By Kim Stafford
My family and I left Glasgow by train for Oban, took the ferry across to the Isle of Mull, took a bus west across that island to Fiohnphort, took a second ferry across to the Isle of Iona, and walked the two miles north to the hostel, where I took off my boots and climbed into my bunk and looked up to find someone had stapled a poem by my late father:
Any island, or a break in the weather,
or resting awhile under
bridges or by a rock in the sun—
these offer themselves.
You know these intervals allowed,
moment by moment, lost
in the large parade of the days.
Even a hesitation while a door
opens can balloon
and then there’s an arch with
all you need, sheltered there.
All through your life.
Island by island.
All night, I slept under that blessing. My father, William Stafford, fifteen years gone, had left word for us there. And in the morning, we went forth to tramp the length of Iona, the island unmarred by cars, by crowds, by too much human light.
Although my father was born in Kansas, “island” is one of the most frequent words in the 20,000 poems he wrote in his time of creation before dawn. Maybe this is because those early morning hours were a kind of island for him, a time out of time, a resting place, what he called “the citadel of myself.”
This writing practice began during World War II, when he was a conscientious objector interned in a series of work camps in Arkansas and California, while the war raged around the world. He and his fellow “Conchies” were set apart. They all decided to rise at 4am to make art, to think and talk and learn and create … before trudging off to their long days of physical labor starting after dawn. When the war ended, others rose at a more reasonable hour, my father said, but he started getting up earlier … 3am, for a time “when I am unlikely to be interrupted,” to write his thoughts, his questions, his poems.
Looking across the River
We were driving the river road.
It was at night. “There’s the island,”
someone said. And we all looked across
at the light where the hermit lived.
“I’d be afraid to live there”—
it was Ken the driver who spoke.
He shivered and let us feel
the fear that made him shake.
Over to that dark island
my thought had already crossed—
I felt the side of the house
and the night wind unwilling to rest.
For the first time in all my life
I became someone else:
it was dark; others were going their way;
the river and I kept ours.
We came on home that night;
the road led us on. Everything
we said was louder—it was hollow,
and sounded dark like a bridge.
Somewhere I had lost someone—
so dear or so great or so fine
that I never cared again: as if
time dimmed, and color and sound were gone.
Come for me now, World—
whatever is near, come close.
I have been over the water
and lived there all alone.
When he went home to Kansas after the war, one of his best friends from high school greeted him, “You should be killed. Traitor!” He couldn’t stay. He became a wanderer. He was his own island. “I thought hard for us all,” he wrote. But out of this sense of exile, by writing each day, he forged a kind of independence that sustained him.
Tomorrow will have an island. Before night
I always find it. Then on to the next island.
These places hidden in the day separate
and come forward if you beckon.
But you have to know they are there before they exist.
Some time there will be a tomorrow without any island.
So far, I haven’t let that happen, but after
I’m gone others may become faithless and careless.
Before them will tumble the wide unbroken sea,
and without any hope they will stare at the horizon.
So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.
So we wandered Iona, my family and I. Our son was small then, clambering up the hills, delving into caves just his size, gazing into his reflection in a pool of rain. And when we came away, when we returned to the larger island of Mull, and from there to the larger island where Glasgow lay, I carried this bonus: My father is not gone—he is everywhere, and especially he may be found among the islands.
'Security' and 'Looking Across the River' are reprinted from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, by William Stafford (Graywolf Press, 2014). 'Bonuses' is reprinted from Passwords, by William Stafford (HarperCollins, 1991). All poems reprinted by permission of The Estate of William Stafford.