Robert Michael Pyle’s Evolution of the Genus Iris

Whenever we visit the Bloedel Reserve we end our walk at the gift shop. Usually I end up buying garden-related items, naturally, but on a visit this summer they were featuring poems posted throughout the reserve and poetry books in the gift shop. I ended up buying three or four poetry books by local poets I hadn’t heard of before and one by Robert Michael Pyle who I knew only from his non-fiction. In fact, I wrote about Sky Time in Gray’s River several years ago.

I’ll have to admit to a certain ambiguity about his poetry though I definitely identify with his view of nature and life in general. I tend to prefer his short, concrete poems but am less fond of others when I feel overwhelmed by his “vast knowledge and lexicon of a scholar” (as touted in the cover blurb by Henry Hughes).

Evolution of the Genus Iris is short, only 70 pages long, so I’ll try to give a few examples of the kind of poems I really liked.

Two river otters fished the salmon,
diving and rising side by side,
almost down to the surf. Watching
their sleek and pointy loop-de- loop,
over and over and over,
I managed to miss the evening news

Considering the state of “The News” today, it’s probably easy to see why this is a personal favorite. It doesn’t hurt that river otters are a personal favorite, either. Though it’s obviously too long to be a haiku, it has the kind of concrete imagery that most appeals to me in haiku. It also has that surprising twist at the end that the best haiku has. In other words, this is the kind of poetry that I really favor at the moment.

While trying to figure out what I wanted to say about Pyle’s book, I started reading Sam Hamill’s “Crossing the River” and in the preface W.S. Merwin notes, “The great Chinese poets, for all their formality and regard to conventions, speak often with a surprising directness which makes them seem surprisingly intimate and close to us.” I really hadn’t thought about this before, but it’s another characteristic I like in poetry. It turns out, that’s a characteristic of my favorite Pyle poems.


What I want to say is how mianthemum
and stream side violet and spring beauty and oxalis
cover the ground in April as thick as the mosses
and club mosses and ferns jacket
the boughs of vine maples. How
the elderberry springs beneath the spruce
and the winter wren’s many notes ride
the single chord of varied thrush. How
corydalis and salmonberry meet you
across the skinny bridge. What I want to say
is that all this ought to be enough
for anybody.

“Mianthemum” and “ corydalis” aside, this seems to me to have precisely the “surprising directness” W.S. Merwin ascribes to the great Chinese poets. Though I can’t image one of the great Romantic poets ever using the phrase “What I want to say,” it fits the tone of this poem. And he’s right, “… this ought to be enough/for anybody.”

I ended up marking ten poems in this short volume that I particularly liked and wanted to reread, as many as I often mark in a much longer book. I guess that makes it a good investment of both money and time.

What do you think?