September 2009

Poets and places in Ish Country

By Art Goodtimes

SHI SHI … For years Dolores LaChapelle would talk about this wilderness beach on the northwestern tip of the Olympic National Park in the most reverent of terms. If there was a Shangri La on this mortal coil, Shi Shi was it for my Way of the Mountain guru in Silverton. The beach gradually began to assume a mythic quality in my mind … Several years ago the family made an abortive attempt to visit, but we didn’t really get to see this stretch of the Washington coast south of the Makah reservation at Neah Bay … So, with the help of my dear writer friend and San Francisco hiking buddy, Steve Clark, Gorio and I finally arranged a poets’ hike out to this legendary strand of the Pacific. Steve, who lives in Anacortes, pulled together a rag-tag bunch of bards and poetry- lovers to backpack from Shi Shi down to the Ozette River. We spent four days, alternating lounging on the beach and making perilous treks up and down steep cliffs with heavy packs and across slippery low-tide rocks (finding a starfish with 21 arms in one barnacled pool) … Appropriately, a coyote ran along the tideline at one beach camp we made, loping along the whole time with its head cocked back to eye us. Unafraid but wary … It was a grand adventure. Slow and lazy, with hot rum toddies around the evening campfires full of poetry and funny stories and scandalously irreverent boy-talk. Long and arduous, dangling over precipices of fern and cliffstone on narrow mudpaths and hiking miles of boardwalk through coastal rainforest swamps. … Shi Shi. Its spell only stronger now that we know it as more than mere legend.


In Asparagus Moonlight

— for Tim and the boys

The sounds of surf.
The name of smelt.
Sund's spruce-needle rain.

Honor the myriad ways
to climb the roped cliffs.
To translate sea against rock

as we gather like gulls
to ride a tide of words
ashore at Shi Shi.

ROBERT SUND … Our first two days we camped at the mouth of Petroleum Creek, just a stone’s throw from the spot where the most illustrious of the Ish poets had a cabin for many years. I’d heard of Sund. Knew his brilliant short poem that’s become a mantra in my life (especially my political life, where the words ring bell-true as cast bronze): “In every good dance / there is a step backwards / too” … But I didn’t really know the man. And had a wrong image – thinking a tweedy academic when, in truth, he was much more the wild eccentric. A devoted bard, untamed by society, committed to writing above all and depending a lot on friends for shelter and sustenance. We read a batch of his poems written at Shi Shi, collected in his book, “Poems from Ish River Country: Collected Poems & Translations” (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004) … Sund was the one to call out the Pacific Northwest as “Ish Country” – for all the native-named rivers ending in “ish” that threaded the Olympic bays and coastline. And his lyric ghost roams the rivers and ridges of Ish Country still -- on tidal poles at Skagit’s Fish Town, in the shipyard at Anacortes, in the lost cabin at Shi Shi.

TIM MCNULTY … If there’s one poet who’s inherited the mantle of Ish Country bard from Sund, it’s hard not to think of Tim McNulty. I’d met him in passing 35 years ago at a bookstore in Seattle. I was taken with his work back then. Spare, honed to a gem-like clarity, with that inventive leap of language and thought that marked the Taoist masters of old … He came from that lineage of American poets who revere Gary Snyder as our nation’s greatest living poet and one of our greatest ecological thinkers – a group I count myself among (as did Dolores, my teacher) … But I was not prepared for a man so generous and humble. No airs. No laurel wreath of distance or self-importance. And his work had only grown more limpid over the years. Deeper in the mystery. He read with quiet authority, letting the lean words take on the shrouds of insight and significance that only fine writing can … We stayed a night at his slopeside home within sight of Blue Mountain near Sequim, and he and his wife Mary treated our rowdy crew like kings. As a traveling companion he was lively and attentive, sharing but never dominating. And yet you couldn’t help being impressed to find his natural history to Olympic National Park in the visitor center, to learn of his Herculean efforts that led to important additions to the park and continues to lead the championing of wild lands in the Pacific Northwest … Amazon will get you a list of his many books, so let me just recommend “In Blue Mountain Dusk” (Pleasure Boat Studio,1993). I think I can safely say McNulty’s lyric shadow stretches over far more than just Ish Country – an American poet not to miss.

MICHAEL DALEY … Nor was McNulty the only Ish poet of note in our ad hoc Shi Shi gang. Through my friend Steve, I’d gotten to be friends with Michael Daley – as important a figure in Ish Country as anyone I’d read. His Dal’oma magazine and Empty Bowl press offerings were icons of Pacific Northwest writing since the Sixties. I’d collected many of them over the years. And I’d come to read Michael’s own writings, both poetry and essays. Again brilliant, but with mysterious twists and elegant knots of thought that took more than a single reading to unravel. His work requires one to center, listen carefully and go back to the source many times to taste the sweet meaning water. It’s not poetry (nor prose) for skimmers. But the rewards of hard work become apparent when the thorny stanzas ripen like raspberries on the tongue … Check out “To Curve” (WordTech Communications, 2008)) and his marvelous prose collection, “Way Out There: Lyrical Essays” (Aequitas Books, 2006)

RACHAEL ROSE … Bob Rose was one of our over-60 gang – a shipwright and ecological activist whose own book of poetry, “Living On Islands,” was long out of print. But he kept telling me about his daughter, Rachael, and what a fine poet she was. So, after the hike, he had Rachael and a few of us over for a feast at his seaside home. And, indeed, Rachael’s poetry spirited me away. Hearing of my own Japanborn grandmother, she shared a poem about American assumptions about the Japanese (she lived in Japan for some years) and a companion piece about Japanese assumptions about Americans. Great poems with piercing insights, humor and a connoisseur’s taste for language. And then she did another piece about birthing (she has three children). It took me deeper into the actual experience from a woman’s perspective than anything I’d ever heard or read … Her first book, “Giving My Body to Science,” was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Pat Lowther Award, and the Grand Prix du Livre de Montreal, and won the Quebec Writers’ Federation A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. Check out her latest book, Notes on Arrival and Departure (McClelland & Stewart, 2005).

Art Goodtimes is a San Miguel County commissioner.