Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford, by Kim Stafford
For some time I have been deeply fond of the poetry of the late poet William Stafford , and this book by his son Kim gives a thoughtful and deeply personal look at the enigmatic poet, a man who was gracious and friendly and sociable with others but often rather quiet and distant from his own family. As some writers tend to be, he communicated into the silence with his writing and was not an easy person to get to know well, coming as he did from a Midwestern background of farmers and inhabitants of small towns, a past from which he was greatly alienated as a result of his service as a Conscientious Objector during World War II. The book is highly quotable and Kim meaningfully describes his father as having been a porcupine turned inside out with the soft side on the outside and the prickly side inside, something I can relate to myself as well as concerning other members of my family. This book is a moving and eloquent attempt on the part of a son who happens to be the literary executor of his late father to understand that man through memories and through fragments of writings that he discovered after Stafford’s death in 1993.
This book is not organized chronologically, but rather topically, with parts titled after phrases from Stafford’s well-known poem “The Way It Is.” First the author relates his confusion and struggle to deal with his father’s death and his responsibility as the keeper of Stafford’s great literary output. After that the author looks at William Stafford’s Kansas background during the Great Depression and the price of being a CO during a “good war.” After that the author examines his own struggle with work and his childhood crimes and the role of vocation in Stafford’s poetry. This then leads into an examination of Stafford’s indirect way of dealing with others. The most poignant section of the book comes when the author talks about the tragedies of life, including the suicide of the author’s older brother after a period of profound isolation and loneliness. The author then closes the book with two sections that discuss Stafford’s tendency of having many intricate moves that are hard to understand and the thread of words absent and forgotten that run through Stafford’s life and writing, ending with a touching epilogue.
The book is itself full of intriguing incidents. I found William Stafford, as discussed in these pages, to be a man not dissimilar from myself, if certainly less loud and less fractious, but a man who cared deeply about the silence and isolation of the reader and the need for personal space and for connection across the lonely void to others. The author’s portrayal of his father was a deeply moving one, full of humorous little notes, full of a love of questions and an unwillingness to be too loud and too dogmatic about his own work or its layers of meaning. Making the book even better is the way that the author includes a great many fragments of writing and gives the personal side to a reticent and highly reserved poet whose works were nonetheless deeply beautiful and inspirational. Those who love the poetry of William Stafford and are curious about his life and the legacy he left for his own family would do well to look at this book and see Stafford as a complex and highly nuanced man who was not easily understood even by those who by rights should have been closest to him. Some people are full of so many layers inside that they remain a mystery perhaps even to themselves.
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