Phyllis Baker’s There Are No Rivers

One of the books I picked up at The University of Washington Bookstore Saturday was There Are No Rivers by Phyllis Baker. Since I had a doctor’s appointment and it was the shortest of the books, consisting of 51 short poems, I decided that I would tackle that one first. As usual, I got to the doctor’s office early and had plenty of time to read, and even got time between tests to read some more. To make a short story short, I managed to finish it in a single day.

Although I certainly enjoyed reading the poems more than I would have enjoyed reading anything I found in the doctor’s office, I was rather disappointed by the book. I bought the book because I was attracted by short poems like this one in the first section of the book:


I made the bed
and folded up all hope
as neatly as the blankets,
pushed my fears into bags
and fed them to the car.

In the cold and hunger
I forgot to straighten
the life I left.

As some of you may have noticed, I am particularly drawn to works that share my love of the Pacific Northwest, not least because they often help me to see it more clearly than I have seen it before I read the book. Phyllis Baker has apparently lived many of the same places I have, like in the section entitled Grays Harbor 1994-2004. And she certainly touches on my memory of the area in poems like “Strong Rain,” “The Habit of Moss,” and “The Presence of Water” since I quickly decided that the area was too wet for me even though I’d grown up in Seattle where it sometimes seems to rain continually for nine months of the year. Unfortunately, a poem that describes a raging, flooding river that ends

Morning .
Soft blowy rain
can’t hurt us now.
Why won’t it stop?

neither moves me nor allows me to see Grays Harbor in a new way.

Perhaps it says more about my own taste in poetry than it does Baker’s poetry, but even though her lines are short and precise too many of the poems lack the concrete imagery that I increasingly demand in a poem. It’s the moment that I want to see captured; not the thought about that moment.

3 thoughts on “Phyllis Baker’s There Are No Rivers

  1. I like “Leaving in High Morning”. It puts me in mind of the times I’ve left someone or someplace in much the same spirit as she left.

  2. I couldn’t read 50 poems by anybody in a day and expect to appreciate them fully. I know I couldn’t read the last one with the same interest that I brought to the first one. When I buy a book of poems, it’s like buying a bottle of single malt. It’s a rare event and I enjoy it very slowly over a long period. But then, I suppose, everybody is different.
    Doctor’s office visit? Can’t beat Reader’s Digest.

    1. I’ve never been able to read that way, Tom.

      I immerse myself in a book then sit back and reflect on it, or at least on the parts that I found most important, or, at least, most interesting.

      I suppose the first reading of a book of poetry is merely a skimming to find what I want to focus on.

      I’ll often spend several hours contemplating a poem that I’ve found interesting. And it’s not uncommon to come back years later and read it differently.

      That’s the main reason I only keep poetry books after I’ve read them.

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