Rites of Passage
By James Hall
Copyright 2000 by James Hall
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Editor's note: This is an excerpt
I have been writing since about age 12. My first efforts appeared in
school newspapers, and in the Yale Literary Magazine. At various times, I have
written non-ficiton, fiction, poetry, stage plays and scripts. I have published
a lot of poetry, here and there; my first book is on the way. I have won several
awards and prizes. Two short stories have reached print, one in the Yale
Literary Magazine, one in The Writer’s International Forum.
I was an editor of The Yale Literary Magazine during my Junior and
Senior years. After graduation, I followed advice which Thornton Wilder once
gave me. He recommended teaching as a way to pay the bills while learning my
trade as a writer. I taught French and Spanish at several school, one public,
the others private.
Tom McMahon, who was Editor-In-Chief of the Lit, kept asking me when I
was going to stop fooling around and write something. Tom took a post greduate
year at Yale with Robert Penn Warren as his mentor. Once, when I visited him at
Yale, he harrassed me into writing a short story which he pronounced well-seen
and worth polishing. I went on teaching for thirteen years, writing something
My fluency in Mandarin Chinese landed me in an off-the-wall military
intelligence venture in Korea, from which I have written a couple of short
stories, and may work on a novel eventually.
the Sixties, when Timothy Leary and his cohorts convinced kids to tune in, turn
on and drop out, I left teaching for a different, more lucrative avoidance
strategy; I became a programmer/analyst. This lasted twenty years. When
downsizing struck, I gave up avoiding the issue. I have been writing ever since.
As I readied these poems for publication, the title sprang full-blown
from my forehead. The poems span the years 1940 through 1999, years in which I
did many things other that write poetry. The Muse kept harrassing me, however,
and a number of poems appeared.
These are not the collected poems. There are many more which I have lost
along the way, some of which I remember imperfectly and wish I had kept a copy.
They are not even selected poems. I grabbed a bunch of manuscripts and put them
in an order which was and is mysterious to me. Yet they seemed to belong that
The ordering brought forth the title; “Rites of Passage.”
I began to see my life as a continual rite of passage. I have always been
wary of rites, and of those who take the rite for reality. In a sense, every
rite is a poem and every poem a rite. Further, a rite moves one from one state
of awareness to another. Some state
of awareness along the way may turn out to be enlightenment. One hopes these
poems might do as much.
Poetry knows that the wave
splashes the rocks in Connecticut
once was stirred by the oars
of a Phoenician galley lying off Sidon.
Poetry is the forgotten
lore of a long-dead wizard.
Words on a crumpled parchment,
meaningless, or magic.
Poetry lurks in the barberry
border between sleeping and waking.
Red berries, guarded by thorns,
Poetry upsets the trial balance,
is neither debit nor credit.
The accountant shouts at his children.
An owl hoots, unheard, in the bay tree.
Having digested what it can, the sea
spews on the beach all inedible parts
of the ship, odd bits of sealing wax,
left-over cabbage leaves, a fragment of
the lost king's crown.
It is not likely anything we salvage
will help us reconstruct the world that was,
or build a new one. If the wind
is not too strong, perhaps some bits of this
will make a fire.
This beach was not our landfall. How we came
to be here, dragging flotsam from the surf,
is best forgotten. Our arrival
was only a departure from what was, at first,
This small, green bottle, empty now of rum,
stopped with a bit of wax, could hold a message.
Reverse the chart, which now is useless;
the blank space there has room for words enough,
but in what language?
A poem is an urgent message
stuffed in a bottle, thrown in the sea.
Perhaps it will ground on a beach
where someone speaks the same language.
A boy with a sling-shot
is always patrolling that beach.
Purpose: Many people have pointed out that writing poetry is not a good way to make a living. Some have suggested writing advertising copy. I ask them, which way is more likely to let me find the sound of one hand clapping?