Thomas Brush’s Open Heart

Long, long ago Lael, Logan, Leslie and I were visiting Pt. Townsend, and Lael and Logan wanted to go into a bookstore.  I went in but had to leave immediately because they sold used paperbacks, and I’m deathly allergic to book mold.  I waited outside, but Lael came outside and told me that the store had a fabulous poetry section. Sorely tempted, I rushed inside and grabbed a handful of books by local poets without browsing them very closely. I’m addicted to poetry books, and its hard to find good poetry books in the big-box stores — much less ones featuring local poets.  I’ll  admit I buy most of my poetry books from Amazon because it’s one of the few places I can find them, and more-often-than-not I buy the Kindle edition because I’ve run out of storage space and  need to throw an old book away every time I buy a new book.  

I bought Thomas Brush’s Open Heart because he’s a Seattle poet and several of his poems focused on places I was fond of.  It turned out those aren’t the only thing we have in common.  He is almost exactly the same age as I am and taught high school English (not sure how long, though).  I can’t tell if he went to Vietnam or if he just knows its effects because his brother was there, but we have certainly both been affected by it, though maybe not quite in the same way. 

We also share a love of place, a love of the Puget Sound and of the “the single mountain that holds/Puget Sound in place” as shown in 


Thank God for the rain,
For the green home of moss and mud
And for the old wooden hull of the steam ferry
San Mateo that still floats
From Tacoma to Tahlequah,
And for all the rusting steel decks and rotting
Dugouts and the single mountain that holds
Puget Sound in place, and for the salmon that rise
Like the lost language of the Salish and for the clean
Hands of the rivers and the wet and swollen stones
That balance the earth beneath us.
And thank the damp breath
Of the leaves, and the sweet torrent
Of twigs stirring the black bark, and the branches
That twist and swell in the writhing
Trail of air, and the long, secret whistle of geese
That crosses that falling sky, and the sobbing music
Of the tides, and for what I can take
From this sinking island and call it

I may not always thank God for the rain, but I’ve never wanted to live in a place that isn’t as green as the Pacific Northwest, and you can’t have that without all the rain we get. Until I looked up Maury Island and Tahlequah I didn’t realize that this poem is about the ferry terminal that is just a few blocks away from our home in Tacoma. I love to walk the area around the Tacoma side of the ferry route and would love to ride the ferry again once Covid-19 subsides.  The view of Mt. Rainier from that ferry terminal has graced my site several times, and I’m sure you would get an even better view from the ferry. Only a Puget Sounder would recognize the importance of Mt. Rainier and recognize that Puget Sound is often referred to by its Indian Name, the Salish Sea.  There are many poems like this that I can relate to.

Unfortunately, there’s a side of Brush that I can’t relate to no matter how hard I try, one that is suggested by the blurbs on the back of book that praise the “the sweat and mud of the ordinary,” and “the cracked music of everyday life,” comparing him to Richard Hugo and Raymond Carver.  The main similarity I see is a focus on drinking, a symbol of the despair that threatens to overwhelm all of us, but also a sort of tribute to those hard-drinking men who tackle the world directly and manage to transcend it.  To me, Brush seems closer to Charles Bukowski who argued that “Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn. I guess I’ve lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now.”

“Dream Wars” appears early in the book and most clearly suggests these associations, but there are several references in other poems, one that struck particularly close to home was “Cannon Beach,” where he says his brother “spent the hoarded days of rest drunk/ and in bed with a girl…”  I spent my R&R in Bangkok in a drunken haze trying to forget everything I’d seen in the previous six months. As a result, I only have a vague memory of what I actually saw there and might not have any memory of it if I hadn’t snapped shots of sites I visited.


This morning mist rose from the valley,
The last hot day
Of July, strings the color of tarnished silver hanging
In the birch trees, wispy sheets floating like thoughts
I once had of something memorable, something
As transparent and important as that brief hour.

There’s a stray
Cat, adrift in a pool of sunlight, and I envy
Him, King—Of-Sooner-
Or-Later, but not
now, winding my way
Through the smokeless air, so blue
It could be a lake turned upside down.

On the sidewalk
A rope of little kids holding hands swims by,
Led by a woman wearing a tee shirt emblazoned
With a baby hippo, and I begin
The morning ritual, sipping bourbon
Beneath Christmas lights framing the back
Bar, seeing the mirror as another body
Of water as holy as any, knowing how
I got here and why

Two stools down
A man holds his beer in one fist, bleeding
From some dream war
All of us recognize and know
We can’t win but we keep trying
One drink at a time.

I can easily identify with the ideas expressed in the first two stanzas. At my age, I’m more apt than not to let “memorable” thoughts slip by without writing them down or taking action on them, and I have always been too busy to just sit and enjoy the sun, to just enjoy the moment. 

