An artist’s observations over 60 years

Harold Buckley’s “Ten Thousand Places” is a very unusual book. While none of the “ten thousand places” is specifically in the Adirondacks, the writing is artistic and skillful, and will reward area readers.

A poetic diary, it includes more than 150 entries, dating from 1948 to 2011. The entries, which are mostly poems, but also essays, musings and drawings, are not arranged chronologically, however. Instead, Buckley groups them thematically, his 10 categories including “Love,” “War,” “Nature” and “Loss.” In each, the reader meets an artist who pays attention to what is around him, and shares the experience in unusual and personal language.

Because Buckley was a Roman Catholic priest (the title comes from a poem by Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins), we might wonder what insight he can bring to love. But his “Often in Good Nights” speaks knowingly of tenderness and separation: “And so they stand / And sway in place / And hold beyond the dark, in light-filled tears / Each other’s mystery.”

He ends another love poem with a warning: “When we are not in love, we are just busy, dying.”

In the “War” section, Brooklyn native Buckley’s “Other Places” describes youngsters building sand castles at Coney Island while their fathers plod “the already bloody sands of Omaha Beach.” Written in July 2006, with American soldiers in Iraq, it’s easy to guess Buckley is noting how many sand castle builders have again grown up to be lost in battle.

“Soldier” is an angry poem ironically ridiculing what poets have said about war: “It wasn’t ever / What the poets said. / O the crosses did what they were told / Stood there white, indifferent, in the cold.” The last four lines of “Soldier” echo the English writer Rudyard Kipling’s famous couplet about World War I: “If anyone asks why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” (Kipling was, of course, a father who lost a son in that war.) Maybe with that in mind, Buckley wrote about a different lie: “Our fathers promised we’d see the world. / It was a lie / Every lonely little town we saw / We just helped die.”

About “Nature,” Buckley sees the usual metaphors in the seasonal changes. Who hasn’t walked an Adirondack trail in autumn and not thought about mortality? And so in “September,” Buckley wrote, “I have watched so many leaves go sere and dry … and faces I held so dear grow old and die.” It’s not a new idea, but the language says it well.

“To An Unloved Child” is one of the poems in the section devoted to “Loss.” It’s a description and a meditation on what happens when a child is loved only if he or she “deserves” love: “In those first steps with open heart you walked away, / not knowing Love … The pain of ‘earning’ love began your flight / You took no road, yet endless miles …”

Perhaps my favorite work in the volume is “An Old Man at the Catholic Worker.” It’s a sensitive, observant, sympathetic portrait of a man visiting Dorothy Day’s soup kitchen in 1976. Buckley included a pencil drawing of the man, and ends with “He shifts an old valise with tenderness / In which he seems to carry life itself / And leaves you holding the wildness and the wonder/Like an echo where he sat.”

There is tenderness and a sadness in these works — the poems, drawings of a Bowery man and Vietnamese children, the essays. Buckley constantly observed and then created an accessible version of his own experience. “Ten Thousand Places” rewards both lengthy and brief readings.

I did not come across “Ten Thousand Places” in the usual way. Rather, the author, my high school English teacher and lifelong friend, sent it to me. So perhaps it is prudent you keep that friendship in mind as you read this review and recommendation.

Harold Buckley passed away May 11, at the age of 94.

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