A TITLE OR A POEM OF ITS OWN?

I often delight in a phrase or term that takes on a life of its own, apart from a particular content or meaning. The poet Jack Spicer, drawing on his training as a linguist, was a master at this.

Overhearing one conversation recently, my mind’s eye took the Black Joker who met the Red Herrings on a Non-Tour in a much different direction. My choir buddies, Mike and Kate, knew who they were talking about, and where. It was all about Morris dancing. For me, though, it was pure magic on its own.

Words can, after all, exist in their own sound and space. How short can a poem be, anyway? I have a few that weigh in at one word apiece, while two or three words can make for a nice verbal dance.

The title of my newest poetry collection, Noble Blue Liberty, is one of those. Years ago, I warned the mother of three children I’d run with her lofty impression, and I have. Actually, the title could stand as a poem all its own.

I have similar feelings about some of my other recent releases.

~*~

Noble Blue Liberty
Noble Blue Liberty

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

BEWARE OF THE PROSPECTOR’S STAKE

Belying its penchant for right-wing political rhetoric, the American Far West subsists largely on federal government services and facilities. Many of these necessitate large tracts – spaces reserved for logging, prospecting, and mining; hunting and trapping; open livestock grazing; the collection, storage, and distribution of water for agricultural irrigation and for varied metropolitan usage; hydroelectric production; military field operations; Native American enclaves; recreation and tourism. A largely unpopulated Interstate highway system links far distances, again with federal subsidy.

The innate tension between collective action and freewheeling – even reckless – impulsiveness animates this collection. Just as spectacular panoramas more than intricate particulars dominate a Far West vision in my poems, contemporary actions are cast against a vaster background of ancient understanding. An uneasy interplay permits the game herds to thrive within modern society while also celebrating timeless hunting rituals and practices. Traditional Native American and science-based thought systems stand in sharp contrast as they probe conflicts of sexuality, family, and age. Patronizing bureaucratic language addresses urban side-effects arising as visitors swarm over public lands. Like trendy restaurants, national parks post “Reservations Required” notices. Even so, as other pieces attest, a resourceful person can still hazard boundless mountains, rivers and lakes, free range, and clouds looming in solitude and release. Just watch out for the prospector’s stake. He’s likely to shoot before asking questions.

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For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE ‘ANIMAL’?

The attraction to powerful animals is universal, a response to the mystery of who we are, as humans, as well. To perceive and honor their presence – in the wild, especially – places us within an ecological harmony and health.

But what characteristics essentially define animal life, as distinct from plants? The reliance on oxygen, rather than carbon dioxide, for one, and self-locomotion, for another. At our core existence, each of us may proclaim: “I breathe; therefore, I am.” Thought and emotion come only later. To inhale, moreover, sparks an associative leap – from air to spirit, with its dimensions of inspiration, literally, “breathing in.” Or God, breathing into the muddy nostrils of the first human in Eden.

In general, the animals in these poems move through places where I’ve lived or visited repeatedly – sometimes surfacing through Native stories, sometimes as chance encounters, sometimes by evidence they’ve left behind. (Once, while handling what I thought was a large, striated rock on a friend’s fireplace mantel, I was told it was a mastodon tooth he’d found on a mountain many years earlier.) Who will regard these creatures intently and not marvel at their distinct intelligence and grace? (Let me confess some others, not included here, defy any admiration I can muster; who has heard wondrous tales of garden slugs, for instance?)

Bears and whales – giants of the forest and ocean – appear early in this sequence, along with the sense of awe they instill. In her book, Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore, Nancy Lord argues, based on her own neighbors, “The bear is like us yet is not us. Perhaps the bear is our connection back to something lost and still treasured, another way of knowing. The bear is nature and culture, together.” The whale, on the other hand, reminds us of deep mysteries we may never penetrate and places we cannot venture unassisted.

We cross over from a commonplace understanding of animal – “pertaining to the physical rather than the spiritual nature of man; carnal; sensual; animal appetites” – and move instead into meetings in which the other creatures sometimes enlighten humans. Here, then, nature fits both the heart and fundamental qualities of each sentient mobile organism. Observe their movement closely, and periods of play and even unrestrained exuberance, as well as caring, become evident. The word nature itself arises in the concept of “giving birth” or “being born,” and easily extends to the working of natural law as well.

