Sund’s “Ten By Twelve”

It somehow seems appropriate that I finished Sund’s Poems from Ish River Country in the middle of a driving rainstorm because, for better or worse, it’s the rain that makes this part of Washington the Evergreen State. And for me, at least, it’s the rain that makes the fact that he lived so much of his life style so remarkable.

I’m not sure if this poem accurately describes the small shack he lived in,

Ten by Twelve
for Erik Ambjor

My shack is ten by twelve.
Two bottles of sake
under the bed.

Hot soup on the stove,
and bread in the oven.

My autoharp tuned up and ready.

When friends come rowing up,
How big this shack will get!

but from what I’ve read, the places he lived most of his life weren’t very different than this. Having recently spent several days living out of my car while “car camping” I can certainly appreciate this kind of lifestyle. It’s one I aspire to at times, but have never been able to endure for long periods of time. Unfortunately, I’m too attuned to material comforts to escape them for extended periods.

Considering his lifestyle, poems like this one take on new significance.

Homage to Ryokan

A little grey feather from somewhere
floated down onto my writing paper.
How frail!
an inch long
arched on its slim bone body
more like a mist than anything else
rolling over the white paper,
soon gone
a light wind claims it.
My only
visitor today.

I’m enough of an INTP that I can certainly identify with this poem. Since retirement, there’s been many day where the only interruption has come from the sound of an occasional email being downloaded by Mail, and even that sometimes sounds like an intrusion.

I’ll have to admit that I was nearly as impressed with the Afterword by Tim McNulty as I was by the poems themselves.

Poetry for Robert was a way of living heart-first, and he shared his calling with everyone he came to know. He was an inspired reader of his poetry, and his presentations, which often included recitations and songs, attracted large, enthusiastic audiences.

Robert was a generous and gregarious spirit with a refined artist sense that pervaded every aspect of his life. He surrounded himself with a few beautiful and functional things: pottery bowls and carve wooden boxes, Japanese tea cups, river stones and shells. He revered Buddhist teachings and was honored with a Tibetan Dharma name by Deshung Rinpoche of Seattle’s Sakya Monastery. His paintings were in the “Northwest mystical” tradition of Guy Anderson and Morris Graves. His poems, calligraphed in India ink on art stock, were often given away to friends. He preferred to publish in small letterpress editions (a source of consternation to some of his literary friends). He considered readings more vital and important than publication. He could be prickly in the extreme. He could sing and play his autoharp until dawn.

In the three decades I knew him, visits to Robert were themselves poetic outings. Whether spending the winter with friends in town or living alone on the river, his residences were more hermitage than domicile. His small cabin at Shi Shi on Washington’s wilderness coast was set back from the driftwood among windswept spruce, a teapot always steaming by the fireplace. His river shack, “Disappearing Lake,” while only two miles from town seemed “far back” in time. A converted net shed on the Skagit estuary, it was raised on pilings to accommodate daily tides that flooded the freshwater marsh; access was by Robert’s rowing dory Svalan. At his place in Anacortes during the last decade of his life, he transformed a small cottage in a friend’s boat yard with an enclosed garden and courtyard of zen-like loveli- ness. No matter where he found himself, Robert lived an aesthetic life of beauty, simplicity and grace.

Friends joked that Robert was more suited to life in Sung Dynasty China than twentieth-century America. There’s some truth to that. His poems reflect the influence of his revered elders: Sung poet and calligrapher Su Tung-p’o, Japanese poet-monk Ryokan, the haiku masters Isa, Buson and BashO. But as evident are modern influ- ences: William Carlos Williams, with whom he corresponded, his friend Kenneth Rexroth, his teacher Theodore Roethke. As a poet who wrote eloquently of family, friendship and place, who engaged in community activism and became a spokesman for the bioregion he named the Ish River Country, Robert was American to the core.

My only complaint might be that I would have liked to have this perspective before I read the poems. I’m not sure I’m up to re-reading the whole book right now.

Sund’s Poetry Seems Uneven to Me

As I get further into Sund’s Poems from Ish River Country, I sense two rather different poets at work here, one that I like very much and another that I don’t like very much at all. The one I like is the one I discovered in the opening section Bunch Grass, an imagist in WW William’s vein, or, for that matter, one who reminds me a lot of Roethke’s early poetry.

This poet writes

for John Utti

Climbing the trail up from
Portage Head,

wet with morning rain, foot slipping..

How many have reached for
this same branch!

a poem that anyone who’s ever hiked around the Pacific Northwest would immediately identify with, though I’m not sure I see a need for the exclamation point. The poem immediately made me recall two favorite hikes despite the rain and mud.

The other poet, the one I’d rather skip, writes a long poem called:

for Alisoi and John


Inside the fat lady there is a beautiful
dancer. Any moment she will be
swept into the air like a feather.


