those nights lit by the moon and the moon’s nimbus,
the bones of the wrecked pier rose crooked in air
and the sea wore a tarnished coat of silver.
Mark Strand’s “Night in Hackett’s Cove,” a Writer’s Almanac selection this week, begins with the moon’s silver face on an image that isn’t at all glorious: the “bones of a wrecked pier” that rises “crooked” above a shoreline outfitted thoughtlessly in “a tarnished coat of silver.”
It feels like a place that could be memorable but wasn’t, or at least showed no signs of being a Damascus road. There’s more:
The black pines waited. The cold air smelled
of fishheads rotting under the pier at low tide.
There was a girl from Normal, Illinois, that night, two or three of them as I remember. I haven’t a clue what she looked like, any of them for that matter. But I certainly do remember there were a million dead alewives washing up on the beach just over the hill. During the day, at work, we’d rake ’em up by the disgusting thousands, dump them in a wagon we pulled behind a tractor, and bury them somewhere back in the dunes. Even seagulls wouldn’t eat them, only peck out their eyes. There they’d lay, in windrows, all over the beach until we’d rake up another half-ton.
The moon kept shedding its silver clothes
over the bogs and pockets of bracken.
I don’t remember the moon, and no clothes were shed. I remember only the darkness that night when we came back to the park. What I remember was one late moment when this faceless, nameless girl and I, in the darkness, were just talking along a road in the park.
Nothing happened. If you’re waiting to hear me tell a great summer night story about me and a girl from Normal, I can’t. Sorry. It was late, and she was interesting in the way girls you didn’t know are when you’re 19. And while we were talking a state park pickup came up, someone from the night crew, someone I certainly would have known. I don’t know why, but I didn’t want to be seen; so the two of us hustled off the road and got down beneath the outstretched limbs of a pine, on a cushiony bed of needles, which I remember as if all this happened just a few nights ago. The guy in the uniform and the pickup went by, not fifty feet from where we lay there, giggling. Never saw me.
Had he seen us, I wouldn’t have been arrested or lost my job. Somehow, at 19, it was just plain cool to be there at that moment, with a girl I didn’t know, giggling beneath a pine.
Those nights I would gaze at the bay road,
at the cottages clustered under the moon’s immaculate stare,
There were no cottages. We were in a state park where I worked every day, a park I knew like the back of my hand.
And here’s the way the poem ends:
nothing hinted that I would suffer so late
this turning away, this longing to be there.
I think age plays a role in this poem’s endearing epiphany. When I was 20 I’m sure I remembered that night better than I do now, but I didn’t feel drawn to it, didn’t feel “this longing to be there.”
And it’s not that I wish to return some night to the park to lie there under a pine and watch a state pickup drive blindly past. That night so long ago wasn’t magical. I didn’t emerge reborn. Nothing happened. There the two of us were, giggling on a bed of pine needles, a hundred yards from a thousand dead alewives bunching up on the wet shore sand.
When I walk through Mark Strand’s poem, that perfectly meaningless moment in my own life washes up with a poignancy it doesn’t deserve, except that for no earthly reason it abides in some random drawer or cabinet of memory. There it is, an early morning moment to relive. Suddenly, I’m 19 years old.
Yesterday, on a Sunday drive with my father-in-law, who’ll soon be 97, we passed farms that long ago were home to men and women and kids long gone. He named those families, one after another. “This was a DeHaan place–but that’s years ago.”
I don’t know that his naming those families is some “longing to be there,” a wish to return. I don’t think so. But his country commentaries always bespeak a tender desire to relive an earlier moment in a life whose drama has passed, maybe even a moment of giggles.
He feels it too, the same odd vision Mark Strand opens up in “Nights at Hackett’s Cove,” the unforeseen realization that some quiet morning years later I would so readily and happily relive a dark night of giggles under the spreading branches of a pine.
Out here on the emerald edge of the Great Plains, my father was a long way from Hackett’s Cove or the Lake Michigan shore. But I think he gets it, as I do, this poem of Mark Strand. Poetry brings us to odd places we somehow recognize.
I suppose that’s why today I’m here, at Calvin College, for a Festival on Faith and Writing.