Words for Time
Ask a boy on his back
In a track the buffalo cut
How long it takes that cloud
To cross that butte.
How many turns of calico tied to a spoke
Of a wheel
Make a mile
Make a century?
Ask dew on the ox-bow:
Where did the century go?
Ask lantern light on the butternut sleeve
In the evening.
Tonight I was watching a jet-plane lag behind
The spokes of light a hub of sunken sun
Was turning in the under-West
Behind the Rocky Mountains.
The jet-plane, for an instant of twelve mountains,
Held its own with a span of apricot sky
But lost to a fanning blade of choke-cherry;
Nearer, a snow-white-pitch-black magpie bird
Sauntered the West wind faster.
What shall I tell the children about Time?
Children who never counted the sing-back sway
Of the shoes of a single-footer horse,
Surrey by goldenrod or pung by snow,
But know the red light from the green
And when to go
And go so soon
Over and under the poles of the earth
And toss the earth like a toy balloon.
Shall I tell them Time is countable repetition:
Tree-ring, heart-beat, Ocean’s coral accrual?
Shall I speak allegory: Time has teeth,
Forgives, is foolish, yawns, rubs like a river,
Is bald, is nick, is nurse, is pale avenger?
Big Time, small Time, war Time, your Time?
Hickory-dickory Geiger Time?
The mouse ran up the isotope,
Five . . . ten . . . fifteen . . . twenty . . .
Twenty-five . . . thirty . . . thirty-five . . . forty . . .
Where you are you shall burn up
In your hiding place or not!
I’ll say those things for all those things are true,
And I will tell the children Time is Love,
Like a slogan to laugh at on a greeting card,
Like a One-I-Love song made of daisy petals,
Like bidding the mountains sloughing off to sea
Good wayfaring, my hills, goodbye, goodbye!
Let boys and girls grow old and die one day,
Well taught that Time itself does not exist
Where nothing can go faster than the light
That let me love that magpie’s wing tonight:
Love of watching, recognizing, naming,
Knowing why similar ash of men and cattle
Leaves talismans that differ as a hymn
Might differ from an idle opal mine.
And I will tell them . . .
No, I’ll let them learn it:
All constellations, bench-marks, citadels
Continuing and lost and starting over
Within a whisper: “Was it all right with you?”
Passion into slumber into being.
Thomas Hornsby Ferril was a Denver newspaper editor and poet who saw his city grow and change through most of the 20th century, dying at age 92 in 1988. The introduction to this collection was written by novelist H. L. Davis, whose Winds of Morning (published the same year as Ferril’s collection) was one of the first books I featured on this site (link). That novel and this poem have in common the theme of the passing of time in the West–as Davis noted in his introduction:
Time and continuity may seem commonplace elements from which to develop individuality in poetry. Other poets have written about time and its effect on things ostensibly stable and permanent; writers as far back as Xenophon have paid homage to the power of renewal that gives continuity to the human spirit. But with most of them, such things are incidental and minor, reasoned reflections touched on in passing. In Ferril’s poetry, they are fundamental and all-pervading, underlying and coloring thought, emotion, even instinct.
In origin, much of this may be due to environment. The plateau region of the Rocky Mountains has always had, for some strange reason, an intensely stimulating effect on the efflorescence of stock poetical pronouncements about everlasting hills and the earth abiding unchanged and unchanging. The record for generations has brilliantly corroborated and extended the application of the old critical note that the best British poets always wrote their worst poetry in Switzerland. The truth is that hills do change; they shift, alter shape, switch colors and textures; rivers flood, change course, dry up and cut new channels for themselves; grasslands gully out, silt up and saturate with alkali, wind-strip and bank into new grasslands a couple of counties away. This process has been noted often enough in books — Shakespeare’s forty-fourth sonnet, for instance, or any textbook on geology — but reading or reasoning about it is not the same thing as having it happen visibly and persistently, until it becomes a part of one’s inmost consciousness. People in the plateau area of the Rockies are exposed to it from childhood; they come to take it for granted, except when, as sometimes can happen, one of them develops into a poet.
Davis also writes that these poems “… were written primarily to be read aloud, and Ferril’s Library of Congress recordings of some of them do give them a depth and closeness of rhythm that the printed page misses. But even on the printed page, as stages in the achievement of a precise and far-ranging literary artist, they are well able to speak for themselves.”
This poem also makes me think of my grandfather, who was born in a sod house in western Nebraska in 1901, rode a mule to school and studied by a kerosene lamp, and who lived to ride in jet planes and see men walk on the moon on his television. He wasn’t much for poetry, but I’ll bet he’d have appreciated Ferril’s work.
from New and Selected Poems, by Thomas Hornsby Ferril
New York City: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1903
Available on the Internet Archive: Link
This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.