’Tis the last rose of summer left blooming alone
When all its companions are faded and gone…
Yes, I’m aware that the flower posted here is a fuchsia rather than a rose, but fuchsia doesn’t exactly scan. However, it’s the cause of what I’m writing today, because the last couple of days, with fall coming down around here, this one last bloom caught my attention. It reminded me of both my father, Norman Busk, and of that fragment of a poem he used to read to us out of his favorite book, called the Treasury of the Familiar. On long summer evenings before television signals made their way over the Divide and down through Bisbee’s Tombstone Canyon to our house in Warren, we sat around and listened while our father read aloud.
My father’s tattered copy of the Treasury of the Familiar was new when it was given to him as a Christmas gift in 1925 when he was nine. How do I know that? From a notation on the front page that reads: For Norman, Christmas 1925. It doesn’t say who the giver was, but that book was my father’s treasure. Before he died, he passed it along to me. I’m not sure why, out of seven kids, I was the one who inherited it. The very act of mentioning it here is liable to provoke multiple relapses of sibling rivalry, because we all loved that book.
When the Treasury came to me, it spent years on the shelf in the library of our Tucson house where I kept the books that were really special to me, including my complete collection of C. Day-Lewis’s poetry. I was one of the speakers at the first Tucson Festival of Books. When it was my turn, I spoke about how important the Treasury of the Familiar had been in our household while we kids were growing up. I don’t remember if I read a poem from it at the event, but the volume itself was there with me in all it’s ragged, duct-taped glory.
We sold the Tucson house a year ago this spring, and books from there were loaded into packing boxes. When we got home to Seattle, the books went into storage in the garage. This past summer we intended to have the grandkids come over for a weekend camp of book sorting in which we’d unpack the Arizona books and divvy up the author copies of my own books that accumulate around here at an astounding rate. COVID 19 meant the sorting camp didn’t happen, so all those Tucson books, including the Treasury of the Familiar, are still in boxes in the garage.
In order to write this blog, I can’t thumb through the book and read through the ones I want to mention. That means I’ll probably be misquoting some of them here and there. Oh, I know, I could go to Google and look them up, and you’re welcome to do so, but that’s not the purpose of this blog. This is a piece about the poems my father left imprinted on my heart.
The first poem in the book, at least as I remember it, goes something like this:
Laugh and the world laughs with you
Weep and you weep alone
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing and the hills will answer
Sigh, it is lost in the air.
The echoes rebound to a joyful sound
But shrink from voicing care.
Rejoice and men will seek you
Grieve and they turn and go
They want full measure of your pleasure
They do not want your woe.
Be glad and your friends are many
Grieve and you lose them all
There are none to decline your nectared wine
But alone you must drink life’s gall.
I think there are several more verses, but these are the ones that have stuck with me. However, a lot of the poetry our dad read to us was just plain fun. I had but Fifty Cents, is the story of the worst blind date ever where a guy takes his gal out for a fancy night on the town and she proceeds to eat everything in sight,
When she hollered for pie
I thought I’d die,
For I had but fifty cents.
Then she hits the bar and drinks one of everything on the bar menu.
When she hollered for more
I fell on the floor
For I had but fifty cents.
As for what happened when the bill came? The proprietor had the last word:
He took me where my pants hung loose
And threw me over the fence.
Take my advice, don’t try it twice,
If you have but fifty cents.
Some were parables with real life lessons:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined
Who went to see the elephant
Though all of them were blind
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
One feels the side of the and says the elephant is like a wall.
One feels the tusk and says it’s like a spear.
One feels the knee and says it’s like a tree.
One feels the trunk and says it’s like a snake.
One feels the tail and says it’s like a rope.
One feels an ear and says it’s like a fan.
As for the men in the poem? They’re all right up to a point, of course, but they’re all wrong, too.
And so these men of Indostan,
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And ALL were in the wrong.
So oft in theologic wars
The disputants I wean
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean
And prate about an elephant
Not one of them has seen.
Come to think of it, the same thing holds true for political wars as well. It seems to me there’s a lot of wholesale 24/7 prating going on these days, all of it making about as much sense as those blind men and their elephant!
And then there were poems about bravery and honor. My favorite of those was always Horatius at the Bridge. In that, Rome is under attack by a vast army marching toward the city. With the army moving ever nearer, the only thing separating the city from their enemies is the Tiber River which happens to be running at full flood. There’s one bridge over it, and the city council decides that by destroying the bridge they can save the city, but can they do so it down in time?
Then up spake brave Horatius,
The keeper of the gate,
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.”
Horatius goes on to talk about what could be more important than saving home and hearth and the mother of his child? He tells the council to get with the program of chopping down the bridge. In the meantime he has an idea to keep the enemy at bay.
Hew down the bridge, sir Consul
With all the speed you may,
While and two more like me
Will hold our foe at bay.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three,
So who will stand on either hand
And keep the bridge with me?
As I typed those words just now, a wave of gooseflesh swept down my leg. Horatius and two others go out onto the bridge and engage some of the enemy commanders in bloody, hand to hand combat. When the bridge starts to totter, the other two rush back to safety while Horatius stands alone on the far side of the rive for one final round of swordplay. By the time that is over, the bridge is gone. He looks at his home on the far side of the river. He looks down at the roaring flood and prays.
Oh, Tiber, father Tiber,
To whom all Romans pray
A Roman’s life, a Roman’s heart
Take thou in hand this day.
With that he leaps into the roaring river and swims for it. When he makes it to the other side and is pulled to safety. a huge cry of joy goes up from all over Rome. As for the enemy?
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.
I loved that story so much that one summer I conned my two younger brothers into staging a reenactment. We removed most of the wooden planks across the grease pit in our garage to create a bridge, and that’s where Arlan and Jim duked it out with homemade, wooden swords. There was at least a six-foot drop on either side of the “bridge.” Our mother, with nerves of steel, sat through the entire performance without batting an eye.
Eventually the Busk kids were old enough to land in Miss Reavis’s sophomore English class at Bisbee High School. When it came time to recite The Ode to a Grecian Urn in front of our classmates, we were all fine. Poetry wasn’t a foreign language to us. We had learned it at our father’s knee.
So Evie Busk brought music and harmony into our lives. Norman Busk gave us the wisdom, the cadence, and the storytelling power of poetry. And “we few, we happy few” as William Shakespeare’s Henry V would say, were lucky enough to be there, even if, in some cases, it took us decades to figure out exactly how lucky we were.
If you had asked Norman and Evie if they thought of themselves as exceptional, they would have told you that they were “just barely average” in the Lake Woebegone sense of the word. But trust me, they weren’t.
Norman and Evie Busk were downright remarkable.