Brush loses me, though, in the last two stanzas.  I can’t even imagine a “morning ritual, sipping bourbon” in a bar lit by Christmas lights.  It’s hard to imagine anything more depressing.  Perhaps it is the contrast of sitting in a dimly lit bar sipping bourbon with the kids holding hands being led by a woman with a baby hippo that Brush is trying to suggest, but “ seeing the mirror as another body/Of water as holy as any” would seem to suggest otherwise. If sipping bourbon is a ritual, perhaps it’s time to seek another religion.

The last stanza is even harder for me to accept. It could be a striking image of someone who has been totally defeated, but to suggest we are still trying to win the war “one drink at a time” strikes me as just plain absurd.  The world you see through the bottom of a glass is never the real world; it’s always a twisted, distorted world, one that may confirm your view of the world but can never show you the way out.  

I’m certainly not denying that the world Brush is depicting isn’t real; it is, no doubt about it. Nor am I denying that there are a considerable number of writers (Hemingway comes to mind) who celebrate tough, hard-drinking heroes.  Bukowski is an extremely popular poet,  more popular than several poets I admire much more.  If you admire Bukowski’s poetry,  you might like Open Heart, but, no matter how hard I tried to like it, it just doesn’t appeal to me.

Finally, Back to Theler Wetlands

I love my yard and nearby Pt Defiance Park, but I’ll have to admit I was thrilled when Washington’s Covid-19 lockdown eased enough that we felt comfortable visiting Theler Wetlands. There weren’t as many birds as we often see, but we saw a number of birds we never see at home, like this Cedar Waxwing we spotted at the beginning of our walk,

an Osprey diving for fish,

a Red-Breased Merganser with a fish,

a Killdeer hunting for food on the mudflats,

and our favorite Marsh Wren trying to attract a mate.

The highlight of the day, though, was seeing John Riegsecker, who we haven’t seen since he bought a new car in December. It’s hard to remember when I used to see him nearly weekly.

Deja Vu All Over Again

In August of 1965 I was in the 2Bn/34th Armor Division stationed at Ft. Irwin, California, 114 miles from L.A. when the Watts Riots broke out.  On Saturday night we were put on alert to be ready to deploy to those riots.  Our M60 tanks were loaded on flat cars in Barstow,  and we stood by in combat gear expecting to be deployed imminently.  

At first we didn’t have time to do anything other than rush trying to get everything ready to go.  Even though we were a STRAC unit, supposedly ready for instant deployment, we definitely weren’t ready for deployment on a day’s notice. When we were finally as ready as we could be and our equipment was stowed, we had time to watch television and see what was actually going on in Watts. Once we watched coverage of the riots, I instantly knew I did not want to be there.  I had signed up to fight Communists, not fellow Americans.  Hell, many of our troops were born and raised in L.A.  We had no training for crowd control; we’d been trained for desert warfare against other tank units. How the hell could we possibly help quell riots? I would undoubtably have gone if we had been ordered but, luckily, in the end President Johnson had sense enough not to threaten to send tanks to stop the rioting and, most of all, from my  perspective, at least, not to send a tank battalion into the middle of an enflamed city.

I felt I had dodged a bullet when we weren’t sent to the riots, but a few months later I learned there were a lot more bullets coming my way when  my unit was notified it was going to be deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division out of Ft. Lewis.  Our unit was filled up with new recruits from the L.A. area, and we had 6 months to train them before being put on a ship to Vietnam.  I pulled a short assignment in Vietnam because I finished my two years of active duty while there, but I asked to have my duty extended until my platoon was scheduled to be relieved from duty. When I was told that my replacement was already on the way and if I extended I would be sent to a command  unit in Saigon, that ended my active duty tour.  I’d seen enough of the war to be convinced that we should never have been there; the only loyalty I had at that point was to my platoon.

That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t outraged when I was greeted upon my return to Travis Airforce Base by throngs of war protestors.  When advised not to wear my uniform home because I might be confronted at the airport, all I said was, “Fuck’em” and wore my uniform home.  During the next three months that I spent holed up in my room trying to make sense of my life,  I couldn’t decide whether I was angrier at the protestors or at my government for sending me to a war that, in retrospect, seemed unnecessary and immoral, much less decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  All I know for sure is that I was angry all the time, with the possible exception of when I had too much to drink.  

