Clarke Retires After 25 Years at Yaddo
Saratoga Springs, NY (February 6, 2012) - Catherine Clarke retired February 3, 2012 after 25 years of service as a Yaddo employee.
In announcing the retirement, President Elaina Richardson warmly referred to Clarke as “the face of Yaddo,” noting that as our receptionist she greeted arriving guests, dealt wisely with questions and concerns of the resident artists, and formed close friendships with many of the creative individuals who have spent time at Yaddo.
“Cathy is a beloved member of our community, and she will be sorely missed. That said, this is an exciting transition for Cathy, who has several projects she plans to focus on, and we wish her well,” Richardson said.
A lyric poet, traditional Irish musician, and stained glass artist, Clarke lives in Saratoga’s countryside, a few miles from the family farmhouse and land where many of her poems have been set. She fondly considers her years at Yaddo as a time of inspiration, privilege, and excitement.
Clarke has two chapbooks of poems. We are delighted to share with you these selections from the more recent Blue Nights, Golden Days (Finishing Line Press, 2009):
for Nellie Shannon
(Yaddo’s Head Cook for 40 years)
"In my yard," says Nellie Shannon,
"I have oak and maple leaves
just like those in Newfoundland."
She waves her hand toward the hooked
woolen Eden of her sunlit rug.
"And I put in some purple impatience blossoms.
Bittersweet, strawberries, butterflies, too.
See? I don't have to travel far. It's all there!"
She laughs. She has dyed the wool
with onion skins and potions,
cut the cloth into narrow strips,
and hooked up through burlap soil
all that will sprout, bloom, fly there
between the hidden, stony teeth of earth
and hot, mosquito-sacrificing sun.
Bittersweet are the borders of this rug,
sprigs of brown stem, orange berries.
Bittersweet are recollections,
a story with tea and sugar.
"If neighbors were hungry, my mother
would stroll up along their fence
with a pot of dinner hidden
beneath her apron.
My father would cut and split
some extra wood, and quietly leave it.
We never sat at the kitchen table
that we didn't have work to do.
Every cabin had these rugs
to lend a bit of color, warm the place.
The floors would be completely covered.
All made from bits of rags, old coats and skirts.
“I could look out over the bay.
Out my window, I could see
the beautiful water, the fishing boats.
We had a cow we milked twice a day.
She used to put her head in at the door
looking for vegetable water.
One Christmas we each had an orange.
And no one wanted to open it,
break into it. We'd just pick it up
and hold it against our cheeks,
and smell, and wonder at it."
The stories are butterfly-like.
Years of caring for sick people.
Saving a woman from fire,
but losing the husband and infant.
Crossing the border when the wrong breeze
could have sent her back.
One more hospital. Then Yaddo, and cooking,
and loving the time to
start creation all over with color and form—
oak and maple leaf, cardinal and wren,
iridescent snail among peonies.
Pull out the wrong strips of lavender,
straighten the stem.
Put all remembered shades of color in the rose.
"My husband, Jim was a good man.
On days off we'd go for a drive.
He'd bring his paper, write his letters.
I'd knit or crochet.
Helen and her husband George used to come with us.
She got so busy looking at the mountains one day
she tipped over, rolled right down the bank.
Jim and George had to pull her up."
Nellie leans on stove and chair,
lights the gas flames beneath the pot of water.
At night, she tells me, she listens to Dan,
a DJ, a Vietnam vet who'd lost a leg.
"He was out sick a couple of days last week,
so people were calling in
to see where he was. When he came back
he had to tell where he'd been!"
Nellie, when the man from Australia drove into us,
you had just finished saying you never argue
with the driver. It had rained lightly.
Night was a wet-haired woman, throwing her old self down.
All day, going up and back, the mountains had glowed.
White sheep, heads down, had found their weeds
like hermits their scant words. I awakened,
steam rising from the crushed nose of the car,
and you were gone.
Nellie, you must have learned when you were young
to stare out over the bay, waiting to see God.
The wait has been long. This is spring. But
some days even the crows are walking,
deliberately, if that is possible for crows.
Their black coats lack your color. They are not
complaining, but like me, singing
in the only pitches they are capable of.
(Note: Nellie Shannon, hooked-rug artist from Newfoundland, was Head Cook at Yaddo for 40 years. Her husband, James Shannon, had been George Foster Peabody’s, and later the artists retreat’s, chauffer. George Vincent had been Yaddo’s Supervisor of Buildings and Grounds. At the age of 78, retired, in 1993, Nellie was killed in an auto accident returning home from a visit with a folklorist who had selected several of her rugs for a collection that was to tour New York State for five years. The speaker in the poem was the driver of the car, and is the author.)
for Aaron Clute
Upon hearing he was so sick,
I thought of the Pony Express,
a horseback game from childhood
my friend and I raced as a team of two—
Aaron riding his black mare, Hootie
toward me on foot—all timed.
Dash the length of a dusty ring,
full gallop, in a straight line.
Wheel your horse around your waiting partner.
Swing your partner up behind the saddle.
Riding double, gallop back.
One the saver, one the saved.
Aaron on his lathered, springing horse,
and me—snatched by a single arm
I’d land close behind him.
Floodlights were a hazy line of stars
in a gritty, choking cloud of dust.
Now in my quiet room
I can hear beating hooves,
shouts and whistles all around.
Home was the far side
of a homemade mark.
