Category Archives: Communicate in plainspoken English

Devil’s Club Walking Stick

Some say that when you find a topic that catches your eye, you will write about it in different ways once, twice, thrice, maybe nine! Here’s one I’ve written as prose and now as poetry. Each time, it is the memory that I wish to convey.

An elder speaks in solemn tones:

In spring when leaves are full
and bark slips away,
select a stalk of devil’s club.

Cut it to fit your grip.

Carefully peel the evil thorns.

For a season, cure the naked staff.           


Use a shoulder blade of a deer,

to bone it smooth and dense.

Wrap your handhold with rawhide,

string amulets of beads and hips.


Quietly, take your walking stick

through the river’s shadowy thickets.

Listen as the inner spirit speaks.

Feel your walking stick’s magic

as the evil spirits steal away.


Summer Shower

          
Which form works best: lined or prose?


  
Summer Shower

I lay here in the semi-light of our cabin’s loft,

dreaming to the rhythm of a summer shower

raining on moss-chinked cedar shakes,

collecting in rivulets coursing the pitch,

dropping softly on June roses,

drumming elephantine rhubarb.


If it stops, Dad will call me
to the pasture
to auger holes
for hand-split posts to
replace
those homesteaders planted,

now rotted in the ground,

no longer defending hay meadows

with rusting, sagging, barbed wire.

             South side of the Skagit River

                      Rockport, WA

Summer Shower

I lay here in the semi-light of our cabin’s loft, dreaming to the rhythm of a summer shower raining on moss-chinked cedar shakes, collecting in rivulets coursing the pitch, dropping softly on June roses, drumming elephantine rhubarb.

If it stops, Dad will call me to the pasture to auger holes for hand-split posts replacing those homesteaders planted, now rotted to the ground, no longer defending the hay meadows with rusting, sagging barbed wire.
                                                                               South side of Skagit River
                                                                                             Rockport, WA

Midstream (Chapbook)


Midstream
on the upper Skagit River, a Wild and Scenic River

Richard Lee “Dick” Harris

You surmised correctly. I am a poet of place, grounded in the Upper Skagit River Valley in the Cascade Mountains of Northwest Washington State who appreciates the grandeur of nature. I did enjoy fishing and owned a boat—an aluminum canoe with a quarter-horse electric trolling motor. Two years at Boy Scout camp and still I could only swim a few strokes. The boys who taunted me pulled me from a river backwater as I was drowning.

As you interact with my words you will learn that my growing up in log cabins without electricity, indoor plumbing, or running water, in an isolated culture of backwoods loggers and Native Americans in the Upper Skagit River Valley shaped my perceptions and language; and from this valley, I wandered through much of the world observing the significance and uniqueness of ordinary experiences, their relationship to the natural world, and clash of cultures.

******

Born in ice melts and trickling creeks, the Skagit River rushes through gorges, faults, breached ice age moraines and magma, growing in voice and spirit as it flows to the Sound. Raven, salmon, eagles and The-People-of-The-River were one in word and spirit before Chechacos, King-George-People, and their books, sought to make The-River their own.

With magnanimity, The-River has borne the evils of their ditches, dikes, and dams. When leaves rustle golden, it calls Wind-Spirit and Rain-Spirit to return Valley-Spirit; and when creeks quicken and fawns drop, it calls Shaman Spirit to awaken from dreaming-sleep and restore the The-Valley to days before the world changed.

******

In the season of advent, in the days of long nights, storms sweep our valley with moisture laden clouds streaming fog and mist over sandbars and sloughs and lifting their disgorged masses over the North Cascades. Eroded windfalls and flotsam careen and crash in the river’s turbulence. Leafless cottonwoods and shallow-rooted hemlocks torn from saturated earth and duff-laden sponge dive and bob in undulating arrhythmia. Roots skeletonized into filigreed tendrils spew frothy wakes of dirt and rocks.

These storms happened when The-People-of-the-River spoke many tongues and the river ran both ways. And, they will happen again.

******         

 

This River Sings


Snow, avalanche, and scree;

creeks, ponds, and seeps,

collect in reverberating rush,

cascade in mountain pools,

eddies glazed undercurrents.

 

Mosquitoes and deerflies,

humorless protein,

psalmic multitudes,

survive winter’s minus.

Spring, tempered and wet,

its creeks quicken and swirl.

Tawny duff and flecks of sun

conceal newly dropped fawns.

 

Eagle, salmon, and raven

sing this river’s song—

sing as it flows—

            dammed,

        tunneled,

               diverted!


This river sings as it

sprays cool mist,

splashes rocks with

syncopated rim-shots.


