Two Desert Poems

Sonny Liston Considers The Ways Of Vanity From Heaven

 

Anna’s hummingbird

on a barrel cactus thorn:

his chest thrust out as if

he is sucking up all the oxygen

in the Universe.

 

He takes off buzzing like

a fighter plane stooping

out of the sun, proud

as Cassius Clay pounding me down

February 25, 1964…

Was that his vanity making

him do all that,

taunting me as he gave me that whooping

calling me a “big ugly bear?”

My mother raised 21 children,

and Ali finally died of Parkinson’s disease

didn’t he?

That didn’t end in vanity

did it?

 

I wonder now if beautiful creatures

inadvertently take the way of vanity

as I did in my life

flirting with pretty girls

in Casinos

acting as if I’ve read some

some book or another when

I’d only glanced at

the back flap

and

sometimes,

diving off

from a tall cactus plant

to challenge some tough opponent

finding nothing but my own reflection

in that flat, hard glass

right before everything

went silent.


Palm Canyon, after the rains.

Palm Canyon, after the rains.

Write here…

In A World Gone Generous (For my sisters Mary and Pam)

 

the adults settle in while the children fuss,

or stare straight ahead until they wiggle

into their dream worlds

waiting for the first words.

 

And the first words have always been:

“Dearly Beloved”

spoken to the children and friends,

spoken  to the spirits

who wander the shade,

lest we forget

that this was once 

an inhospitable country.

 

A thousand years ago

on this spot

were stones as hot as skillets

and fresh water as rare as an arrowhead

scuffed up from the dirt.

Those first people,

the Chumash and the Cahuillas  (ka wee yas)

are walking past us now

still desolate with thirst

and struck dumb in disbelief

at just how much there is

right here

right now. 

 

In the shade too, are those who

once loomed large in our lives

and didn’t understand us then.

They stand just out of sight,

their sun dazzled eyes seeking ours

knowing there is no currency

to their apologies.  

 

Dearly Beloved

when you spread your mud cloth on the sand

those thirty years ago

you would have no way of knowing

this day was waiting for you,

with troubled marriages

troubled children

troubled times

to live through.

 

But now

in your seventieth years

you are victorious

in the love

as perfectly suited to this earth

as rain

or cactus flowers

or your grandchildren

fidgeting to play

with the ghosts of the Cahuillia

children passing through. 

 

Those who didn’t understand you then

have no power over you now.

No referendum, no

law can change the reality

they are no longer a part of,

this is why their inconstant forms

shift from foot to foot

silently both wanting

and not wanting to come in.

And though they are not forgiven

we can if we wish, 

welcome them to take their place

in a new world made generous 

by this blessed shade

by this blessed company

and by your well deserved

and honest love.

 

 

 


Two Marys And A Rant

Frost lasts all day on the grass.  The daylight is lengthening into the afternoon and the sunsets have been long scarlet smeasr across the horizon, brightening up the world at the last seconds of the day.  Frost on the side of the road and yet I’ve been riding my bicycle into town.

 Today I got word that Mary Randlett an old family friend and artistic inspiration died at ninety four and so too, the poet Mary Oliver.  Mary Randlett was a northwest photographer who lived next door to my childhood home and I’ve written about her and her kids before.  She has many books and can be found in most northwest libraries.  If you see black and white landscape photographs that capture wet beach sand patterns, or rhythmic patterns of clouds shredding through dark forests, whether knowingly or not the photographer was drawing inspiration from Mary Randlett. 

 Mary Oliver of course was known as a spiritual poet who used nature as her muse.  More than almost any other modern poet her words were treasured by readers, kept on walls, above desks or next to beds as needed medicine when spirits sagged.  I only met her once for a week long symposium here in Sitka.  She struck me as a flinty New Englander, wearing her old sweatshirt and camp shoes with that certain flair, sweatshirt over a pressed cotton shirt.  She still smoked unfiltered cigarettes back then and she didn’t suffer fools.  She loved her, and her female partner’s privacy, and didn’t really want to be any movement’s poster child.  Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me.  I’m not claiming to know her well. 

