I was born in Houston, Texas in April,1950. My first writings were notes of love and longing written to my Mother. I can still remember the terrible pain of separation I felt for her as a child. Daily reading the King James version of the Bible well into my 20’s was a great inspiration, especially the Old Testament prophets, The Song of Solomon, and the Book of Revelations. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn follow close behind as early inspirations, since I was lucky enough to have these books read aloud to me. One of my grandmothers had a complete set of novels written by the great mystic cowboy writer, Zane Grey. Zane Grey wrote some of the most sublime passages describing Nature in the English language.
In the 4th grade I received a transistor radio with ear plugs and a clear plastic case that smelled like a fart when the radio heated up. This opened a huge new world of song to me. I heard the end of doo wop and the beginning of girl groups: the Marvelettes, the Ronettes, the Shangri-La’s, the Crystals, the Supremes, I loved them all. The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” still opens my heart. Closer to home, Skeeter Davis singing “End of the World” is a masterpiece that can still bring me to tears. Skeeter looked and sang like the people around me. She could have been family.
Folk music became very popular when I was in Jr. High. Peter, Paul and Mary, The Brothers Four singing Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan songs. I also loved and was inspired by the beautiful harmonies of the Beach Boys and the sincere emotionality of Motown, especially the Four Tops, The Temptations, The Drifters, and Little Stevie Wonder. R and B and Soul greats James Brown, Joe Tex, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett showed the rough path of the heart. I watched rockabilly singer Utah Carl with his blind steel guitar player every week day after school on local TV. Pure country singers Loretta Lynn,Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, what can you say!
There were so many great songs written during my most impressionable years by Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Donovan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, The Incredible String Band, Johnny Cash, Eric Taylor. These were a good balance to church songs which were so big a part of my life. Many of the church songs I loved were written by P. P. Bliss who died in 1876, burned to death in a train wreck trying to save the life of his wife.
When I was 23 years old, long haired, bare foot with a beard, an elderly lady, whose car had been recently stolen, stopped me on the street and asked me to teach her to drive the rental car she had been given. It was much bigger than she was used to. I recommended that she be careful asking people who looked like me for help but went ahead. It was a frightening trip. Cars were blaring at her as she nearly hit one after another. She told me that she was a member of the Christian Science Church and that all those accusatory horns were nothing but the “unreality”. She ignored them with a purity of attention that I have never forgotten. Later she surprised me by saying she was a direct descendant of PP Bliss. Quite an exciting day for me and at the end of it she gave me a box of “Texas Millionaires”, high class peanut cluster candies in a decorated box.
A list of poets and poems that helped me starts with Walt Whitman, especially by way of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Allen Ginsberg all by himself was a liberator. Robert Frost, especially his “The Hired Man” and “The Road Not Taken”. TS Eliot’s “Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock” is a masterpiece I read over and over and over and still read. Pound’s Chinese poem “The River Merchant’s Wife” was so beautiful it inspired me to pray that God would “grind me into dust and mingle my dust with his forever”. The grinding began immediately and has never ceased. You’ll have to read the poem to understand.
Galway Kinnell’s poems of manhood, simplicity, love. The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World, it’s never too late to accept this book into your heart. Embarrassing to remember now but at the time I bought it, I was so young and alone I thought to myself, “The initial of Christ is also my own.” Thank you Galway Kinnell for staying so long with us, until October 30, 2014.
James Wright’s beautiful sadness moved me so deeply that I wrote him a fan letter when I was 20. The great Southern poet with an immense and terrible comb over, James Dickey, the beautiful Federico Garcia Lorca, whose last name became the middle name of my daughter. Pablo Neruda, Juan Ramon Jimenez. Robert Bly’s little book of Kabir poems was a revelation. Reading some of the spiritual classics of India erased the limits of the sky.
Whatever God may or may not be, God is always where my attention returns. As a child, Jesus was my closest friend. Life would not have been endurable without that relationship, imaginary or not. I tried to pray without ceasing, sometimes just saying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” until whatever fear I was experiencing would pass. In grade school I would go out into the cornfield behind our house and sing “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Just As I Am”. I sometimes went into trances, spinning slowly around while singing, making little hollows in the corn. At 22 I was fortunate to learn a formal practice of meditation, which I have continued with, in one form or another, ever since. In the early years I heard what I believed were the voices of angels singing prayers to the Divine that made me sob with joy. Afterward, coming out of meditation, I could never remember a word they sang.
Many of my poems refer to the towns, rivers, geography, and nature where I have lived. Half my 65 years were spent in Texas, a handful of years in Arkansas and Iowa, and the rest in the Pacific Northwest. Each area has its beauty and each has a way of shaping the personality. East Texas is hot, green, lush with trees and tangled undergrowth. That is who I am. I am aware of the “undergrowth”, the dense emotional entanglements I live with and the tendency of my mind to mildew. These feelings are expressed in many of my poems.
“One more thing you didn’t ask for to make you go silent
and stunned into evenings searing with heat cut jagged by shrieks of creek herons
that Ma believed were apes living in the piney woods.”*
When you are born a Texan, you can never forget it. You can travel far and never leave it behind. Oregon and Washington State are younger, cooler, freer, less moody places, even though it rains 6 months a year. Nature is more majestic here. This is who I am becoming.
“When the wind blows through the River Gorge where I live
it can sound like laughter.
It can sound like men weeping together under a bridge.
The Columbia is loud with salmon backed against dams
ground up in generators and boat locks.
In my heart there is a river
and in my heart there are wheels and gears and millions of eyes.
But there is also Joy powerful as weeping that I cannot
defend myself against.
Joy comes over me and I collapse under it.”**
The work I have done has also left its mark on me as a writer and as a physical man. Most of it has been hard, dirty, and humbling. I have risen early to write before going to paint or wallpaper houses. Some of my poems were written when I was half asleep. I’d come home from work to read what I had written in the morning and find lines and images I had no memory of. I have also written while driving to work in notebooks of bids, on scraps of wallpaper, among lists of materials needed.
I want to say thank you to my children Ananda and Eli for putting up with me reading my poems to them over and over when they were too young to object. Thanks to Jeff Lehman, my step son, for being noble. Thanks to a few good friends along the way who have encouraged me. Thanks to Amidha Porter for helping me with this website.
For the last 28 years I have lived with Grace in the form of my wife, Carol. She is living proof to everyone who knows her that there is still beauty, love and truth in this world. All my poems are dedicated to her. Whatever good is in my heart and in my life is her.
Thank you for reading my poems.
Charlie Hopkins, Underwood, Washington
* For My Father’s Father
** Inappropriate Memories