Cottonwoods rustle in tenor,

maples in baritone,

as softly this river sings

through mist and fog.

 

Softly, its spirits sing


of a mountain’s ashes

rising in evening drafts.

 

Wild and free, this river sings.

******

Chak-Chak, the Skagit Bald Eagle


Perched in an old-growth forest,

Chak-Chak rouses. In morning light,

Scans the river with piercing eyes,

Searches sandy bars for dying chum.


Chak-Chak
breaks silence,

Soars from Sauk Mountain,

Drifts Washington Eddy;

Glides the river’s course.


Chak-Chak
skims shimmering water,

Clutches a floundering salmon,

Settles on a backwash beach,

Feeds on his catch.


Perched in barren cottonwoods,

On the south bank where the wild Skagit bends,

Chak-Chak, in stoic dignity,

Basks in warm afternoon sun.


Chak-Chak
calls his mate.

Wings extended, talons interlocked

In descending flight, they tumble,

Somersaulting earthward, breaking skyward.


Before evening shadows deepen,

Purple hues of dusk chase the day.

Chak-Chak catches an ascending draft

To his nightly roost—and slips away.

******



Insensitive that I can’t swim

or my parents’ orders,

my peers taunt me,

“Damn it, chicken shit.

Get in!”

With adolescent derring-do,

they defy undercurrents

to swim eddies.

I look down in humility,

count pebbles in the gravel

and dream of elsewhere.

******



I drive into the North Cascades
following scenic Skagit River past civilization’s blight to celebrate its wildness. I gaze in awe this fleeting moment at snowy ridges and glacial slopes, alpine lakes and hanging valleys, traces of ice from eons ago. I see barren hills stripped of hemlock, cedar and fir, dammed rivers, meadows without life, mountains raped for gold.

Others, too, have seen this blind greed and wanton scarring, destroying the spirit of this beloved land.

******

 Eagle Feathers and Rainbow

Looking at you now, Imogene, in your
cradle of lasting years, I see you in
our picture on the steps of Rockport School,
two rooms at the foot of your family’s

sacred mountain by the river of your
tribe, so many years ago. You are
the pumpkin-faced first grader wearing
a simple wash-dress in the first row,

                                                                                  

so sober under your freshly combed hair

and new barrette, Imogene. I’m a second-

grader behind you, all frowns and ears sticking

out, my hair slicked-down. I loved your name,


Imogene … Imogene. You see,

I still sing it. In minutes now, elders

will carry you away, to lower you

into an earthly bed under boughs of


cedar and snow on your sacred

mountain. As darkness hovers, Imogene,

your spirit will rise, an eagle passing

through a rainbow above the river.

******



Quelcid, Native American elder, teaches us to make
walking sticks.  She beats her deerskin drum and sings: Pick a devil’s club, peeled andcured, that fits your stature.  Bone it with a table knife, as my ancestors boned it with a deer’s shoulder blade.  Wrap the grip with rawhide.  Hang on it amulets of rosehips and beads.

To touch diabolical “devil’s
clubs,” Oplopanax horridum causes me to shudder.  With each stroke of the table knife, I remember horse-logging with Dad and my brother Jim on the back of our place.  I remember “swamping out” trails through devil’s club and vine maple before each tree was felled, and whacking out horse trails to drag the logs out to the truck.

I remember Jim bending the green stem, then letting go as I swung my ax. Up it would spring, slapping thorns into each of us, driving them through our worn-out gloves. Always, as we were pulling thorns out of our hands, dad and the team would show up, impatient and disgusted at his teenage helpers.From Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound to Vancouver Island and the Puget Sound, indigenous people have for centuries, burnt, carved, ground, mixed, painted, plastered, rubbed, steamed, tattooed, and infused roots, stems, inner bark, and berries of this genus of ginseng, sometimes with thistles, black hawthorn, prince’s pine, cascara, and bear grease, for medicine, magic, and fishing lures.

 And now to the beat of her drum, Quelcid sings: Take your walking stick.  Go quietly through shadowy thickets to the river’s edge.  Listen for its inner spirit speaking to a shaman, his face painted with bear grease and ash.  Evil spirits know its magic, they will sneak away.

******

Decades later, a thousand miles north, I walk along a River Road and the tidelands as the Chilkat River melds into Lynn Canal and the afternoon shadows of the Chilkat Range. I stroll past dandelions in multiple bouquets and remnants of snow in the off ditch decorated with florescent swamp lanterns, my winter coat over my shoulder.

Lunch is freshly caught trout and newly picked beach greens; dessert, spring’s first rhubarb.

