Still thinking of John Haines. The days are brighter now. The morning sun glows through the glass southeast wall as I sit with my back, warm, to it, grading a few more papers and sipping coffee with honey. In the late afternoon, returning from classes, meetings, e-mail, I head down the straight east-west course of Chena Pump Road, built, so a railroad friend tells me, along the old railbed of the Tanana Valley Railroad. The sun is high enough around five o’clock to flare in my eyes, driving straight into it, and the ice still thick on the road from last November’s three-day ice storm shines in a mirror of the sun’s glare.
Sunday night, coming home around seven from a gathering, I noticed that the light in the sky was soft pale blue, a bit yellow toward the hills where the sun had set an hour before. This is a tender light, silvery in texture, that lingers longer as the days edge toward spring and summer. This is a light that passes quickly in places closer to the equator, but that those of us who live here relish—it’s a light that is soft as a slow exhale into spring.
I thought of John that night as I drove through that light along a four-lane highway past a cluster of box stores, most less than five years old, none more than ten years old. John hated such things, though he liked his comforts when they were offered to him—a good meal, someone’s car to drive, an apartment with running water. For the twenty minutes it took me to drive home, I watched the sky darken, imagining how he might have seen it. The light, a complex mix of pastel blues, pinks, yellows, spread ahead of me to the west. The spruces along the ridgeline as I drove closer made a dark jagged line like teeth or fur against the palest light. The slim fingernail of moon hung low and slipped gradually toward the western hills. For the sixty some years John lived in the Interior, he had seen these things, or sights like them—but had seen them without fast roads or chain stores, even after they were built. To him, the development of recent years was a temporary phase, while the land was—is—enduring.
It occurred to me, on that drive, that I had let the vision in John’s poems–the spare images of the north, its wildness, its curmudgeonly truths, its tenderness toward the fellowship of others in this difficult place—dim in my own passage through winter and summer. After all, I live in—or pretty near—town. I spend my days in a large institution surrounded by people and infernal computers. I’m keeping this blog, if erratically. John was a typewriter man, the manual kind with all the satisfaction that pounding on the keys could bring. I think that, in recent years, he may have learned to write on a computer, but I know that he didn’t hesitate to share his distrust of modern technology, even while he made use of it.
John was a complex, difficult man, but now, with him a week gone, I find him in the spikes of spruce, the bite of cold in the morning, the gleam of March sun on snow. By the south window, chickadees and redpolls dart up to the bird feeder. The cat sits watching, tipping her head toward them as they swoop up and away. I see the gray topline of the Alaska Range, irregular along the south horizon. The valley and the flats stretch white, cross-hatched with darker spruce, all hundred fifty miles to the foothills of those peaks. Out there, a musher may be following a trail John or someone he knew once followed. The dogs rush on, panting, eager to lick at the wind they make. The musher holds the sled and runs and rides behind. The sky arcs over, darkening, with a hint of aurora, the ghosts of ancestors. There’s John Haines.