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