Writer's Notebook

W&M Press Photo

The magnolia outside my office window
is a southern lady,
adorned with white flowers
and glossy green leaves,
softly sashaying
against a dazzling backdrop of sky.

And I? Am I not a prisoner
in a cell of my own making,
little more than a voyeur,
shrouded in shadow,
held by a sense of responsibility;
pulled between the needs of heaven and earth?

This is an online scrapbook that I am keeping of my adventures with words.

My first attempt at writing, other than what passes for writing in scientific journals, was a memoir of Vietnam written in fragmentary "flashbacks," loosely coupled to form a unified whole, entitled Flashback, A Journey in Time. I then published a second collection of poems and short prose of contemporary interest entitled The Butterfly Girl.

Flashback would evolve into a memoir that was published by Royal Fireworks Press as Ghost Tracks. Here is a review from the Publisher's website:

Cover of Ghost Tracks - 7369In 1968 Mike Finn was a graduate student in physics who was drafted and sent with the Fourth Infantry Division to the Central Highlands of Vietnam. This book is a collection of flashbacks, which he has put in historical context and on which he has reflected for thirty years.

It offers vivid insight into what it was like to be there—the confusion and pain, the comradeship and fear, the beauty of the country, the characters of those he met and the sheer evil that is war. It is also a testimony to the men who knew the cause for which they fought was lost, who were largely abandoned to their fate, and yet most of whom comported themselves, in Finn’s words: “…with grace, dignity, valor and distinction."

Finn was first sent as a rifleman. He was later assigned to the Public Information Office and had the opportunity to travel to different units and view the operation on a wider front. After the American withdrawal he experienced with other veterans the public reaction: “So this is how it is to be.. first we are sent to die for other people’s mistakes, and then, when we return, we become the scapegoats for other people’s guilt.

It is a stunning, thoughtful and humane account.

Mike Finn is now a Professor of Physics at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.

I Sing of the People

I am a believer in the democratic process, which despite its flaws, offers the best hope for genuine progress. A just society is a tolerant one, balancing individual and societal needs. Personal freedom is important to me. I don't believe that human beings should be self-limiting in their interests. One cannot believe in democracy without having faith in the people. The following poem is a reflection of that faith. If you listen carefully, you will hear overtones of Lincoln, Sandberg, Whitman, and Martin Luther King.


There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise.
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?

—Carl Sandberg, 107 from The People, Yes

I sing of the people, the hardworking people, the fathers and mothers who sacrifice everything to make a better world for their children.

I sing of the people, the farmers, laborers, craftsmen, planners, builders, and captains of industry who built this country with their vision and labor.

I sing of the people, the teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers, policemen, lawyers, artists, writers, and poets who believed in the dream of America and helped make it come true.

I sing of the people, the maligned people, the poor people, the despised people, and the unfortunate people who have been left behind but who still believe that the dream can yet come true.

I sing of the first Americans who trekked over the land bridge from Asia. Crossing mountains of ice, they beheld the heart of a continent, big enough for the largest of dreams. They found the land to be good and made it their home.

I sing of the European settlers, yearning for freedom, who left everything behind but hope for a better life. Many died for this belief, but they kept the dream alive.

I sing of the African slaves, chained head to foot, they made the crossing to a new world. Unbroken in spirit, a new people would emerge out of darkness to witness a dream come true.

I sing of the immigrants from every land and race, speaking every tongue. They have heard that in America a man can dream a dream as large as he or she can imagine. They come to see for themselves if this still be true.

I offer a proposition: that this nation of, by, and for the people should not perish from this earth.

I dream of a people: waking up, stepping forward, and taking charge of their sacred trust.

I dream of a people no longer swayed by empty promises and no longer willing to be used to their disadvantage. A people who say: Enough, we will be fooled no longer. We are paying attention.

I dream of a people asking whether someone from among themselves might not do a better job of managing their affairs than those elites and demagogues who would lead them by the nose and fatten themselves at the people’s expense.

I dream of a people, young and old, saying: Here I am. Choose me, I will serve you well. I will put my people before my family, my friends, and even my great ambition. I will be true to my word, for I am rooted in the people.

I dream of a people who will accept responsibility for their destiny and who will govern themselves wisely, with malice towards none and justice for all.

We, the people, believe in this dream. Generation after generation, we renew our pledge to provide for the common good. We renew our faith with sweat and tears. Who can live without hope?

We are the people, a phenomenon of nature, as unfathomably silent as the eye of a storm, as unstoppable as a gale blowing through grasping hands. We are the hoof beats of wild mustangs pounding over the prairie sod in midsummer. We are a cleansing fire, consuming dead wood, briars, and brambles, preparing the land for new growth.

We are the people. We will not be ignored. We come to forge our destiny.

We are the people. We are the wind that flattens the corn in the fields. Who can withstand us?

[Adopted from The Butterfly Girl, John Michael Finn]

The Joiner Workshop Poems

In beginning this avocation, as a scientist with no formal training in the literary arts, I was fortunate to meet Kevin Bowen, Director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMASS-Boston. I had come across the Center's website while researching the Vietnam War, and on impulse decided to visit Kevin at the University of Massachusetts. Kevin told me of their Summer Writer's Workshop and encouraged me to attend. The training that I received there has proved invaluable to helping me find my voice. My instructors have included Lady Borton, Eva Burke, and John F. Deane, inspirational teachers all, as well as the many students of the workshop from whom I have drawn inspiration.

