Wallowa

July 27, 2017

Sometimes your friends strike gold again and again. Burl Whitman has done it with a second poem in as many days: Wallowa.

I don’t fish, but the imagery of sticks, mountain stream, uncaught fish, and sun overhead, all touch deep places. The clincher lies at the end. My sabbatical, most likely my last, started back in June. First project: a book on molecular modeling co-written with a long-time collaborator. Ideas, lots of them, float around, but so far I haven’t been able to write more than a couple of pages, all crap. I feel like that guy standing hip-deep in snow-frozen water, casting his line, only to see it snarl up in the brush behind him, and to watch helplessly as the bait drops from his hook. Lost.

The year is racing by… Write. Write!

Wallowa

A wallowa is a Native American fish trap
the Nez Perce built from sticks,
like wicker fences set crosswise in the river.
They used them to herd bull and rainbow trout
into the shallows where they clubbed and gaffed them.

I spent this morning on the Minam river
at one of their old fishing spots.
I teased the river for hours with my fly line.
All I got was bone cold feet
from the mountain runoff.

On the way back to camp
I startled a bull elk in the trees
exploding the stillness
in a thud of hooves
and cracking branches.
The sun walked down the mountain
faster than I could get back across
the valley for eggs and bacon,
home made bread, jam and coffee.

Later I sat in the hot sun
warming my feet and trying to write
but in the end I just sat there
staring at the morning
with its buzzing quiet ways.
Maybe I could build
a wallowa for herding ideas,
fragments, chum and by-catch
into the shallows where my
gaff is sharp and my club is ready.
But I know the majority of the poetry fish
will swim through as they should
as though there were
no sticks in the river at all.

A total eclipse of the Sun will pass through Oregon next month. What did our ancestors think when the Sun vanished and the darkness came? Was this the end of their world? The end of love? A poem, Running Deer, from Burl Whitman dedicated to his wife, who is part Native American …

Running Deer

a moon-dark sun
ringed in Indian light
peace pipe direct

wild huckleberries
chiaroscuro necklaces
made from the seeds of days
you thread together

to remind us
of where we and love
come from

Growing the Garden

June 24, 2017

The Portland Japanese Garden re-opened in April after completing a year-long major construction project that permanently altered the Garden’s entrance, facilities, and footprint on the West Hills overlooking downtown. I was in San Francisco at the time of the opening, but I have visited the garden several times since then.

There is a new look and feel, but what I treasured about the old entrance remains – the traditional gate, the flat stones underfoot, the carved ones by the path, and the shaded hillside ascent. The Garden at the top has been preserved intact. The only real challenge to my memories is a brief one at the top of the hill: the new approach to the main gate now appears like a wide, tree-lined avenue. It will grow on me.

Fortunately for all Garden lovers, the Oregonian has created a lengthy photo history of the Garden: The fascinating history of the Portland Japanese Garden (Oregonian, 2 Apr 2017). There is also a lovely C-SPAN video interview with current Garden director, Steve Bloom.

( Wm. Persons was the brother of my great grandmother. This poem includes excerpts from his letters home during the American Civil War. ) dear pa and ma i take my pen and bid you goodbye tomorrow i leave this camp and regiment forever and go aboard a gunboat for the Mississippi river so don’t […]

via The Old and New Letters of William Persons — The Little Planet Daily

Listen for the sounds … cheap pants ripping … the lid on Grandma’s cookie jar being lifted as the thief reaches for the bread money … the sounds of outrage … hammers on hot iron. The sounds are there for all of us to hear. We just needed someone to call them to our attention. Thanks.

The Little Planet Daily

When words lose their meaning
I listen for the sounds they make.
Some are like dirty water swirling in a can.
Some are like deflating a truck tire.
Some are like when a child dumps
her blocks on a tile floor.

When words become their opposites
their dignity is not diminished.

When the journalists who covered the protests
against the North Dakota oil pipeline
were arrested and charged with rioting,
their words sounded like hammers
annealing hot iron.

The words of the US president,
when he said he wanted
to restart construction on the pipeline,
using a company he owned part of,
sounded like cheap pants ripping
when someone has grown fat
stealing bread money
from his grandmother,
the one with tired eyes
who remembers what she paid
for every piece of clothing
she ever bought.

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Daughter Laughter

December 23, 2016

Note to self: I heard the title “daughter laughter” in my head before I typed it. Easy to say, but reading it with a straight face throws me for a loop. Daw-ter laff-ter? Why not daff-ter law-ter? My daughters do make me daft, but that’s another post.