The view from my desk. Four o’clock pm.

The view from my desk. Four o’clock pm.

 I think these two Marys had something in common.   They grew up at a time when women were expected to be ladylike and they weren’t particularly suited to it.  They were more comfortable out in the brush, with muddy dogs, flopping out ahead and a notebook or a camera in hand.  They didn’t mind getting dirty and were happy eating whatever was in the refrigerator when they got home and getting down to work.  They loved the “warm animal of their bodies” and other people’s opinions about art or religion could rile them or infuriate them, but opinions about their manners or appearance or their “lifestyle” I don’t think they gave a fig about.  I knew Mary Randlett in the very early sixties remember.  I was young, but even then when she would take me sailing and strip down to her underwear and halter top in the tiny boat and scream “come about sailor” as canvas would fly and rattle… even at seven years old, I knew she was a different kind of adult. 

 If you are interested you can find Mary Oliver’s New York Times eulogy

here:

 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/obituaries/mary-oliver-dead.html?emc=edit_ne_20190117&nl=evening-briefing&nlid=4331107220190117&te=1

 Which… I think most of her readers will find condescending if not down right snotty.  Okay… that’s not fair… I found it condescending and snotty.  They described Mary Oliver’s work as having “a pedagogical if not homilectic quality… and because of its brevity found its way to having a broad audience… frequently being quoted by clergy.”  Then the writer refers to Bookscan numbers, indicting Oliver for the crime of selling a lot of books (along with Billy Collins)

 By the way, I am not opposed to difficult, or obscure words, in either reviews or poetry but not when the difficult or obscure word is not the appropriate word to use. I don’t think anyone who was approaching Mary Oliver’s work with an open mind would describe her work as “pedagogical or homilectic” unless they were just plainly trying to act superior.  Oliver loved to be direct and yes she came from a Christian background and she was making parallels between her experiences out in the woods with certain sacred or illuminating experiences that are referenced in homilies (the root of the word homilectic as I found when I looked it up.)  But using the twenty dollar word particularly at a time when her readers are grieving and going to her obituary is insulting to the spirit of Oliver’s work. 

 And yes… okay I’m ranting now… Oliver did want to teach us something about the world, (“pedagogical”) and yes… it had a religious theme.  But she did it so gently and generously.  She knew who she was writing for, she wasn’t some flower-child celebrity, she wasn’t Jewel, for Christ sake, she had great skill and she communicated her passion for the world she saw and loved clearly.  She gave her lessons generously, and you could take them or leave them and lots of people took them.  She could have hidden behind her vocabulary and her technique but she didn’t and I think she was brave in that, AND I hate to see the New York Times take one last fucking piss on her (and more importantly on her readers) in her obituary.

 Also… I like Jewel. I just think Mary Oliver was a way better poet, (Jewel a way better singer and guitar player) and I will stand on any Bar in Alaska and make that argument to all comers.

 Okay…  That’s it.  I will probably regret that… but…I’m an Alaskan and I spend too much time alone. 

 I have not seen Mary Randletts obit.  But I expect it will be more celebratory and more kind.  At least I hope so. 

I hope you all are well. 

 

Cherry tree, winter

with frost covering the ground.

Our hearts are fragile.

 

jhs

CHERRY TREE IN WINTER

After a storm blew through the sky cleared and the temperature warmed up.  The wind shredded what few leaves had remained on the trees. The storm also tipped quite a few garbage cans along the road so the ravens and crows had quite a holiday, as the wind created a carnival theme with the plastic bags and soggy coffee filters in the trees or flattened half filled bread bags out on the pavement.  Most of the bears have snuggled down in their dens up high but if it warms up enough they might stumble down all drowsy to feed on the orange peels and apple cores along the roadside.