The rider might be slow, or miss his grasp;
the cloud of dust be thick, the horse run wide.
After all, the mark was set
by heels in earth or painted poles.
And who could tell
the lesson from the score?
My catcher has already gone ahead,
my saver and old friend gone on,
not afraid, Aaron said—his body
puffed with illness; his good mind
curious, picking the straight line
as when he was a boy.
The Same Field
for John Hall
I remember one winter,
two of John Hall's horses
got out and clattered up Nielson Road
about midnight, in the coldest time,
I think January. So our three geldings
broke our fairly skimpy wire fence,
to run whinnying with them,
especially after the mare,
Dad and I trailing in frosty clouds,
boots squeaking antiphonally over snow,
past Shirley Mahay's
(two sons gone to homestead in Alaska),
then past Peggy Mahay's
(one son killed in a crazy car wreck).
They ran to John’s corner fields,
skidding into the field the two had come from,
a frozen cow pasture, lying dark
in the glowing way snow-covered fields are dark.
The chase went on behind the sagging barns.
Then the five horses crossed into an opposite cornfield—
plowed-under, furrows, frozen stubble,
some stalks pointing upward, some elsewhere,
pointing to invisible things.
The horses by then ecstatic,
their joy multiplying as they fled,
we, all this time, stumbling after—
my father, myself, and big John Hall.
Through snow drifted over icy roots,
up and down over sine curves of frozen earth
we fell, circular in our failure.
But then, the part I most remember:
Bob Hall chasing in his pick-up truck,
driver's door open, Bob leaning out,
the truck bouncing like a great ship
upon frozen crests of waves,
Bob swearing "God damn it! God damn you!"
over and over, honking the horn,
the horses veering into and out of
his two wildly gyring headlights,
whose beams went only so far
into the swallowing darkness,
the way the truck horn also faded.
And then the horses simply stopped.
So we caught them—right hand
grabbing the ear or mane behind it,
left hand on the soft nose.
I couldn't move my gloved fingers
from their grip around rope and halter,
or feel my feet, though we moved somehow
to slip a halter on, or,
quickly noose a hidden baling string
around their necks and faces—
and started out of the wilder,
more familiar and shining darkness,
and up the road to home.
Now, after thirty more years of that view,
John, your last four seasons mostly suffering,
you’ve gone—we cannot explain where.
You saw the same field all year.
Day of rain, or burning sun, or snow.
Night’s first darkness without roads,
then, eyes adjusted, its brighter glow.
And then one night, into earthly darkness,
Not light the corn could point us to.
And not like our light that night long ago.
I bet, invisible as the darkness
under your John Deere hat—
until your hat of earthly being
was lifted in the end, the just beginning
of where a soul goes next—
whether the soul does glow,
as the sparkling of snow at night,
Spring, Anytime from Now
for Margaret Clarke
"Hunger is fine sauce,"
my mother Peggy used to say.
And "A hint is as good as a kick."
If we pressed for an answer
to what would we be having for dinner,
she'd offer "Butterfly wings on toast,"
or "Wind-pudding and air."
There would be dinner, but not before
the metaphor was eaten.
"Run to Biffer's for a loaf of bread
and two quarts of milk. I'll time you,"
she'd swear. "Six minutes, thirty-five seconds.
Your fastest yet." How could she otherwise ever
have prepared us for this world?
"I'm not normal," my mother once told me,
about herself, when I was older.
Skinny, left-handed, brown-haired, plain—she said,
putting a pin in the stretched-out waist
of her underpants instead of buying new ones.
Brave on Broadway without make-up,
maybe "two-cents worth of Erase" for her
accumulating shadows. "Why don't you be
an artist, if that's what you really want to be?"
would fly out, as from the Holy Spirit,
suddenly, when I hadn't seen her lips move.
There is a sun above that accounts
for growth below; snow-melt runs under
what was immovably white and frozen.
If she could be here now
I'd scoop her a dish of strawberry ice cream.
Tell her Reggie Jackson made the Hall of Fame.
We'd hold hands in the stores.
Buy underwear and Chinese food.
And then I'd give her this poem.
We'd talk about "normal."
In Cobalt Spring
for Robert Towers
How surprising this blue is—
where no stone can ever plunk;
no bottom—of dust of fish or plant,
no settling there.
This blue that floats
above our buoy heads
goes well with green.
Outshining distant stars by day,
dark when sun turns back.
Fish-stars swim its ultramarine.
We are not lost.
Birds stroke through it.
Lightning burns loud holes in it
to get to earth.
sail up, out
beyond the house and barn
where there is no New York,
no place to land.
Blue translucent eloquence—
lost jewels—why do we love
its light upon our eyes,
recall and memorize it?
Color of light
on the best days in old Eden?
Color of synapse
where Being jumps,
wants to, into the arms or lap
of other Being?
On the right spring day,
partly awake from a nap
in a hilltop meadow
I have walked to,
my arms and legs float up
toward this blue—
or just before:
slow and gathering,
not sure yet
of direction, how to begin.
Blue Nights, Golden Days
Love is something that is not us.
The beckoning of love
keeps the mountain from falling.
I have to learn love.
Copy it out of desperate admiration
and the unbelievable darkness
of the absence of light.
We are made of light,
waving gradually back,
as if birds, whales, storm clouds—
out of what we try to name,
guessing its solitary place