Read the rest of this entry »

Portland’s Rosy Cheek

November 9, 2016

Autumn begins in early October in the Pacific NW. For some reason Portland and its surroundings have a history of horrific October windstorms and this year was no exception: a tornado blew through Manzanita a few weeks ago. It spent just a minute on the ground, but it created a path of destruction that stretched from the beach to the highway. Fortunately, our house, which was just a few hundred feet from the worst damage, escaped without a scratch.

But autumn’s wind and rain means more than storm damage. It also means leaves, leaves, and more leaves. I’ve spent the past 6 weeks raking at all hours of the day, piling them up before I go to work in the morning, and then returning to the street for another round of raking in the dark after dinner.

There is beauty in this task: raking gives me a “virtuous excuse” to go outside and admire nature’s bounty. I think of the Leaf Man in Harry Nilsson’s The Point and smile at the riches I’m piling up. I think of the zen koan in which a student sweeps up every leaf to create the ideal garden for his master’s guests only to watch the enlightened master reach up, shake a few leaves onto the just-swept garden, and say, “Perfect!” And I leave a few leaves behind even as I keep sweeping.

Autumn is also the best time for walking. My wife and I went to the Japanese Garden last Sunday to admire the Japanese maples, but we were too late. Almost all of them were naked. And yet, as we slowly made our way back to the car we discovered plenty of red-cheeked maples to admire in the hillside neighborhood. Another lesson about slowing down and letting life happen. A line from Thoreau on this subject:

“I am more interested in the rosy cheek than I am to know what particular diet the maiden fed on.”

A few weeks ago I began a conversation with my grownup daughters about some of the news stories I had been forwarding to them recently. Their reaction was unexpected, but not surprising. I might have guessed that they didn’t want to read the kind of “important” news that I had been sending their way. Maybe more to the point, I should have known that my assessment, “hey, they’re adults – they can handle this,” was totally beside the point.

So I’m not sending them this link, but I want to keep it some place handy just the same. It’s a story about possibility and eventuality. None one gets off scot-free.

That said, I want them to know that today I’m fine. So is their mother. We’ve been enjoying our longest trip to the coast this summer. We even successfully dodged three triple-digit temperatures in Portland in the process! Life is good.

But someday … an end of some sort will come and the story I’ve linked below might help my talented, accomplished, beautiful daughters know that they are not alone at times like these. That whatever happens, I’m ok and they will be ok too. I send them my love (so I’m not sending them this link). They’ll have to find it for themselves.

Washing The Dishes, Waiting For Death by Rachel Meyer (Trike Daily, 21 Aug 2016)

Tombstone, chatterbox – both modes of speech come easily to me and I never know which role I will play, but ask me to write a poem and my mind ties itself into bunches of knots: 3 – 5 – 87 – more. And yet, and yet, I love poetry and I’m grateful for a few friends who aren’t afraid to lift a pen.

Andrew Schelling‘s “Whirling Petals, Windblown Leaves” (Tricycle, Winter 2007) calls one to look into renga. Schelling describes renga as a form of “linked poetry” that appeared in Japan eight centuries ago, i.e., the Japan of Dogen Zenji (1200-1253).

Schelling says:

Renga feels just right for our contemporary world. It meets our raw need to talk to each other in ways freed from the daily rounds of buying and selling, or the terrible depersonalized language that worms its way into the workplace. It lets us use folklore, image, metaphor, and brisk humor, which feel like home ground. The voice we were born with.

The quick give-and-take of renga might remind one of Twitter exchanges, but the comparison quickly falls apart. Renga composition was not aimed at the quick knock-out punch. Participants in a renga session were expected to adhere to a strict set of rules, and it was said that one should practice renga for 20 years in order to become a worthy collaborator.

Fun fact: Schelling credits renga composition with the appearance of haiku. Each participant in a renga session would offer a three-line verse, a hokku (opening verse), as a possible starting point for group writing. Because only one hokku would be chosen, the rest would be cast aside. Some of these ‘unused’ opening verses were eventually compiled as short poems in their own right, and these are what we call haiku today.

Schelling’s tribute to renga includes a description of an mountaintop renga session that he and 10 other poets held in the Rockies in April 2006. Verses 6 and 7 from Green Mountain Renga:

dripping with creek water
hunting snails

a white egret
impossible legs
like straw

Soaring high over crescent Moon
Clouds nurse on the Sun’s last embers
Quick burns fade into gray-purple sleep
— Who will I be tomorrow?