Bill Yake’s This Old Riddle: Cormorants and Rain

I started reading Bill Yake’s This Old Riddle: Cormorants and Rain with high expectations. After all, I picked the book up at Nisqually Wildlife Refuge’s book store and the author’s someone I really identify with, a retired environmental scientist who admires many of the same Northwest poets I admire, is interested in Zen Buddhism, and loves the outdoors even more than I do.

I was a little surprised, however, that I didn’t like more of the poems than I did, even after a second reading. Considering that the book is only 78 pages long, maybe it’s not too surprising that I ended up only marking five poems to return to the next time I pick up the book. Maybe I just expected more than I should have from the book.

The poems I liked most made me remember things I’d long ago forgotten, like Tokeland where short-sighted developers thought they could make the ocean conform to their desires, without anticipating the effect that might have on residents across the bay. Others, like the title poem, brought back pleasant memories of past trips.

My favorite poem, though, was:


You are the visible whispering one.
The Brahman. You are the flush of blood
behind a thin skin of mirrors. Your scales
are small as single notes. Rainbow above all

rainbows, you are jaw and composure.
At sunset your tail is broad. It propels
you up glistening into burning skies,
gills pulsing and nose to the wind as if
it were current. It is

the way wheat-land sunsets burn rivers.
In the flash behind flesh and the blush under
cutbanks, you are the rainbow of horizon,
thunderhead, creek braid and plunge pool.

You are frost turning the sun green.
And buoyed by an aspirated clarity
all this air within water within air
you are a towering splash of hunger,
our flourishing, transient shout.

I initially questioned the comparison of the salmon to “the Brahman,? but further reflection made it seem an apt metaphor. At least here in the Pacific Northwest, Salmon is King, Nature’s life force. Often the controversy over salmon loss gets reduced to cries of woe from commercial fishermen, bitter fights between sports and commercial fishermen, or even simple-minded arguments that sea lions or cormorants threaten the extinction of salmon, but it’s clear that virtually the whole Pacific Northwest ecosystem would collapse with the loss of the salmon.

Salmon migrations are perhaps the greatest mystery of the Pacific Northwest culminating in the spawning of the salmon, as they head upstream, figuratively, if not literally, “ glistening into burning skies.? Even before they spawn, healthy salmon shine, reflecting the light off their silver scales, but once they reach fresh water they begin to turn brilliant red, creating a virtual rainbow in streams.

It is impossible not to be awed upon observing thousands of salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn. One can only imagine the kind of hunger that would drive fish thousands of miles to certain death in order to reproduce. It is a short-lived, but immensely powerful statement of the Life Force.

I sometimes suspect that we’re more apt to see the world in new ways when we listen to those that are different from us, rather than listening to those who already belong to the same choir, which is not to argue, that it’s not also pleasant at times to stop and listen to similar voices.