 Jan went out in her skiff yesterday when the wind was blowing from the east to put out a recording buoy in the lee of the island to record the songs of the male whales still hanging out in the Sound.  It’s possible the feed has been so thin this summer that more whales might want to stay in Alaskan waters rather than spend the energy to swim to the Hawaiian breeding grounds where there is very little or no feed.   But the urge to go to warm weather is strong and whether wise or not they will often go.  This may be why the calf rate is down and the whales are dangerously thin in the spring. 

 All the while we charge ahead toward the Solstice.  Soon enough the earth will tip the other way and we will gather more of the sun’s light here in the Northern Hemisphere a few minutes each day.  I look out at the cherry tree and I can imagine it aching for warmth, for the sap to begin to flow and the increase of sunlight to begin the regeneration of leaves. 

Cherry tree out my window at four thirty pm.

Cherry tree out my window at four thirty pm.

 But of course I’m projecting. I forget that there are places where people revel in winter’s arrival. Where white snow against the blue sky is a joyful time of year. The time of sledding and skiing, fires in the stove and cooking meat in the pot, bread dough rising.  Hunters returning with their sleds: mechanized or pulled by animals.  For these people the early days of Spring or “Mud Season” is a somber, depressing time of year, when the crusty snow melts down into muddy ruts and the trails bog down and for several weeks it’s not good for travel by any mode of transportation, and then the bugs hatch.

 But summer will come with travel on the river and the fish charging up the current.

 My doctor tells me that I have done pretty well this year with health kick 2018.  The various medications I take are doing their jobs.  My numbers are good, weight and blood pressure are okay, but I may have to travel out of state for mental health treatment.  Something called “trans-cranial electromagnetic stimulation,” which is what they do nowadays instead of electroshock therapy for difficult to treat depression.  Apparently, I am a little like this cherry tree in winter, I appear to be losing my life force…I yearn for it but I have none in reserve. 

 This is different than having nothing to live for.  I have a lot to live for: Jan and Finn, my work, and all the beauty in the world, the books I haven’t read yet, the music I have not heard.  I want to live.  But there is a melancholy that inhabits me as if I have been left out in the cold somehow which robs me, sometimes… during my low periods …to have hope in the return of Spring.  My medication keeps me alive and awake, but nothing more.

 Millions of people suffer from this same thing and millions of people treat it in various ways: diet and exercise, meditation, philosophy, religion, healthy patterns of social interaction, unhealthy patterns of interaction, service to community.  I have tried all of these things and find them all useful but the older I become I find the power of the Cold and Darkness as I’m calling it here, to be coming stronger every day.

 I often think about narcissism and the role that plays in the disease. Like alcoholism, depression may be caused by a neurological programming problem in the sense of self… or the ego.  I have gone to Church and pursued “giving my self to a higher power”.  I have found that living for others, and giving gifts is quite useful in breaking out of the crushing lows.  Meditation and exercise that drives the ego out of the focus of the mind clearly helps.  Gift giving that expects nothing in response, is quite useful as long as it doesn’t resort to the manic. The poet Theodore Roethke used to mail a gross of golf balls to the Pope and to President Kennedy when he was in a manic high. 

 Lucky for me I am not bi-polar.  I just have the lows. “Intractable, treatment resistant, unipolar depression” is what my psychiatrist calls it.  “Just pull up your fucking socks!”  is how my Father described it.

 And before we start in on my poor father.  He was a good man.  He was an alcoholic but he did that to self medicate for his own depression.  He was hospitalized when he woke up in his early forties and he couldn’t stop crying.  When he came home I remember he sat in front of the windows of our house with a drink in his hand for hours at a time and just stared out at the garden. 

