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.

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED

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.

JUST ABOUT

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.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Rain”

Although I liked a lot of the poems in Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words Under the Woods, it’s only 157 pages long, so I thought I would just cite one more poem, one that seemed particularly poignant to me after 30 years of teaching and provides ample evidence that William Stafford was right on when he was quoted on the back cover as saying, “In the current literary scene one of the most heartening influences is the work of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.”

Rain

A teacher asked Paul

what he would remember

from third grade, and he sat

a long time before writing

“this year sumbody tutched me

on the sholder”

and turned his paper in.

Later she showed it to me

as an example of her wasted life.

The words he wrote were large
as houses in a landscape.

He wanted to go inside them

and live, he could fill in

the windows of “o” and “d”

and be safe while outside

birds building nests in drainpipes
knew nothing of the coming rain.

I taught high school, not the third grade, but I can still identify with the poem, even if I can’t identify with the teacher who saw Paul’s paper as an “example of her wasted life.” Hopefully, she was the “sumbody” that touched Paul on the shoulder providing him with the feeling that someone cared for him, though she seems too out of touch to have been the one that did that.

As a converted caseworker, it was precisely students like Paul who inspired me to turn to teaching in hopes that I could help people before they ended up on welfare. As it turned out, that was a lot harder to do than I ever imagined, and I failed a lot more than I succeeded in helping them to succeed. While that failure makes it easy to believe that I “wasted” my life trying to help students like Paul succeed, there are more important things than “book learning.” The most important thing you can do as a teacher is to make students feel good about themselves, no matter what skills they may or may not have.

Having been a caseworker and been married to a caseworker for 17 years, I was always aware that some of my students lived unimaginably hard lives, ranging from abuse to neglect, never knowing what was coming next in their lives. Before they can move on they need to feel safe, not like “birds building nests in drainpipes.”

The Anti-Trump

It’s either been too cold, too wet, or too cold and wet to get out birding recently, so I’ve finally used up all the pictures I’ve taken. Hopefully, I’ll get out shortly, but until I do I either have to write about the many books I’ve read recently but haven’t had the ambition to organize my notes into a rational statement or read some new poetry books and comment on them.

For now I decided to do the latter and began by reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words under the Words: Selected Poems. published in 1995. I actually commented on Nye’s Fuel in 2002 but had almost forgotten about her in the intervening years. Luckily, I was reminded of her poetry recently, for it seems like a perfect antidote to the constant barrage of Trump news that has filled my Facebook page and my news feeds.

Tell, me can you imagine Trump, or his supporters, for that matter, ever reading, much less writing, a poem called “Kindness.”

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Colombia

For better or worse, I’ve never lost all the things Nye mentions in the first stanza, though I suspect losing my faith in the American Dream after serving in Vietnam probably made me kinder, and less self-centered, than I might otherwise have ever become. I know it inspired me to become a caseworker instead of a banker or businessman which, in turn, forced me to see just “how desolate the landscape can be.” Afraid I would end up staring “out the window forever,” I left casework to become a teacher where it seemed more likely that I could actually help people.

I’ve never seen where an “Indian in a white poncho/lies dead by the side of the road,” but I’m still haunted by fellow officers who died in Vietnam pursuing their dreams. Though I’m not sure seeing those bodies made me kinder, I do know it made me realize just how precarious life really is, that there are never any assurances that things will “turn out for the best.”

I’ve certainly experienced my share of sorrow, and at times felt overwhelmed by it and empathized with the sorrow of others who haven’t been as lucky as I’ve been. The Buddha had it right when he said, “What is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering and sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering.”

The Buddha’s answer to that suffering was “compassion,” or, in Nye’s words, “Kindness.” I suspect some of us are going to need all the kindness we can muster to get through the next four years and a President who tries to bully and belittle anyone who opposes his ideas. Though I’ve already managed to fly off the handle at some Trump supporters, I would consider myself a better person if I could manage to empathize with them while still standing up for what I believe in myself. After all, kindness would seem to demand that we treat all people, and not just those who agree with us, the best we can.

Favorites from The Clouds Should Know Me By Now

Without a doubt my favorite poems in The Clouds Should Know Me By Now are those “From Stones and Trees: The Poetry of Shih-shu” translated by James H. Sanford. For me, the poems in this 32 page section are worth the price of the book, especially since I haven’t been able to find a selection comparable even after considerable searching.

Even the introduction to the section stands out and provides a vital understanding of the context of the poems. Perhaps the reason I liked the poems so much is best explained by”: “… Shih-shu —typical of his era perhaps — seems as much Taoist as Buddhist, more a lay hermit than an entempled monk. … Further, as a Buddhist, he is clearly of the ‘samsara is itself nirvana’ variety; for him, the world is far more a realm of enlightenment than a prison-house of sorrow. Indeed, at times he even seems to approach the tantric view of esoteric Buddhism and its watchword ‘the passions are themselves enlightenment.’”

There’s hardly a poem in the section that I didn’t like, but these two might resonate with me the most. This first one sounds a lot like my sentiment since I finally retired.

134

against the gently flowing spring morning
the arrogant rattle of a passing coach
peach blossoms beckon from the distant village
willow branches caress the shoulder of my pond

as bream and carp flash their golden scales
and mated ducks link embroidered wings
The poet stares about; this way, then that—
caught in a web beyond all speaking

That opening image contrasting the noisy coach passing by and the gently flowing spring seems surprisingly contemporary, even if we don’t have coaches anymore. We’re all too busy to sit around and enjoy nature, even Spring’s beauty. Only the poet “stares about” and finds himself caught in a “web beyond all speaking.”

Most of all, I love the imagery in this poem which almost makes that last line superfluous, at least for the reader who has identified with the imagery.

This next poem doesn’t rely on imagery as much as the previous poem, or even as much as I usually like, but the message rings true to me and sometimes that’s enough, too.

70

as flowing waters disappear into the mist
we lose all track of their passage
every heart is its own Buddha
ease off; become immortal

wake up: the world’s a mote of dust
behold heaven’s round mirror
turn loose: slip past shape and shadow
sit side by side with nothing—save Tao

The idea of going with the “flowing waters” which disappear into the unseen and unknown also seems very contemporary, if not just plain “New Age,” but it is also a good metaphor for the Tao, for the Taoist Way, and one that appears throughout the Tao Te Ching.

Combining it with the idea that “every heart is its own Buddha” is a little more striking as is the line “sit side by side with nothing —save Tao.” Hanging on to things too long is the source of many sorrows, but, of course, it’s not easy to “turn loose.”