We will recognize that animal nature is always complex, and always holds more to discover – around and within us.

~*~

Bright Sweet Crude
Bright Sweet Crude

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

WITH CREATURELY COMFORT, TOO

Universally, people look to the larger animals – in some cases, not just as a food source but with recognition of greatness as well. Even the names of professional sports franchises reflect this reality. I believe the myths and tales of ancient peoples arise in this other way of knowing and soon lead us into an awareness of the abundant activity found in any healthy environment. In these poems are flashes from Amerindian, Biblical, and Buddhist voices – and hints that reach beyond my own observations in the American Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Eastern Seaboard, to touch Africa and Asia as well. Soon, even the smallest creatures we can see have a story, as do imaginary monsters, with their fabrication from living animals.

Sometimes we are affirmed and comforted by other creatures; at other times, vexed, as happens with household invaders. Some remind us of liberty and potential. Others produce essential food, hides, fabric, and more. Because each species requires specific and unique qualities for its environment, there’s no escaping an awareness of place, either. Particularities of water, air currents, soil and rock come into play, as do plants and fellow species.

In this alternative way of knowing, the dialogue turns from being simply about animals to our own interaction in their universe. Obviously, we have much to discover there, about ourselves as well as about them.

The brute – even the bestial human – may ultimately learn table manners that allow sharing in the feast of life.

Join in the circle of Bright Sweet Crude, my newest collection of poems.

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For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

REPLENISH THE EARTH, AS THE TEXT SAYS

We humans are remarkable animals, aware of our own existence and individual mortality as well as a corresponding, abiding loss. In the Garden of Eden’s articulation of this condition, freedom to act and personal knowledge impose a profound separation from others. Our relationships with each other and our social dealings are complex and often troubling, indeed – paralleling, it seems, our connections to other animals and the planet itself. Too often in practice, humans translate the subdue of Genesis 1:28 – “replenish the earth, and subdue it” – in a modern domination-based concept of “vanquish” or “conquer,” rather than in its ancient comprehension as “taming,” “softening,” and “bringing culture” (“enlightenment” as well as “learning”) to the land and all that dwell in it.

The poems in my Bright Sweet Crude collection explore encounters that cross over from a common understanding of animal – “pertaining to the physical rather than the spiritual nature of man; carnal; sensual; animal appetites” – and move instead into meetings that at times even allow non-human creatures to enlighten people. Here, then, nature fits both the heart and essential quality of each sentient living organism. The brute – even the bestial human – ultimately learns table manners to share the feast.

People commonly are affirmed and comforted by the presence of other creatures, as well as vexed, as happens with a range of household invaders. From the sighting of daily turtles to sporadic deer and elk and American bald eagles  to nearly microscopic red mites, my poems have celebrated an attentive range. American aborigine perspectives surface, starting with an annual cycle of sojourning for food before moving into mythopoeic rootstock. In this balance, large mammals have a special place – whales and bears, especially. Even animal humor arises in this kinship.

In human/non-human marriage this concept of kinship is most fully expressed. A variation of the story behind “After the Fact,” by the way, takes shape as a voluntary marriage in Gary Snyder’s “This Poem Is for Bear,” while Nancy Lord (Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore) presents another rendering and then comments: “Cultural interpretations of this story point out the significance of its beginning – the slipping [on bear scat] and swearing. The bear took the woman from her people because she insulted him. She showed disrespect for a fellow creature – in this case a particularly powerful one – and for this it was her fate to be parted from her people. … In the end, when so many have been killed, the story again emphasizes the consequences of breaking taboo and the fragility of relationships between people and animals. It’s … fearsome and cautionary.” Sometimes it’s a matter of which taboo or which relationship one wishes to emphasize.

Or, as I once remarked, “Each summer bears sit on blueberry bushes as they pluck meals beside Contention Pond. Days later, the flattened shrubs tell me who’s been visiting with the Quakers.”