 But he was never violent.  He said some terrible things, but he loved us and was very clever and funny almost always. My mom drank too much and was maudlin when she did, but she had a genius level IQ and read two or three books a week.  I think my dad was intimidated by her intelligence and he loved her dearly until the day he died.  Beside some verbal cruelty I never suffered any real abuse. I was lucky and had a mostly productive life with a wonderful education. We were rich in our little world, but my father suffered from genuinely debilitating depression.  I believe my grandfather did too, and my great grandfather committed suicide. I know much less of the stories of the women in my family, who bore their burdens in silence as so many did. So, how much of my depression did I inherit and how much is situational: Jan’s illness, my losing my eyesight, the loss of friends and normal foolishness of life?  I don’t know.  Other people suffer much more than I do. Hundreds of millions of others…  but the fact that I don’t live in Yemen or am not a twelve year old boy soldier during the Civil war at Shilo,  doesn’t really help me when I’m standing on a bridge in Juneau on a cold and windy night thinking how much better it would be to kill myself away from home so Jan wouldn’t have to deal with the body.

 But I won’t kill myself.  It is murder.  Even if it weren’t me, I would never kill Jan’s husband, or Finn’s father.  I wouldn’t kill Nels’s, or Terrence’s friend.  I wouldn’t even kill Katrina’s former friend, the man she won’t speak with anymore.  I wouldn’t do that to them, because it’s selfish beyond words, and even if I am a narcissistic prick, I’m not a murderer.

 But I am a writer, and I find explaining things to be a comfort.  I had a friend who went to hear the Irish writer Ken Bruen read in New York once and someone asked him, “Your books are pretty depressing, why is that?” and Ken Bruen said, “You think I’m depressing, you should read this guy from Alaska, John Straley, Jesus, talk about depressing!” 

 So… everyone has a voice I suppose, I thought I’d come clean about it a little today, besides I don’t think my books are THAT depressing. 

 


In this grey world 

        the frozen cherry tree

 dares not bend.

 

 jhs

 

NOTES FROM OUR RECENT TRAVELS

Oahu Hawaii, Waikiki Beach

 Seventy-seven degrees in the direct sun with perhaps a five knot north wind blowing from the South here, the direction is uncertain in the canyon lands of the giant hotels. 

 We are staying in an old Japanese hotel where we have stayed before, it is two stories and about sixty rooms surrounding a swimming pool, on Beachwalk drive.  It caters to Japanese tourists, the rooms are simple and clean.  One building has traditional Japanese style rooms with rattan mats only and no shoes,  staff waters the rock garden from wooden buckets and wooden ladles.  The office has no walls and is open twenty-four hours where you leave your metal key with the kind woman whenever you leave.  The motel cat has a long leash and lounges by the pool.  Beyond the hotel, the whoosh of traffic mingles with the sound of the ocean.  Birdsong blends with backup horns and sirens, it is not silent but it is serene in this little oasis.  Each room has tropical flowers in bloom by the door, patrons sun themselves in the day, and in the evening bring their ice buckets with a cooling bottle of wine to enjoy as the night sounds of speeding motorcycles rise with the moon.  Last night we drank a wonderful bottle of sake I had never tried before which was recommended to us in the little café tucked behind the pool.  The wine list suggested that it was recommended, “for drinking over a long period of time,” and we found that to be true.

 Jan is here for a meeting of North Pacific researchers to discuss the declining numbers of Humpback Whales in the Alaska-Hawaii stock.  These are the whales that feed in Alaska and breed in Hawaii.  If you see a whale in Alaskan waters there is a ninety-five percent chance that whale is part of that genetic stock.  Scientists believe that mothers teach their offspring where to go to feed and breed.  In the last five years or so Jan and her colleagues who keep track of these things noticed they were seeing far fewer moms and calves coming back in the spring.  They also noticed lots more really skinny whales.  Then they started noticing whales who seemed both skinny and seemed to be carrying more parasites, then old friends they had seen year after year stopped showing up in Alaska, then lower numbers.  How much lower?  That’s what this meeting is about.  What is going on?  Getting a picture of a population is like a bunch of blind men getting a good description of an elephant… or a whale for that matter.  It’s a big picture.  Our home town seemingly has a lot of whales… but we also have a lot of herring.  Other places that used to have a lot of whales, have no whales.  Whales are gathering where there is food.  Of course.  They have always done that.  Is this another crisis caused by global warming?  The blob of warm water, ocean acidification?  Advocates of their own political cause want to shout out “Of course… Yes, Yes,” but really it’s hard to say and it needs to be studied carefully because to shout out one certain cause and have it proved wrong does a disservice to the whole process of science in this day and age of skepticism.  Particularly in this time when everybody wants to wrap science into our make believe political rhetoric so that science will serve the purpose of the energy extractors exclusively. If there is one thing I’ve noticed as a plus one in the scientific world, it is that good science is deliberate and slow and it only serves itself.

