The Whale in the Blue Washing Machine

This New York Times obituary brought back memories: John Haines, a Poet of the Wild, Dies at 86.

John Haines' homestead on the Richardson Highway


Photo taken in 2008 by Alex Ross.

In the mid-1980s, my Dad began work on setting some of the poems of John Haines. Written for my mother to sing, this became the song cycle “Alaskan Beasts” and they’re some of my Dad’s best work. (He later transposed the set for soprano Tony Arnold.)

One summer during that period, we took a drive on the Richardson highway, and paid a visit to Haines at his homestead. My memory is suspect, but I can still see it located in a small, heavily wooded valley, just off the road, and I have no idea how someone could survive a winter there. I wish I could remember more of the visit, but I was a teenager thinking teenage thoughts. I do remember my Dad being very excited to be in the place where Haines lived and wrote.

My Dad also wrote a cantata, “Homestead,” which he’s hoping to get performed again soon.

Here’s one of my favorite poems:

The Whale in the Blue Washing Machine

 

There are depths even in a household
where a whale can live. . . .

 

His warm bulk swims from room
to room, floating by on the stairway,
searching the drafts, the cold
currents of water and liberation

 

He comes to the surface hungry,
sniffs at the table,
and sinks, his wake rocking the chairs.

 

His pulsebeat sounds at night
when the washer spins and the dryer
clanks on stray buttons. . . .

 

Alone in the kitchen darkness,
looking through steamy windows
at the streets draining away in fog;

 

watching and listening
for the wail of an unchained buoy,
the steep fall of his wave.

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