I began the poem “Salvatore” in a California ranger station at the suggestion of Paulann Petersen, the former poet laureate of Oregon. I had invited her down to Santa Barbara to lead a couple of writing workshops, to give a reading, and to participate in a memorial observance of the poet William Stafford. Stafford served from 1942-46 in a variety of civilian public service camps as a conscientious objector, and two of those years were spent at a camp in the mountains behind Santa Barbara. Every winter, around the time of his birthday, a few of us gather to read some of his poems there, and this time Paulann joined us.
Bill Stafford was a good friend of hers, and in one of her workshops she used his poems to get us writing our own. The Stafford poem that got mine started was called “At Liberty School.” It’s a memory poem from his boyhood in Kansas, about a girl in one of his classes that nobody knew very well: “Girl in the front row who had no mother / and went home every day to get supper, / the class became silent when you left early.”
Paulann asked us to think about someone from childhood who essentially went unnoticed, and the person who came to my mind was an awkward Italian boy named Salvatore. I can’t remember his last name. I believe his father was a brilliant but poverty-stricken professor at the local university in the Oregon town where I grew up. Salvatore was the opposite of excitable; he was quiet, brooding, and deliberate. We ran track together in high school, and though I was a little bit faster, he was usually right on my shoulder, and we developed a silent sort of companionship. As I look back, however, I wonder, of course, how well I really knew him. My father also taught at the university, but we were not poor, and all of us in our family experienced a basic level of social confidence and social acceptance. For me, it was probably hard to imagine what it was like to be without these gifts of fortune.
William Stafford was poor enough when growing up, and moved enough from town to town to often be the new kid on the block. He might have had a greater sensitivity to outcasts than I did. From early on he developed a habit and ethic of “standing with” a person who was bullied or ignored, whether that person was the black elevator man in his poem “Serving with Gideon” or simply a taunted child on the playground. I’m not sure I had that habit, but I think of the poem that I have written about Salvatore as a kind of “standing with” across time. The gesture—or act, if you will—is belated, to be sure, but I hope it is no less genuine, and perhaps, even, in the way that prayer might be, efficacious.
read “Salvatore” in our current issue, or listen to the poem via SoundCloud.