 I am thankful that there are good field biologists out there who monitor changes in the world, who can sound the alarm to convene meetings such as these to make sure that attention can be paid while there is still time to act.

 This trip we packed for Anchorage where I taught a class and gave a reading at a new place called the Writers Block which was a welcoming space in Anchorage.  I taught a class through 49 writers on working on a book length project and getting it positioned for publication.  I tried to stay away from the usual clichés but the hardest part of writing a book is actually sitting down and writing it. There is just no getting away from that, and the only way of making it any good is in the revision.  The only secrete to publishing is in creating something that other people want to read.  It sounds straightforward but nothing in that is easy. The mind lays traps for the writer all the time.  Reading and understanding how books work is a great gift, but not if it cows you into submission.  If you are afraid of sounding like some other writer then you can barely begin using sentences at all.  Writing what you know, of course is great advice but not if you are petrified that someone is going to recognize them selves in your book.  Writing an important history is worthy goal but not if you are paralyzed by the inability to make every single detail exactly accurate.  History like science relies on peer review.  How can I say this?  A lot of getting a first draft done is learning how to let go and explore your research and what you already know.  Revision is about relaxing and making it better and better every day.

 The next stop was northern California where the fires were burning until the rains started the day before Thanksgiving.  We stayed with good friends for two nights then went to our son’s future in- laws for Thanksgiving dinner in the hills above Monterrey.  It is beautiful country and when the rain fell it felt like the whole state breathed a sigh of relief. Where we were the air was amazingly fragrant: rain on dry sage, and lavender.  Songbirds I could not identify.  Finn is going to marry a beautiful and smart woman from a very emotionally available family.  They were so kind and generous to us.  I come from a family of mostly alcoholic smart alecks who thought we were each one funnier than the next, I couldn’t believe how kind and sincere her family was to us.  I didn’t make a single crass joke all weekend.  The food her parents made was spectacular and the love vibe was sincere and not at all too sweet.  Jan and I were so happy that our cheeks hurt when we left. 

 Now Hawaii.  We stopped at the Goodwill surplus store and all four of us bought all new beach wear and swim suits for seventeen bucks total.  Then to the hotel.  Jan has talked about living in Hawaii, but we have become too Alaskan I think.  My vision is too bad for the traffic and I love the local culture there but I’m afraid we are too old to assimilate at this point, also there are just too many cars. The heat does not agree with Jan’s Parkinson’s disease, and the real estate prices can’t compete with what we have in Sitka. But still, in the morning when the birds are coming awake and the swell is smooth, I would love to get to the break as the sun rises and surf some sets before the day goes crazy.  I would be happy to swim in those inland rivers and listen to those raucous birds and feel that warm sun bake into my bones, then to cool off one more time at sunset as life calms down before supper.  I would love to get into the rhythm of this place just one more time before I die. 

 Waikiki morning:

the early cardinal singing

before tourists rise.

 

 

 jhs

 

FINDING THE NEW BETWEEN THE YAWP AND THE GNOME

Home and the rain has been falling hard off and on for days, with some sucker holes of blue sky sweeping through.  There are a few leaves on the cherry tree and there is only one red plastic chair out on the point but it blew over days ago.  I’m still using the outdoor shower in the morning and it is wonderful standing in the widening cone of warm water surrounded by the sky of rain falling through the grey-green world.