I drifted through life for awhile, moving from Vancouver to Aberdeen to Seattle and back to Vancouver in less than a year, all the while getting letters from the Army saying that if I didn’t immediately report to an assigned reserve unit I would be called back to active duty.  That would have been a mistake on the Army’s part, but I finally reported to the reserves while working  in Aberdeen as a caseworker, only to find the unit filled with rich, white kids who seemed to have gotten into the reserves and avoided the draft because their parents were influential.  The makeup of the reserve unit was quite different from the mortar platoon I led in Vietnam, which only had three whites if you included me.  White, rich privilege, I guess. I’ll admit that I was naïve enough then to be shocked and even more disillusioned.  

A few months later, I left Aberdeen and was assigned to a unit in Seattle while attending the University of Washington to earn teaching credentials. I was assigned to an infantry unit that was training to control riots and anti-war protests. When told I was to lead a platoon in a 4th of July celebration in downtown Seattle, I replied I would be out of town on the 4th. When told that it was a direct order and I would get an official letter of reprimand if I didn’t show up, I laughed.  Somehow a letter of reprimand didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as what I’d already been through in Vietnam. I’ve never attended a parade since I left the Army and didn’t celebrate the 4th of July until many years later when my kids demanded to see the fireworks that all their classmates were talking about. I’m not sure if I would have been “out-of-town” if the unit had been called up for riot duty while I was still with it, but, at the very least, I would have been faced with a moral dilemma because by then I identified more with the protestors than with the government on our Vietnam involvement.

Though I have seldom questioned the goodness of most people I have met in real life, my experience in Vietnam and as a caseworker for six months did make me question any faith I might have once had in The Great American Dream. If what America was doing in the world was “Great,” I wanted no part of it.  For a while, at least, I became a man without a country, alienated not only from others who believed in  American Exceptionalism, but also from the part of me that had once believed in and fought for it.  

Like most high school students, I was taught (brainwashed?)  that America was the beacon of Democracy in the world, devoted to promoting democracy and equality throughout the world, and I was “good student;” I could parrot back exactly what I was taught.  Back then I almost certainly would have agreed with Melville when he wrote, “We Americans are the peculiar chosen people, the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” If so, then that ark must have sunk on its way to Vietnam.  It was impossible to reconcile that ideal with what I saw in Vietnam because there was no democracy to promote.  At best, it was an effort to protect Capitalism from Communism. Any faith I had left in America’s “Greatness” was further undermined when I worked as a caseworker and was faced with poverty and despair on a level I had been blind to my whole life.  America masterfully manages to hide the poorest of the poor in retirement homes, dilapidated apartments, or run-down homes in rural areas — until recently when tent-cities seem to bloom throughout our country. 

As the saying goes, time cures all — or, at least, numbs the pain— and I generally managed to be a productive member of society for 30 years while teaching high school. I doubt most of my students ever suspected how much I personally questioned what they were being taught in their history classes or what their government was doing at home and abroad.  At worst, I tried to make them question what they were being taught, even by me.  

Twenty years of retirement mellowed me even further, never really having to personally confront the problems society was ignoring.  Whatever frustration I had with government policies were ameliorated by the blog I started to protest America’s invasion of Afghanistan, which I saw as another Vietnam-like mistake.  Political protest gradually gave way to losing myself in Nature’s beauty, in flowers, scenics, and wildlife. 

The only signs of my discontent that might have been visible to others would be my endorsement and contributions to what many saw as radical environmental groups such as Greenpeace, etc.,  my contributions to radical politicians like Bernie Sanders, and my refusal to donate to mainline organizations like the DNC since I disagreed with some of their candidates.  And, oh yeah,  I (twice) requested to be excused from jury duty because my work as a caseworker and teacher made me doubt the fairness of our legal system. 

When one of my favorite colleagues told me on his deathbed that we had “wasted our lives teaching,” I replied that it could have been worse, I could have been pushing pop my whole life  (Pepsi Cola offered me a job before I became a caseworker and started off on a very different path).  I’m glad Gary didn’t live long enough to see Trump elected to office, or he would have been clinically depressed. Unfortunately, I, too,  have come to see Trump’s election as a sign that our education system has failed.  Our Know-Nothing president prides himself on his ignorance, all the while claiming to know more than the scientists who have devoted their lives to mastering their field. How could an educated public elect him?

I had hoped to drift through my final years here on Planet Earth feeling our nation and our planet were improving, that somehow we would leave future generations with a world that was as good as, or better than, the world we had inherited. How naïve of me. Instead, recent events have left me feeling nearly as alienated from my country as I did 50 years ago when I returned from Vietnam. The Trump Administration’s willingness to sacrifice the environment for short-term economic benefits, to scapegoat desperate, hard-working immigrants, to denigrate American minorities, to blame America’s economic problems on China,  and to mishandle the Covid-19 epidemic was already stressful enough without the added specter of race-riots caused by police brutality filling the news.