May 2012


Space Hawk

Where the sphere of actuality
and the sphere of possibility turn
against each other, a winged creature

is flying through the Earth.
Broad rhythmic strokes
propel it through densities of stone

inward to the molten core.
Then, like a red-tailed hawk riding
a sudden thermal, it is buoyed outward,

erupting from the surface
into space, where it disappears
in a shimmer of exhilaration.

==

“Cosmic Bird” by Leo Osborne

This poem, which inspired a sculpture, is from my book Snail River—published in 1995 by the Quarterly Review of Literature Award Series, Princeton University. Leo Osborne created his sculpture in response to the poem, and it will be up for auction (together with a copy of the book with Leo’s drawing on the page with the poem), at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Washington. The event is scheduled for Saturday, June 16th—doors open and silent auction begins at 5 pm; live auction begins at 7:15 pm.

Osborne is a Guemes Island artist, and his sculpture reminds me that I wrote a poem inspired by a Philip McCracken painting––Phil is another long-time Guemes artist who, well before Leo arrived on Guemes, was well-known for his sculpture. Back when I first lived on the Island, it was in a rental house about three doors south of Phil and Anne McCracken’s house and art studio. That was the mid-eighties. One evening when I walked up the road to visit the McCrackens, I was enjoying the sound of frogs singing. I noticed that the frogs got louder as I approached the house. When I mentioned that phenomenon to Phil and Anne, they pointed to a small pond near the front door, and insisted that all frogs were quite welcome. Later Phil loaned me that painting titled “Frog Voices”—which, in a somewhat abstract manner, depicted the rising music of the frogs.

Frog Voices by Philip McCracken

I spent a number of evenings meditating on the painting. Then I wrote a poem which I titled “Frog Voices” in honor of the artwork it was interpreting. The McCrackens liked the poem very much, and Phil said he wanted me to keep his painting as a gift. The “Frog Voices” poem was soon to be published in my volume First Credo, 1986, which was the first of two books that were published in the Quarterly Review of Literature Contemporary Poetry Series.

Here is the poem:

Frog Voices

The swamp is silent.

Dawn’s slow voltage
reaches wild currant, and each twig,
each slim living rheostat
feeds light to the blossoms.

Then one by one open the gold
and green-flecked eyes of the frogs.

Over the distant Bering Sea,
over resting bowhead whales
and sea birds at roost,
a missile punctures the brilliance
of morning sky.

Shivering ponds of swamp water
harbor a grim reflection
as the projectile descends its chilling arc.

Suddenly the frogs begin.
Their voices rise,
feathery trebles, croaks and trills
all weaving a shield
of sound.

When the missile explodes
the blinding egg of fire is enclosed
by singing, then is repelled
into cold space
beyond the range
of song.

––For Philip McCracken

Poems by James Bertolino

Disappearing Lake
poems by Robert Sund

Thanks to poet Tim McNulty, I own, and am enjoying, a new book published by Pleasure Boat Studio in New York. The title is Notes from Disappearing Lake, and the subtitle is The River Journals of Robert Sund, edited by Tim and Glenn Hughes.

I knew Robert (you’d be wrong to call him Bob) back when he was still sometimes staying at his cabin on an estuary of the Skagit River, near La Conner, Washington in an area known as Fishtown. These journal entries are pretty much poems, and Sund has been widely praised, and recognized by key publishers, for his poetry. He is probably best known for his volumes Bunch Grass, 1969, University of Washington Press, Ish River, 1983, North Point Press, and Poems From Ish River Country: Collected Poems and Translations, 2004, Shoemaker & Hoard––which I used as a textbook when I was Writer in Residence at Willamette University, 2005-06, in Salem, Oregon. Robert died at age 72 in 2001, and that comprehensive volume was published posthumously.

However important his volumes have been, those who know and love Robert Sund’s poetry tend to treasure his limited edition chapbooks, which include As Though The Word Blue Had Been Dropped Into The Water, 1986, and Why I Am Singing For The Dancer, 1999—both published in hand-set letterpress editions by Rusty North at Sagittarius Press in Port Townsend, WA. His chapbook Shack Medicine, first published in 1990 by California’s Tangram Press in a letterpress printing, then reprinted in 1992 by The Poets’s House Press, is my own favorite of the smaller collections, and offers poems that are the most similar to those in Notes From Disappearing Lake. I should note that I found and was inspired by Sund’s first book Bunch Grass during my initial year as a graduate student, which was at Washington State University. WSU is in Pullman, at the eastern edge of the Palouse wheat-growing region––which is where the poems are rooted. I took the good news of his poetry to my students and colleagues when I transferred to Cornell University in 1971 to work on an MFA degree.

Here then are some samples of the poems in the 2012 volume Notes from Disappearing Lake:

December, 1976

Some men
reap their harvest daily,
     like ducks
     swimming about the bay as
          tide descends,
     gobbling water plants
     with feathery heads
          down under
          ripply water,
     never realizing
     their ass is skyward &
          open to the wind.

This poem is a fine example of some of Sund’s key characteristics as a poet: his detailed daily observations about the world around him, and his sense of humor. Also, like the majority of poems in this book, the poem carries the date it was composed.

He honored and learned from the great Chinese poets, and learned traditional calligraphy to enhance his own poems. He often embellished his poems with tiny drawings of mountain and island landscapes. Notes from Disappearing Lake opens with a reproduction of the calligraphy of a poem titled “October 12, 1973,” and it is punctuated by an image of mountains and an island watercourse.

In this next poem he not only identifies the date, but the time of day. He must have felt that composing a poem that early in the morning, the hour should be noted:

April 24, 1977   4 A.M.

In the excited mind
          words fly.

The night is still, the water still ––
          & suddenly, in the mind

(as on the night river
          a beaver
breaks the silence)

the first ripple of a poem
swims almost invisible by the river bank.

Blades of grass standing in the river
          feel the waves rise and
                    pass through them.

Here Sund finds an appropriate metaphor for his own poetic process, which implies that not only does he draw his inspiration from the environment, that environment physically experiences his poems. It should also be noted that he employed the ampersand (&) rather than the word “and”––in the process endowing his poems (even in print) with an aspect of calligraphy, as well as the minimalist clarity of the Chinese poetry he loved.

I will complete this gesture of appreciation for one of Washington State’s great poets, who had the grand good fortune to have studied with Theodore Roethke while a student at the University of Washington, with this beautiful observation:

July 20, 1985

After a hot day
     cool night comes––
          dark out in the marsh
     dark on the island.
In the nightwind the
     young shoots of willow
          cry against the windowglass,
               as the branches
               bend and
               spring back.

Event: Reading at Village Books Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 7pm with Tim McNulty
(All poems in this post by Robert Sund, from Notes from Disappearing Lake)
—James Bertolino
(www.jamesbertolino.com)