Here, then, Bright Sweet Crude celebrates moments when the intimacy resumes, one way or another.

~*~

Bright Sweet Crude
Bright Sweet Crude

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

IN DEFENSE OF FELLOW CRITTERS

Once, after a public reading of pieces from my In a Heartbeat chapbook, I was left sputtering in reaction to a question, “What made you write poems about animals?” The reasons, I thought, should have been obvious, especially to someone who’s embraced Buddhist teaching. I didn’t know where to start. How could I even discuss an incredible weeklong conference I’d once attended, the Power of Animals, hosted by Copper Canyon Press at Fort Warden in Port Townsend, Washington, with Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez, Howard Norman, and David Lee among its luminaries?

I’d had a similar reaction to a quarterly editor who dismissed five of my elk poems as “disgusting” paeans to hunting in her rejection. I still think she missed the point, as you can determine for yourself in Elk Matter, the opening section of my new collection, Bright Sweet Crude.

Nearly eradicated from the wilderness of the Cascade Range, elk have returned in force, an emblem of a restored ecological balance in which hunters, as conservationists, did indeed play a crucial role. The ones I knew, for the record, were anything but gun-toting fanatics.

Typically, when you first enter a forest, you see very few animals. Maybe a squirrel or two in the shadows, and then flitting birds. It’s mosquitoes or other insects, mostly. You might as well be looking for fish. Even in a desert, where the range is wide open, this happens. Pay attention, though, and they appear, albeit largely second-hand – a snap or cracking branch, the cry of a blue jay or crow, the high-pitched exuberance of peepers in spring, the work of beavers, a feather on the trail, a tuft of fur caught in a snag, the small tunnel opening of a den, a pile of bone, a curl of snakeskin. Tracks and scats, especially. To say nothing of roadkill, along the highway.

Thus it was in my initial forays into the high country west of Yakima, where I was puzzled by deer-like pellets and tracks everywhere in the undergrowth. In time, I learned how widespread elk had become again, after being decimated a century earlier – and how crucial hunting and fishing organizations were to the conservation efforts. Although I neither hunt nor fish, I came to respect those who do so with a sense of humility and admiration. At the office, especially, Jim Gosney and Wayne Klingle told of intimate encounters in the field, while others, speaking of the occasions when they’d eaten the meat, could have been describing a sacramental meal. Heard their derision and disgust, too, regarding others who come only for slaughter. Heard, too, that the best places to observe elk were at the back of the Rez, south of town – an area off-limits to all but tribal members and their guests.

That understanding was only a small step from timeless Amerindian lore, the insights and practices arising where survival or death hung in the balance. Even before my move west, I had begun running across these stories, however haphazardly; by now, the Native American myths directly touched me in ways I found more compelling than the Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies that fill so much of our literature. More pressing, in fact, than the Hindu and Buddhist stories I’d devoured before heading west. My poems “If a Man Goes Wild” and “True Practice” both draw on this trove, even if some poetic license is applied; besides, the stories themselves no doubt become varied as they pass from one locality and time to another. Here, though, the animals are no longer inferior creatures but can speak and interact in equality with humans.

From this perspective, whether we’re considering elk, moose, or bear, the reappearance of large wildlife expresses not only a healthy forest or range, but a healthy society as well. I cannot think of elk without also thinking of what’s been lost and is being lost from the North American continent. Recently, returning to my native Ohio in winter, I looked across the shorn corn and soybean fields and realized how impossible it is to imagine the endless forest my ancestors entered, when elk and wolves and Indians were still present – nor the ecological catastrophes that followed in their first years after.

For me, elk are an emblem of what I learned living in the foothills of central Washington state. Here, then, are moments when the intimacy resumes, one way or another. Elk matter, indeed.

~*~

For these poems and more, click here

RUNNING IN A NAME

How can you not appreciate the way the word flows on the teeth and tongue and along the lips?

Given its name, Oyster River, in the Lenape tongue for the profusion at its mouth in Chesapeake Bay, the word ripples and sings.

Upstream, where I lived, a different name would have been fitting but, I’ll presume, no more beautiful.

Susquehanna 1~*~

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