The Law of the Unforeseen is about family, history, family history, the natural world—its beauty, its degradation—the strange miracle of consciousness. I write about the blues, failure, great apes, time passing, icebergs, massage therapy, the Civil War, crows, bats, potatoes, spoons and drones. Nothing is off the table. In fact, everything is on the table, including the fabled kitchen sink.
The poet Galway Kinnell once said that when writing a poem, the deeper you go inside yourself, and the more intimate you become in the process of composing and engaging language with your whole being, a strange thing happens. The poem, Kinnell said, becomes both personal and universal. By diving deep, the poem discovers—or uncovers—what binds us, what we all feel: the quickened heart of recognition and shared emotions.
That’s what I’ve aimed for in The Law of the Unforeseen: to plumb deep, to find “the best words in their best order,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said in his famous distinction between prose (“…words in the best order.”) and poetry “…the best words in the best order”).
To his everlasting regret, Edward Harkness did not see Elvis when the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll visited Seattle during the World’s Fair in 1962. Other than that, Harkness is a happy husband to Linda, father to Ned and Devin, and grandfather to Clio and Hilde. Having retired after a 30+ year career as a writing teacher at Shoreline Community College, he now devotes his time to other pleasures: gardening, cycling, visiting the kids and, now and then, making poems. He is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Saying the Necessary and Beautiful Passing Lives, both from Pleasure Boat Studio. His most recent chapbook, Ice Children, was published by Split Lip Press in 2014. Two poems in this collection, “Tying a Tie” and “Airborne,” won the Terrain.org annual poetry prize for 2017. He lives in Shoreline, Washington, about a mile from the north Seattle home where he grew up, and where his mother, Doris Harkness, whose art works grace the covers of this book, still lives.
A delirium of blossoms, he recalled.
Here we are on the bank of the Huzo,
walking in pink snow.
They were Americans, in love with love,
spellbound by pictures of Mount Fuji
they’d seen in National Geographic.
And there it was, appearing at sunrise
on the train window. How about that,
he’d said, waking her. It seems to hover.
It’s a vision, a floating island,
a perfect cone, just like the photos—
so symmetrical, so ideal, darling, like you.
In Kyoto, the river glided,
bright as mica, tinged with glacial till.
All the city, it seemed, had come to savor
the soft explosions of cherry trees,
just as they had come, these newlyweds,
arriving in a rickshaw, crowding with others
onto boats poled by young men
whose tanned arms glistened in April sun.
Then, excursions to temples and gardens,
where the azaleas had just begun to ignite
among the Zen stones. Such tranquility,
he told her on a stroll. Such harmony
with the natural world, don’t you think?
You won’t find that back home.
They even made love in a bamboo grove,
he remembered, thinking at the time
they were alone, with only the calls
of the different birds high in the green light,
then noticing as she rolled off him onto the moss,
her skirt askew, they were being watched.
An old woman in a conical hat smiled.
They smiled, mortified, unable to answer
the woman’s slight bow and greeting: Konnichiwa.
So long ago it was, that afternoon in the city
of pagodas and monuments, markets thronged
and rich with smells they’d never smelled.
Now, for Christ’s sake, they want to try out
the new bomb—Fat Boy, or Fat Man, or something—
on Kyoto, our Kyoto, where we climbed above the river
to that temple. What was it called? She wept, even,
when statues of the Buddha would appear
as if by magic, like sudden awakenings, among the pines.
He could imagine the shrines flattened,
ancient timbers blown to kindling by the blast,
the curved black roof tiles of ten-thousand buildings
swirling in typhoons of white fire.
Our city, for God’s sake. Our city.
Even the ice-fed Huzo would boil,
its boats aflame by the collapsed bridge
they’d walked across a dozen times,
and the young men who poled the boats—
they’d be burned to death in seconds.
So charmed the couple had been, so taken
by the politeness of the bowing Japanese,
so delighted were they when,
pulling their phrasebooks from their rucksacks,
they’d stutter a few words to a shopkeeper
or a woman planting rice shoots
along a road, and be understood.
He would demand that the committee
remove Kyoto from the list of targets.
Surely there were other cities more suitable
from a military standpoint,
more appropriate strategically.
What about Kokura’s munitions plants?
What about Yokohama or Hiroshima?
No matter what General X said or what General Y
argued would be the Emperor’s next move,
no matter what logic or tactical line of thinking
they’d array on their table of maps,
damage projections, casualty estimates,
he’d hold the line. He would not stand by
to see Kyoto—their Kyoto—
reduced to miles of radioactive ash.
The bomb, he vowed, would be dropped,
just not on the city he loved, his Kyoto.
His decision would be final.
Was he or was he not Secretary of War?
He’d go to Truman, if necessary,
get the full backing of the President.
Not one Shinto shrine, goddamn it.
Not one Zen pavilion. Not one pond of koi,
not one boy—I see him plain as day—
little canvas knapsack on his back,
riding his rickety bike to school,
pausing on the bridge to cover his ears
against the howl of air raid sirens.
I see him turn for home at the instant
the sun comes down to earth, flowering
like God knows what—a rose, a death rose
of heat and fire. No, no and no.
Not in Kyoto. Not in our Kyoto.
They’ll have to add another city to the list.
[Author’s note: Henry L. Stimson (1867-1950,) US Secretary of War, 1940-1945, was de facto head of the Manhattan Project. This poem is loosely based on an event from Stimson’s life.]
Thrift store find. Fifty cents. I like how stout
it is, carved of some uncertain hardwood,
one black scar on the handle suggesting
its owner snatched it off a hot burner.
I like the wear on the tip of the spoon.
Someone stirred and stirred, sanding the right side
of the bowl to near-flatness—the stirrer
left-handed, it appears, more than likely
a woman, perhaps living—wild surmise—
in Iowa in the thirties, baby
balanced on her right hip while she stands
in the heat of her Monarch cast iron stove
stirring porridge or corn mush or mutton stew.
Now it’s my turn to keep milk from scalding,
milk into which I will stir chocolate
pudding powder. It’s three a.m., the third
of January. I can’t claim to see
the light snow that dusts the cars parked out front,
since I’m at the stove stirring the pudding.
I can, however, see grains fall like salt
on the outer sill of the near kitchen window,
just as she too might have seen snow
or rain fall as she stood and stirred, switching
hands when her left grew tired, as my left hand
does now. Yes, it was a woman who carved
the much-used spoon in my hand. And if not
on an Iowa farm, then somewhere else,
preparing countless meals, hanging the spoon
on its nail, through the augured off-center
hole in the handle, taking down the spoon,
putting it on its nail, taking it down,
putting it on, down, on, the years passing,
kids having grown and left the farm, removed,
I’d venture, to the city. So the spoon
contains all the sadness of her left hand.
Even the spoon journeyed away from her,
settling against all odds in my kitchen
to stir the just-now-bubbling pudding.
It’s as if I’ve entered another life,
one where I cook, clean, give birth, raise children,
watch snow whiten a stack of cordwood.
It’s as if she’s beside me as I write, as if she has
given me the spoon and taken my free hand
in hers to stroll the garden of our two worlds.