I have been home reading crime novels I picked up on my travels.  I have loved learning about the dark world of crime in southern Italy in Black Souls, and the wonderfully comic and mysterious world of Laos in Don’t Eat Me.  I also bought an unabridged Leaves of Grass which was illustrated by Rockwell Kent which is lovely.  Now I’m reading Commonwealth by Ann Patchett for a book club that I’ve been invited to in California at Thanksgiving, the Patchett is a nice change of place after Black Souls and I have to admit for the first few pages of her novel I was waiting for a vendetta beheading… that never came.  So I just relaxed into a brilliant and civilized story. 

th.jpeg

 During the days looking out on the water I’ve been thinking about how much I love Rockwell Kent’s art, particularly his illustrations he supplies to literature.  He always seems to raise up the text and never just makes a cartoon of it.  Kent was an artist who came to Alaska in 1918 and seemed to be infected by wilderness.  Like Melville he had a very light hand on the thread of wonder.  He never tried to truss up the subject of “wilderness” and and throw it in his luggage to take home.  He knew the thread would break.  Kent became famous for among, other things the art work he supplied for several portfolio editions of Moby Dick , also his book put together from his diary of his year living on Fox Island at the mouth of Resurrection Bay with his young son.  The book was entitled Wilderness and he also put together a classic Christmas story of their only Christmas together there on the island. That book is almost as resonant as A Child’s Christmas in Wales for most Alaskans.  It’s a beautiful book that truly evokes life living rough in maritime Alaska.

 Kent is sometimes compared to Whitman and Melville for their experience of a kind of spiritual and sensual ecstasy while confronting the wild forces of nature.  I read an essay once by Robert Bly talking about the two poles of American poetry being represented by Walt Whitman’s vigor and Emily Dickinson’s reticence, something between the ecstatic “Yawp” of Whitman and the “gnomic scholarship” of Dickinson, as Emily Dickinson signed all her personal letters in later years as “Your Gnome,” or “Your Scholar.”

 There is a world of sensuality that lies between these two poles. In his own work, Kent threw himself into the storm.  He lavished himself in the wild and the sensual, like Melville, like Whitman, but when he applied his work to these other artists work, he did not illustrate, he simply alluded to their own passions for to illustrate would have been too much. Think of Whitman’s Song of Myself where he reaches near ecstasy as he celebrates the human body, or Melville where he describes the whalemen flensing then bucketing the spermaceti from melon of the great Sperm Whale. These are sensual declarations.  Then take a look on the end papers of Rockwell Kent’s edition of Wilderness. See the figure of the naked man flying above the sea as the compass rose, and notice his shadow emerging from the shore.  He most likely drew this image a hundred years ago as men died by the thousands in muddy trenches in France. Here was the dawning of the age that gave birth to existentialism and the death of hope… but to Rockwell Kent here it was, the man in ecstasy, to add any more would have run afoul of the law, surely in 1922 when the book was published. The free man, in perfect living ecstasy.

 American art has always had a tug of war going between the head and the heart; between the mind and the body. Which one directs us, and where does the compass swing true?  I suppose this is what keeps the artist busy.

 As winter comes, I have chores ahead.  I will need to do my editor’s revisions on What Is Time To A Pig. I have been waiting for those, and I am beginning to write the next Cecil book.  I have been thinking a lot about how to balance out my head and my heart.

 I remember sitting on a bed in a hotel once talking to a friend during a writers conference,  I remember saying that writing well should be both as easy and as hard as maintaining a close friendship.  There needs to be a rock steady commitment to the principle of the friendship and at the same time there needs to be restraint… a freedom for the friends to grow and change. In writing it is a commitment to the story and a light touch to let the story change and grow.

 In America… some stories break your heart.  Colonialism.  Slavery. Industrial Capitalism,  Numbing materialism,  Some of these plot twists have no good outcomes.  Some stories just break your heart and cause us to go back, and back and back to old ones that overwork old tropes so that old friends start to disappoint.  Some old stories are just too sad.  And some new stories are built on things yet unfounded in these tentative times.

