Sund’s “Ten By Twelve”

It somehow seems appropriate that I finished Sund’s Poems from Ish River Country in the middle of a driving rainstorm because, for better or worse, it’s the rain that makes this part of Washington the Evergreen State. And for me, at least, it’s the rain that makes the fact that he lived so much of his life style so remarkable.

I’m not sure if this poem accurately describes the small shack he lived in,

Ten by Twelve
for Erik Ambjor

My shack is ten by twelve.
Two bottles of sake
under the bed.

Hot soup on the stove,
and bread in the oven.

My autoharp tuned up and ready.

When friends come rowing up,
How big this shack will get!

but from what I’ve read, the places he lived most of his life weren’t very different than this. Having recently spent several days living out of my car while “car camping” I can certainly appreciate this kind of lifestyle. It’s one I aspire to at times, but have never been able to endure for long periods of time. Unfortunately, I’m too attuned to material comforts to escape them for extended periods.

Considering his lifestyle, poems like this one take on new significance.

Homage to Ryokan

A little grey feather from somewhere
floated down onto my writing paper.
How frail!
an inch long
arched on its slim bone body
more like a mist than anything else
rolling over the white paper,
soon gone
a light wind claims it.
My only
visitor today.

I’m enough of an INTP that I can certainly identify with this poem. Since retirement, there’s been many day where the only interruption has come from the sound of an occasional email being downloaded by Mail, and even that sometimes sounds like an intrusion.

I’ll have to admit that I was nearly as impressed with the Afterword by Tim McNulty as I was by the poems themselves.

Poetry for Robert was a way of living heart-first, and he shared his calling with everyone he came to know. He was an inspired reader of his poetry, and his presentations, which often included recitations and songs, attracted large, enthusiastic audiences.

Robert was a generous and gregarious spirit with a refined artist sense that pervaded every aspect of his life. He surrounded himself with a few beautiful and functional things: pottery bowls and carve wooden boxes, Japanese tea cups, river stones and shells. He revered Buddhist teachings and was honored with a Tibetan Dharma name by Deshung Rinpoche of Seattle’s Sakya Monastery. His paintings were in the “Northwest mystical” tradition of Guy Anderson and Morris Graves. His poems, calligraphed in India ink on art stock, were often given away to friends. He preferred to publish in small letterpress editions (a source of consternation to some of his literary friends). He considered readings more vital and important than publication. He could be prickly in the extreme. He could sing and play his autoharp until dawn.

In the three decades I knew him, visits to Robert were themselves poetic outings. Whether spending the winter with friends in town or living alone on the river, his residences were more hermitage than domicile. His small cabin at Shi Shi on Washington’s wilderness coast was set back from the driftwood among windswept spruce, a teapot always steaming by the fireplace. His river shack, “Disappearing Lake,” while only two miles from town seemed “far back” in time. A converted net shed on the Skagit estuary, it was raised on pilings to accommodate daily tides that flooded the freshwater marsh; access was by Robert’s rowing dory Svalan. At his place in Anacortes during the last decade of his life, he transformed a small cottage in a friend’s boat yard with an enclosed garden and courtyard of zen-like loveli- ness. No matter where he found himself, Robert lived an aesthetic life of beauty, simplicity and grace.

Friends joked that Robert was more suited to life in Sung Dynasty China than twentieth-century America. There’s some truth to that. His poems reflect the influence of his revered elders: Sung poet and calligrapher Su Tung-p’o, Japanese poet-monk Ryokan, the haiku masters Isa, Buson and BashO. But as evident are modern influ- ences: William Carlos Williams, with whom he corresponded, his friend Kenneth Rexroth, his teacher Theodore Roethke. As a poet who wrote eloquently of family, friendship and place, who engaged in community activism and became a spokesman for the bioregion he named the Ish River Country, Robert was American to the core.

My only complaint might be that I would have liked to have this perspective before I read the poems. I’m not sure I’m up to re-reading the whole book right now.

What do you think?