Politics are with the crew at the Main Street intersection where the temperature is 57 degrees, Fahrenheit, filling chuckholes and replacing collapsing sewers. God is in the pantheist totem on the path between Mountain Market and the town library celebrating “where they go to learn by themselves.”

Only the eagle sees beyond the glaciers.

******




Endnotes

Skagit is pronounced SKAJ-it.

“Cheechako paddling shovel-nosed canoe, midstream Skagit River near Rockport ferry crossing” (Cover photo, circa 1920, from family collection).

Cheechako is Chinook Jargon combining Lower Chinook “right away” and Nootka “come” into “new comer.”

Born in ice melts and trickling ….” See “When the River Ran Both Ways,” Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009, (2010).

In the season of advent, in the days of long nights ….” See “Signs of Winter,” Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009, (2010).

“This River Sings” came to mind while I was sitting on the banks of the Skagit River at Rockport waiting for the celebration of life for my brother Marvin L. “Jim” Harris, 1937-2009, to begin. Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (2010); Phrasings In Word and Dance 2010 (spoken and dance); Chuckanut Sandstone Review, 2010; www.skagitriverjournal.com.

 “Chak-Chak, The Skagit Bald Eagle.” See backstory, Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (2010); p. 20, Concrete Herald, May 2010. Pencil sketch by Helen Harris.

“Eagle Feathers and Rainbow” is dedicated to Imogene Washington Bowen, 1935-2007, elder, Upper Skagit Tribe. Imogene is pronounced ΄Īm-ŭ-‘jēn. Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (2010).

“Quelcid, Native American elder, ….” Photo by Helen Harris.

“Decades later, a thousand miles north, ….” “Chilkat Range in the Morning” photo by RLH.

Collins, June McCormick. Valley of the Spirits: The Upper Skagit Indians of Western Washington (1974).

Hilbert, Vi, Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound. (1985).

Midstream was drafted in Generating & Editing Poems for Publication, an Iowa Summer Writing Festival workshop, June 9-15, 2012, led by Richard Jackson, UT Chattanooga.

William Stafford Tribute

Thursday, 1/19/12, I posted the following on Facebook:
    “At 2 p.m., Sunday, in the Village Books Reading Room, ‘a bevy of poets’ will celebrate William Stafford’s birthday (1914-1993) by reading 1-3 of their poems reflecting his influence on their work. This was originally scheduled for Tuesday evening, but weather intervened.
    
“If you’re in the area and you have the afternoon off, stop by. You’ll hear some pretty good poems by authors who knew Stafford as teacher, workshop leader, lecturer, or U.S. Poet Laureate. Several of us did not know him personally, but through his poetry or iconic attributes. Jim Bertolino will emcee.
    Although I never met Stafford, I see his focus on everyday events, common people, our relationship to place, and our search for quiet places, in many of my poems.
    It will be fun and stimulating. I hope the date and time change, or remnants of this week’s storm, don’t keep the chairs empty. It ain’t no fun readin’ to empty chairs!
***
    Sunday evening: It happened. A dozen poets read from Stafford’s and from their own. It was not quite SRO; there were a few vacant chairs.
    It was a good party with its own anniversary with Jim Bertolino celebrating his sixth year as emcee, for which he was given a hearty round of thanks.
***

    My contribution was with the following comments and poetry:

Kim Stafford wrote in “Afterword” of Even in Quiet Places that one time a woman in the audience said aloud during one of his father’s readings, “Why, these poems are so simple, I could have written them myself.” Stafford replied, “But you didn’t.” She looked up at him, and he said, “but you could write your own.”

All I can say is, “Teacher, I try.”

***

I must admit that I had recently read William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” when I wrote the draft for this first poem while sitting in the Calgary airport:

The Commute

During an early dawn commute

in the after-fog of a summer storm

north of Calgary

through a windshield blurred with road oil

I see tire skids in the gravel

plowing ruts to the brink of a ditch

and

a deer half-buried in turgid muck

belly up

neck twisted

one bulbous eye staring into cattails


I drive on

***


My second poem is dedicated to Anglican priest and Anglo-Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, a contemporary of William Stafford who shared similar attributes and foci, although he lived 7-8 time zones and a culture away.


    Welsh Hireling

“If you can till your fields and stand to see

The world go by, …”

—R. S. Thomas, “Iago Prytherch”


A miniature tractor works a not-too-distant field

raises clouds of dust from

behind an age-old fence of rocks and impenetrable hedge

as it circles the tight corners

of a medieval field enclosed by clergy and crown.


A metallic clatter resounds across the hillside

as harrow teeth spring and snap the rocky terrain,

preparing for midsummer fallow

before seeding a new grazing cycle.