This is why we must keep looking for the new and the hopeful… or stop trying.  This is why courage remains the most important tool in a writer’s kit.  Courage to look unflinchingly.  Melville clearly had it to write his masterpiece that went unappreciated his entire life: a long complex story where the allegory goes unexplained.  No one ever explains what the White Whale really represents.  That’s what makes that book so perfect.  It is something that is emotionally so true, and intellectually so illusive.  Rockwell Kent had courage as well not to give in to the plain or the literal.  Figures floated above the landscape like magic, just as I imagine his heart must have felt.

 As the rain continues to fall, I keep making notes. I miss my old friends, but I can’t ask too much of them.  The rain continues to fall and I look for the new under the old slick leaves and in the new books that pile up on my bedside, and the old books that I can always read more carefully.

 Love, and friendship… must replenish the spirit.  But so too…I must have faith that in the dark night that seems completely empty of stars, or of rescue, there must be that next new idea which must surely come. 

 

Crows land

and dance on the yellow grass

while I kiss your neck

at the sink.

 

 

jhs

 

La Familia, The Palouse

I am mesmerized by the Palouse country of southeastern Washington and western Idaho. The winter wheat fields’ stretch for miles and read like the hips of reclining figures to the eye.  Some of the lines are chocolate brown of the fertile soil and some are golden with the straw of the old wheat stalks. In mid summer they will be green waves. There are great rounds of hay and alfalfa with their monstrous irrigation pivot systems running on wheels defining the landscape into great circles from the air.  Corporate farming has made it a lonely country now.  Very few homes with the traditional cotton woods and lilac trees around the kitchen windows, those places have either fallen to a shambles of grey boards to become the home of bees or have been bulldozed to make way for pole and metal structures for servicing giant machines.  The little working towns are dusty and the ones that hang on are homes to part stores and mechanics.  The water towers rarely have graffiti from the local football team, for those kids ride the bus to the larger towns now, where the Banks have their headquarters and the truck dealerships share a corner with the John Deere representatives. The biggest towns are Pullman and Moscow and both are University Towns, which used to be big Ag, schools and still have programs but fewer and  fewer people need apply,  now they need to repair the computers and machines that determine what big farming is all about.

palouse_mudflat.jpg

I won’t get into if this is a good way to go.  I’m not smart enough in how to feed a planet or if we should be feeding a planet or helping a planet feed itself. I just know that I have a romantic and a philosophical kinship with the notion that people working together on farms where they live for generations impart a certain stewardship and responsibility to both the land and the larger community of their customers and the smaller community of their neighbors.  But I also know that those small farmers often had hellishly hard lives and did not engender generous or literate values upon their families at times and places in the past.  Read a discussion between Wendell Barry and Mary Clearman Blew to get both sides of the supposed pastoral life.

palouse_lightdark.jpg

What do I know? I come from a steep-sided rain forest?  This flat dry country is exotic and beautiful to me.  I love driving through it.  I love the brick buildings of its towns and the husky portions and the burgers they put on the plates.  I’m just grateful to be here.

The reading in Seattle was fun.  Lots of family came and definitely outnumbered the unsuspecting customers who wandered in out of curiosity to see me.  An older couple from Alaska had a great time, and acted like an Amen chorus, saying “That’s right… that’s just right!” aloud as I read particular lines describing home, which I quite enjoyed. (I’ve always wanted to be a preacher about Alaska)  Two women who I knew as quite a small child came.  Ann Randlett and I were friends when I was about six years old.  I spent many hours at her house next door when we lived in Woodway Park north of Seattle.  She brought Chris Wright who came from a big family of girls and the Wrights were close friends of our family.  At the reading I introduced her to my sister as “Chrissie Wright” and my sister Martha gasped in wonderment.  Chris said,  “No one has called me Chrissy for probably forty years, and her eyes teared up a bit saying that her father had passed away in the last year or so, and thinking of her old life sometimes made her cry.  She turned to me.  “No… I like it.  I like that you called me Chrissie.” 

