Category Archives: William Stafford

William Stafford Tribute, 2013

In my introductory remarks at the William Stafford Tribute, I noted that Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen and Jack Kerouac spent summers in the Upper Skagit River Valley working for the US Forest Service as fire lookouts, and that Robert Sund lived most of his life in the lower valley. I don’t know how long William Stafford lingered in the valley; his footprint is mostly in the Methow River Valley on the eastern slope of the North Cascades.

Did I meet them? No. I moved with my parents to a primitive cabin on the banks of the Cascade River in 1935; lived there for a few months before moving to Rockport, then across the river. I left the upper valley after graduating from high school in 1951, before any of these men arrived.

I read the following at the tribute at Village Books in Fairhaven, Bellingham, WA, on January 17.


“I like to live in the sound of water,

in the feel of mountain air. A sharp

reminder hits me: this world still is alive;

it stretches out there shivering toward it own

creation, and I’m a part of it. …”

—William Stafford, Time for Serenity, Anyone?


            
            Born in Ice

Born in ice melts and trickling creeks,

the Skagit rushes out of Canada

through gorges, faults, breached ice-age

moraines and magma,

grows in voice and spirit

as it flows to the Sound.

Raven, salmon, eagle and The-People-of-The-River

were one in word

before King-George-People and their books,

sought to make The-River their own.

With magnanimity,

The-River has borne evils

of 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 return The-Valley

to days before the world changed.

Skagit River, B.C.-WA

On April 28, 1996, I read “How This Eagle Came To Be” during the ceremony when an eagle carved in cedar was presented to the North Cascades National Park in memory of my mother’s friend, Marge Martin Emmons, a member of the Upper Skagit Tribe. It was dedicated in the North Cascades Interpretive Center, Newhalem, WA, a few hundred yards from her birthplace on the Skagit River. Born in July when twinflowers were blooming, she was a lifelong nurse, dying when winter’s darkness was leaving the valley.

 

How This Eagle Came To Be

 for  Marge Martin Emmons, Upper Skagit Tribe

 July 21, 1914-April 22, 1995.

 

A long time ago—

The Skagit splashed on rocks where wild goats fed,

Eagles rested in cottonwoods by quiet waters.

All beings spoke one tongue.

First-People and animals lived in harmony.

 

One day, Creator came to this place—

Sun was smiling.  Clouds were sleeping.

Wind was touching twinflowers, tasting berries.

An eaglet danced in her virgin feathers.

 

Creator sang—

This eagle will soar over clouds,

Sing a caring song for all people,

Follow prophets to far mountains and rivers.

Gentle and wise, mindful of righteous paths,

She will see beyond horizons and tiny stones.

My spirit will be in her.


Then Creator said—

In the days when darkness leaves this valley,

When rain dances on the snow

And forget-me-nots are kissed by the dew,

This eagle will fly to her cedar tree,

To a totem crowned for eternity.

Her spirit will be forever free.

North Cascades Mountains

     Newhalem, WA


Never Been in a Canoe

“Get in!”

Marcus hollers over a deafening river.

“We’re goin’ wid’out chuh.”

“Hurry up, chicken shit,” Frank yells!

 

Marcus, fourteen, staggers

to keep his footing in the canoe bow,

leans on the pole he thrust into shallows

until it bends, holding the canoe in place.

 

Frank, thirteen, in the stern,

teeters in a wobbly balance,

pushes his pole downward

to steady the cedar shell.

 

I wade into water slapping

my knees. Grab the gunnel.

I’m almost nine, never been in a canoe.

“’Not chicken shit,” I whimper.

 

I glance at the river—

an uprooted cottonwood is diving,

rolling in the current,

coming right at us.

I look down. Shiver.

Blurt,

“It’s not yours! You

dragged it out of the brush.”

 

“Damn it, chicken shit.

Get in!”

                    Upper 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 rhubarb leaves.


If it stops, Dad will call me

to the pasture to auger holes

for hand-split posts replacing

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


Bedtime reading

    My bedtime reading has always been kind of a ritual. Currently, I read a poem, if it is a page or shorter, followed by a couple pages of prose. That is, if I don’t fall asleep first. Right now I am rereading William Stafford’s ‘Even in Quiet Places,’ poems collected from several chapbooks that his son Kim and several associates made after Stafford’s death. I’m particularly attracted to ‘The Methow River Poems.’ For prose, I’m rereading ‘In Pharaoh’s Army,’ Tobias Wolff’s memoir of the Viet Nam War.
    Both of these writers share my valley, the Upper Skagit, with me. Stafford wrote some of his last poems at the request of two forest rangers as he traveled over the North Cascade Highway; and Wolff is an alumnus of my high school, Concrete HS. Two cautions: He came about 20 years after me and ‘This Boy’s Life’ is a highly imaginative memoir and the movie even more so.
    What is on your bed stand?

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.

Celebrating the life of William Stafford, Poet

A dozen of us gathered before a standing-room-only crowd in the reading room at Village Books in Old Fairhaven to celebrate the life and poetry of William Stafford (1914-1993) on the evening of January 18. Some knew him as their teacher, others as a workshop leader, lecturer, or U.S. poet laureate. Most of us knew him through his poetry or his iconic attributes. Poet Jim Bertolino emceed.

 We read from his poetry and from our own that were either inspired by Stafford or the natural world that was his inspiration. I read “A Valley Like This,” a poem that is etched on signage at the Washington Pass Overlook in the North Cascades Mountains, Washington State. From mine, I read “Chak-Chak, the Skagit Bald Eagle” from Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 and unpublished “From Rockport Bridge.” Both are written about the locale just down the river from Washington Pass. See www.richardleeharris.net.

 

From Rockport Bridge

 

I stand on Rockport Bridge,

This sunlit winter day.

My eyes follow the Skagit

Past Washington Eddy

To Eldorado’s glistening ridge.

 

 For a fleeting moment, I see

Snowy ridges, glacial slopes,

Alpine lakes, and hanging valleys,

Traces of ice from eons ago.

 

Framed by cottonwoods and purple hills,

The road edging Mount Sauk

Scribes the river,

Gently washing pebbles

Beneath a winter sky.

 

Travelers pass me

In eagle search,

Skimming the view—

A ferry barge,

A cedar canoe,

Our log cabin—

Artifacts of my youth.

 

These incidental visitors

Will never hear eagles call,

See black bear fish,

Trout rise to the fly,

Witness stars outshining the night—

All that I see from Rockport Bridge.

                   Rockport, Washington, (1994)