She will turn and sail
slowly down, drift side to side, slowly
and with time to look around her and see
no one watching.
Yet the joy she feels
began with the help of some
spirit that seems to be outside her

At first, the idea seemed promising, I’m sure there is a “beautiful dancer” inside all of us, even klutzes like me who find it impossible to stay on beat. The hyperbole of “she will be swept into the air like a feather,” though, had me glancing ahead to see how long this poem really was.

And it turned out to be much longer than I’d hoped without any relief in sight, as suggested by this 5th section


There are many, many dancers.
There are dancers
so powerful their bodies burst into flame.
They hold heaven in both hands
while they glide round
the great
rock of the world.

which is way too poetic, in the pejorative sense, for me. Unfortunately, for me at least, this isn’t the only poem that resorts to these kinds of poetic hyperbole.

About the time I was thinking it was time for some speed reading, I found a section of Japanese haiku that Sund has translated. I was particularly fond of this one, by a poet I’ve never heard of:

In the pile of branches
ready for burning
leaves begin to sprout.


Sund’s “My Father”

The first section of Sund’s Poems from Ish River Country was published in 1969 and the second section entitled Ish River was published in 1983, so it’s not surprising that the tone is quite different, as well as the style. Looking back, the 50’s and early 60’s seemed like the Age of Innocence compared to the next twenty years. While the direct references to Vietnam are few, his less indirect in his attack on Corporations and their anti-unionism, with several references to the Wobblies, a powerful labor force on the West Coast and Pacific Northwest in earlier years. Considering his environmental bent, it’s not surprising that he saves special criticism for logging companies like Crown Zellerbach and Weyerhaeuser.

My favorite of these kinds of poems, though, is

My Father


In America, history goes by quickly.

Like a windstorm.

is a coat flattened against my father,
like newspaper
caught in blackberry.


I think of his grave
in the small cemetery outside Elma,
name and dates
carved in the headstone.
I remember the day he was buried by greedy men.
And the day before:
my mother, my brother and his wife, and I,
upstairs in Whiteside’s Funeral Parlor,
followed by the undertaker,
we walked across a lavender carpet
while the pastel lights
sent cheap violins weeping through the air,
trying to break us
between the rows of luxurious coffins.

My mother said, and almost laughed,
“shopping for a coffin,”
before she fell apart, crying in my arms,
trembling into her widowhood.


I said: “Dad hated this … Let’s not let them
beat him at the last.”

That day we chose the cheapest coffin
this country can make.
I watched the undertaker
wilt into his lavender economy and try to smile.
And my father
grew joyful inside me.

Back out on the street,
my brother shoved the car into second gear,
roaring, “This country
has gone to hell!”

In the back seat, our mother sat quaking
and holding behind a handkerchief her destroyed mouth
Over the craggy ridges of the handkerchief
her eyes burned shut
and cracked like ashes in the rain.

The fact that I particularly like this poem probably says more about me than it does about Sund’s poetry. First, when I was a caseworker, Elma’s elderly population was a part of my caseload. Although it was a poverty-stricken area, most of my caseload consisted of proud people who had outlived their retirement income, not surprising considering the inflation rate was nearly 18% in those days. Second, my family has never held funerals or purchased caskets; everyone has had their ashes spread in Puget Sound, starting with my grandmother and grandfather. Finally, my Scottish blood boils at the very thought of wasting money on an expensive casket to impress neighbors and “friends.”

It’s hard for me to imagine a more despicable example of greed than a funeral parlor salesman trying to cash in on a widow’s grief at the recent death of her husband, particularly since most of my welfare clients were widowers.

Robert Sund’s Poems from Ish River Country

It seems appropriate that I started reading Robert Sund’s Poems from Ish River Country while on my trip to Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon since the first section “Bunch Grass” is set in the wheat fields of Eastern Washington, though the poems often seem like they could have been written in China centuries ago.

You don’t have to read his biography
to learn Sund was fond of Buddhism and Chinese poetry. All you need to do is read:


A bee thumps against the dusty window,
falls to the sill,
climbs back up, buzzing;
falls again;
and does this over and over.
If only he would climb higher
The top half of the window is

Even though I suspect this poem’s style stems more from Roethke’s and William’s influence than from Chinese poetry considering it was published right after Roethke’s death, the style is so similar to hermetic Chinese poetry it seems inevitable that Sund would have found his way there. Even the conclusion seems more like an observation than a message.

This one


Near me,
there’s a flutter of birds passing through heaven.
I’m singing in a silent place,
remembering my happiest friends.
I’m a stalk of grass
where the wind is blowing.
You have to
bend close to hear
anything at all.

reminds me a lot of the best of Emily Dickinson’s poems, perhaps most because of the last three lines. These poems don’t shout at you; they whisper to you. Just like nature whispers to you. You have to listen carefully, or, like most people, you won’t hear the message at all.

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