Does its driver hunched over his controls,

lurching in continual jolts,

own the field he tills?


Or is he a hireling, whose birthright,

his claim to the land,

was forfeited by ancestors?


Does he work from hire to hire,

wasting his muscles

as this incessant wind thins his hair,

furrows his brow, and

dissuades his dreams?

***


“Stand by the river

listen to the sound,

to the voice speaking

the truth of this place.”

        —RLH


These words epitomize Stafford’s The Methow River Poems, and could easily do the same for my Upper Skagit River poems.


This
River Sings

For my brother


Snow, avalanche, and scree;

creeks, ponds, and seeps,

collect in reverberating rush,

cascade in mountain pools,

eddies glazed undercurrents.


Mosquitoes and deerflies,

humorless protein,

psalmic multitudes,

survive winter’s minus.


Spring, tempered and wet,

its creeks quicken and swirl.

Tawny duff and flecks of sun

conceal newly dropped fawns.


Eagle, salmon, and raven

sing this river’s song—

sing as it flows—

dammed,

tunneled,

diverted!


This river sings as it

sprays cool mist,

splashes rocks with

syncopated rim-shots.


Cottonwoods rustle in tenor,

maples in baritone,

as softly this river sings

through mist and fog.


Softly, its spirits sing

of a mountain’s ashes

rising in evening drafts.


Wild and free, this river sings.

What a poem means to me, to you, and when!

Most recently the “something to read while waiting” for me, has been the monthly issue of Poetry. Carolyn Forché’s article “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art,” particularly the Q & A, in May was most insightful and stimulating. Her exploration of  “ . . . we can’t know what the poem means because we can’t know what it will mean later” led me to attempt articulation of the meaning of my own poems. The following is the best I can come up with at the moment:

As a poet, I can only know the meaning of a poem at the time I write it. The next day, it may mean something different; and the next day, different still. Likewise, a poem’s meaning to a reader when he or she first reads it might change each time it is read. Meanings may deepen or dissipate, or simply change. Also, each reader will read into a poem his or her own meaning.

As a poet, my responsibility is to communicate as clearly as possible with the imprecise language that is available to me, so that the essence of a poem’s initial meaning may carry forward, regardless of when or who reads it.

I Begin my Path to Poetry, Part I

        My path to poetry has been neither deliberate nor direct. Its wandering may be followed through “A Path Lately Taken,” “My Parents’ Dreams,” “Selected References,” and “Acknowledgements,” all in the back matter in Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009. Here, I briefly note signposts along the way.

I first sensed rhythm and music, and the use of words that eventually shaped my poetry in the nursery rhymes my mother taught me, and in the naptime stories in Good Housekeeping magazine she read to my siblings and me.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the origin of words, their use, and in writing them down. My mother said that from the time I could talk I asked questions and persisted until I was satisfied with the answers.

After I learned to read, I became an insatiable reader. In spite of limited family resources, I was encouraged to read by my mother and my teachers. Still, today, I can flash back to the adventure stories and children’s classics I read during a summer of limited activity while I was recovering from undefined rheumatic fever.

Through my college years, I did not like poetry because I was not supposed to. I was unaware that it existed in the very essence of nursery rhymes; the playground chants, jingles and teases I so enjoyed; the patriotic and celebratory songs I sang off-key and at the top of my lungs; and in the school band and glee club music that was a big part of my life.

I write in a straightforward style, striving for precise imagery and letting story and language dictate mode, stanza, and line. Epiphanies, symbolism, philosophical assertions, and layers of complexity may or may not arise as I write. Beginning with the known, I try to give a poem life and spirit by imagining the unknown. Form flows out of content. Sometimes this is conventional, other times it is free verse.

I write to communicate in plainspoken English, and to express myself in poetic speech that which I have read, heard, remembered, or ought to have remembered in a manner described by Wendell Berry in his essay “The Responsibility of the Poet” (What Are People For? Essays).

Once I reimagine a notion, I draft notes, research, compose verses, edit, “sleep on it,” rewrite, redraft, edit, “sleep on it,” sometimes repeating this cycle forty or fifty times for years until I am satisfied.

I find the following tools crucial to writing poems: (1) read it aloud as I write; (2) observe audience comments and body language when reading publicly; (3) record and listen back to public readings; and (4) keep an attitude that a poem is always a draft.

Listening to CD’s and watching DVD’s of either the author or a trained interpreter reading are invaluable to understanding a poem. More and more digital recordings are packaged with books. With the growth of the World Wide Web, audio poetry has become the new medium. Three sites with extensive selections are The Poetry Archives, www.poetsarchives.org, The Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org and PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, www.pbs.org.