The Joiner Summer Writer's Workshop has been a productive environment for me. A large number of my poems began as ideas originating there. While attending the Workshop, I have stayed with my friends and relatives, Gary and Marita Magnant, and their three children. Here are three of my better poems from the 2002 workshop. They are featured in my second book, The Butterfly Girl .

Desert Crossing

The idea for Desert Crossing first came to me in 2002 on a trip to Santa Fe and Los Alamos. Viewing rain on the desert put me in mind of other trips and hikes into the mountains. John Deane encouraged me to put these ideas on paper. I wrote the initial version in one sitting, inspired by several glasses of Scotch and Irish whiskey, drunken in honor of John, whose own flask stood empty for the entire workshop. My bother-in-law Gary Magnant provided some key images that I incorporated into the second draft, which is basically what you see here.

Desert Crossing

-for Gary Magnant

part I: rain on the desert

There is rain on the desert
and, for a time,
the desert is green.

Thunderheads veil
the distant mountains,
soften them into a brooding presence.

wind-blasted stone formations
stir the imagination.

There is beauty here, but
it is a terrible beauty. Up close:
the struggle to survive.

The soil is thin. It crumbles,
blows away,
as I sift it though my hands.

Closed-off plants, shielded
with thick skin and forbidding thorns,
miser their water.

Do not touch me, they warn,
like the rattlesnake,
I bite.

I hear tell of a flower, which blossoms
but once a century, when the time is right.
Animals take on shapes,

forged by heat, fire, sand, and wind:
scorpions, tarantulas, creatures
that escaped from some ancient nightmare.

Things of more familiar shape remain:
jackrabbits, deer, and birds of prey,
all hunting for sustenance.

The air is clean in this far country,
the land swept bare, scoured
by storms of sand.

The night is fed with lonesome sounds:
coyote's bark, creak of ponderosa pine,
a whisper of bat wings.

The night air is fragrant
with scent of juniper berries
and the juice of their tight clusters.

I dream I am below ground
standing at the center of a kiva,
haunted by the resonance

of a courting flute.
A doe-eyed maiden comes,
gently leads me away.

part II: the deserted village

A two-days journey,
following a trail of vividly colored
Indian Paintbrushes,

brings me to the cliff dwellings, hewed
into the volcanic tuff of the plateau,
an uplift of an even older sea.

The history of this land can be read
in multi-hued layers of clay and sand,
cut through by the ancient riverbed.

I have seen this pattern before,
in the earth tone stripes of native pottery,
water vessels recollecting their origins.

It is quiet here, the stillness of a ghost town.
The adobe structures are empty; sounds
echo and drift away; the sky is close.

The pueblo is secure, difficult to attack,
given sufficient water,
a good place to settle.

From flat roofs, the stars
seem only an arm reach away.
But the people left long ago.

Whirling dust devils are the only spirits remaining
capable of touching the living.
Children once chased their wakes.

But they have no one to play with now.
They have been
abandoned by time.

part III: a crossing of ways

I follow the course of the canyon floor.
It is safe now; the danger
of flash flood has passed.

Short stubby trees grow
where there is water. Not much,
but enough to bubble over stone lips.

I stop at a branch in trails,
surprised by a doe and her fawn
moving parallel to me.

I stand aside;
let them pass in silence.
Watch, as they ignore my presence.

At the end of the ancient lava flows,
I find the Rio Grande,
glowing off in the distance.

Its mud flats curl in lazy
sinuous curves
across redbone desert.

I climb to a high place of solitude,
a flat shelf with shear drop
overlooking windswept plains.

I have come to journey's end.
Others have stood here before,
and viewed

the all-encompassing hoop
of the world, birthplace
of men and their gods.

Pictographs of sunbursts
and conquistadores' crosses
mark their passing.

Little more yet remains
to say who they were,
why they came.

I too leave my mark,
a star with nine circling planets,
so that later men will know

that I, at the beginning of this new age,
have also passed by,
and send my greetings into eternity.


Missy is a simple enough image of a homecoming to a warm and loving family. I am not quite sure if I have captured the magic of that moment..


Missy, in bare feet, slips
into the half lit room unannounced,
sliding into the curve of her husband's lap,
as he lays watching television.

She smiles as strong arms encircle
her waist, enjoying the excitement
of children throwing
themselves into her arms,

little one announcing,
I missed you Mommy.

The master

When it comes to poetry, John Deane is the master. John keeps on pushing me to make a stronger connection to the physical in my poetry. The underlying image of The Master is of a Tai Chi master that I knew, symbolically placed into the public setting of the Boston Common, a spot that I pass on the way to public poetry readings at St. Paul's Cathedral.

The Master

-for John F. Deane

In the public gardens, shrouded in fog
and brightened by the sounds
of the awakening city,

the master bows to a nearby squirrel
chewing on this year's
offering of acorns, then

stretching his arms like the branches
of an oak tree, deeply rooted
in rich black earth,

he pauses
before beginning his form,
set to the music

of his breathing:
expressionless, at peace,
centered, balanced,

every movement articulate,
surprising, certain,
subtle, gentle,

force hidden
in the dance,
thought and action

an organic whole,
space and time.

Sleepy eyed people,
going to work,
miss the miracle,

see only an old man,
in baggy pants,
loosening up.