 Family has a hold on us. Always and in unexpected ways.

 We broke up early and I went to my sister’s house.  Their children were home for a rare visit.  Their son and his long time girl friend both accomplished artists in New York and Paris, their daughter pursuing her Ph.D. in biology at Oregon State. They were all home. We had a lovely time talking about painting, ecology and poetry, my sister and her husband were happy, with that warm feeling I remember from long ago when my four siblings came home from their colleges at Christmas and my father ran the dinner table as if it were a symposium.  Except this feeling was all love, loose and funny where anything could be said.  My father was much more formal and often wanted to make sure he was getting his money’s worth.  Or so it seems now, and I might not being fair.  I know he loved having us home and certainly our mother did. 

 But the night after my reading I was honored to be in my sister’s house with her smart children wrapped in that feeling of familial love.  Pride. Honest accomplishment.  Again, I’m lucky to be driving across hundreds of miles of lonely country to give a reading where who knows who might show up or not.  I’m lucky to have their love to travel with me.  This is the support a writer needs to give them courage, from a actual family… or a family of choice… this intimacy, this love of long meandering conversations of different disciplines… this does more for creativity than the McCarthur Foundation.  I’m sure of it.

In golden stubble

one male pheasant beats his wings

then glides… silently.

 

jhs

palouse_crescent.jpg

Postcard From The Train

I’m on the train from Portland to Seattle, bumping along through the farmland and the industrial backyards of the wetlands and river valleys of the soggy northwest coast. We past my old stomping grounds in Centralia where I did the research for Death And The Language Of Happiness, and I strained to see the bridge that replaced the one where they hung John Wesley Everest the unlucky member of the I.W.W. who got caught up in the riot of 1919.  Last time Jan and I were there we cleaned his grave.  Railroad rides always feel like glimpses backstage to me. 

 The reading at Powell’s bookstore last night went well.  There was a nice crowd of about twenty five people who seemed to enjoy themselves.  I read from the mystery and we had a good discussion then I closed with an essay that included a good quote from William Stafford who was both the poet Laureate of the United States and the PL of Oregon, he lived only a few miles from the store where we were.  If anyone could be called a “favorite son” it would be Stafford. We had a fine time and I left feeling bolstered.  Then went to dinner with some good friends and ate at a joint called The Woodsman, and ate the best pork chop that has ever touched my lips.  I ate with Chris Bernard who used to be a reporter in Sitka and is the author of “Chasing Alaska” his friend who is also a writer and my old friends Jody and Willa who have recently moved to Portland.  Willa loves everything about Portland, and Jody is adjusting after twenty fifty some years in the south and the east coast.  Jody is solidly blue collar but an autodidact and incredibly well read.  He doesn’t take to trends or fads.  He also is not one for political group think.  We had a fine time talking about Portland, about the artist in residence at the dump where he goes, and when he worked at the hardware store in Portland about helping a customer who wanted food for his pet ant.  In the singular.  One pet ant. 

 I enjoy Portland.  I like the various neighborhoods, and the music scene seems lively and diverse.  I like the people with all their community problem-solving energy.  New Yorkers have always loved to make fun of life on the west coast, all the way back to Fred Allen, through Woody Allen and his Las Angeles phobia.  Now Portlandia likes to make its stereotypes, which is fine.  I like it weird though.  If not there… in Portland, where then?  And besides, where else could I get a brined and wood smoked slow cooked pork chop with perfectly cooked pork and beans with a delectable cornbread biscuit, served without an ounce of irony?  Perfect, I’m telling you.

 Tonight, I will be in Seattle with my family and tomorrow night will do a reading at Third Place Books in Ravenna.  Then I’m off to Moscow Idaho…  I will take my time to drive through that beautiful wheat country.  Maybe I’ll stop and get a bottle of wine in Walla Walla and pull off somewhere in the Palouse and write another short note. 

Along a slow stream

a muddy pony stands still

as the train blasts by.

 

jhs