Traveling With Stafford
I met Bill Stafford in September 1967.
I was a new instructor at Lewis & Clark—a graduate student at the University of Illinois writing my dissertation in absentia. Barely unpacked, I drove over to an English department retreat at Camp Sherman, where my colleagues and I camped in bunk beds and sleeping bags on the plank floor of a cabin beneath the austere peaks of Three Fingered Jack.
Whether by himself or in the company of others, Bill Stafford gave out a strong solo presence. Even while he took pains to be one of “our group,” a phrase he used in “Traveling Through the Dark,” his amazing, terribly human, white-hot signature poem, Stafford’s closest companion seemed to be the camera looped around his neck. Snapping his photos, he usually caught you unawares; if not, he’d offer a sheepish smile intended to suggest an apology, which it emphatically was not. Over the years, reading his poems and coming to see him in his unusual photos of others’ faces, I realized despite the fact that he brushed aside the photos, Bill was a photographer as he was a poet, perforce, out of inner necessity.
Back then I did not know any of this. I did not sense the terrific effort Stafford put into holding in check the fire in his belly. I fell for his Walter Mitty persona, and I was wrong. William Stafford was an anti–Walter Mitty. This fascinating man did not traffic in the habit of ineffectual fantasy made famous by James Thurber’s character. Rather, Stafford’s was the humane, weathered sensibility of the narrator in “Traveling Through the Dark.” His observing eyes didn’t let go of things, and those mottled brown eyes stayed with me from the day I met him until the last time I saw him more than 20 years later.
In the meantime, I knew Bill as a colleague in the daily round of teaching. Often those who trotted him out as Lewis & Clark’s prize thoroughbred did not notice the chilly smile that came over his face when he heard their meaningless flattery. By choice, he did not teach classes in poetry writing; I suspect for Bill writing was too much a life or death, solitary matter. He taught humanities to first- and second-year students; in his sections, the odd football player who had put off the requirement until his senior year was always welcome. He was a teacher whose karma remained in the room when he went on the road. I know because a few times when he asked me to take his classes, students would joke affectionately that he was sometimes present in his absence and absent in his presence.
Bill cultivated a sense of belonging toward his surroundings. He walked quietly over whatever spots he passed—a doorway, a room, the edge of a road, the bumpy ground of a meadow. He had the traveler’s office down cold in the title of his great signature poem: the human condition is not a traveling in the dark or out of the dark. It is the more complex daily act of traveling through the dark.
The last time I saw him, the fibers of my heart stretched to the breaking point. The occasion was a memorial for Bill’s first-born child, his son Bret, at Portland’s Old Church on a raw rainy Saturday morning in November 1988. The mourners were numb with shock because Bret Stafford had taken his life. The dead son’s mother, brother, and two sisters sat in the front pew, a few spaces distant from a woman whose two children leaned next to her on either side, each holding one of her hands.
After the service, a hard silence fell. Then the woman in the front pew, obviously the widow and her two children, stood up, a doe flanked by her fawns. Tears shining on their cheeks, the little ones stayed on their feet, waiting for a sign from their mother before they hugged her.
I looked to the rear for Bill. Earlier I had wondered if the open space in the front pew was for him, knowing enough to know if that were so, he would have been sitting there.
No music consoled the silence. Not wanting small talk or uneasy glances, my wife, Susan, and I left.
“Where’s Bill?” she whispered as we headed out into the aisle ahead of the rest.
Off to one side, two French doors were ajar. Beyond in a large room were dark hardwood floors and two long tables. One held two urns of coffee and a big pitcher of cranberry juice; the other large plates heaped with marionberry scones. At the far end of the room, Bill Stafford stood hunched over, alone. As we headed for him and he for us, I felt my heart beat. Taking a few more steps, the three of us stopped several paces from each other. Bill’s eyes glistened and seemed to burn as he gave each of us one of his hands.
“Callahans,” he said.
There was nothing more. That was as it should have been.
His simple utterance was so stark and true it lingers, a spark in the air I breathe even now, 25 years later.