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Ann Spiers, Back Cut

BACK CUT, Ann Spiers. Black Heron Press, PO Box 614, Anacortes, WA 98221, 2021, 88 pages, $16 paper, www.blackheronpress.com.

I had dropped by Edmonds Bookshop to quickly pick up Sharon Hashimoto’s book of poems, when this slim volume (too) caught my eye. The cover is black, but has darker blocks set into the background. The title, in white letters, is partly cut away.

On the back cover, testimonials from poets we’ve already heard from this month: Kevin Miller (“a love story weathered and brined in the wilds of the Washington coast”); Sharon Hashimoto (“mastery of such unspoken, yet tender emotions”). Inside, more testimonials. And the poet’s introduction:

In felling a tree, the initial deep undercut is wedge shaped. This cut determines the direction of the fall. Opposite and higher than the initial cut is the back cut, the first of the felling cuts. The labor varies with tree, axe or saw, and with the crew’s strength and smarts.

Having grown up not far from the wild Washington coast, I found familiar voices in this cycle of love poems. The husband and wife (whose voices alternate) scrape a living from the shore and the trees. They escape fires. The wife plays piano. The husband—a veteran of WWII—drinks. They make a life.

It’s difficult to excerpt this book (you sort of have to read the whole thing). But here’s a sample:

Husband—
Putting Up For Winter

The glut
we net smelt out
of the wave’s long running
eagles snag silver scattering
crazy

salmon
so plentiful
their splishes racket up
stream    bear smell hot at every
trail turn

so thick
huckleberry
milked from the stem plunk plunk
in our buckets     fresh scat purple
with fruit

so much
we cannot stop
bigger loads just one more
woodstove glowing into the night
horse clams

—Ann Spiers

Some of poems are in numbered parts. All are spare, no punctuation, no ands or buts — all those little “stage directions” such as yet, then, next, “I thought,” and so on that I find in my poems — anything unnecessary stripped away, life itself, stark, shining. The subject matter reminded me of my family, and these voices, hard-bitten, “briny,” took me back. I came away from it wanting to write, which is one of the reasons I value doing all this reading of poetry books every April.

Ann Spiers is poet laureate of Vashon Island, has several art-chapbooks, and teaches poetry writing. You can learn more about her (and you should!) at http://annspiers.com.

Sharon Hashimoto, More American

MORE AMERICAN, Sharon Hashimoto. Off the Grid Press, Grid Books, Boston, MA, 2021, 80 pages, $16 paper, grid-books.org.

I knew Sharon Hashimoto in graduate school, and have long been an admirer. Her first book of poetry, The Crane Wife, was a co-winner of the 2003 Nicholas Roerich Prize, originally published by Story Line Press and now reprinted by Red Hen Press. It was a privilege, this morning, to read her 2021 book, More American.

Samuel Green, the inaugural Washington State Poet Laureate, writes of this book:

I often wonder whether the urge to share joy isn’t one of the most primal human urgencies. Perhaps that’s behind the impulse to read so many of the poems of Sharon Hashimoto’s More American aloud to someone else. “Old memories are ghosts we walk through,” she says in one poems. Hashimoto knows how to let those ghosts bear witness without nostalgia in poems of reconciliation, tolerance, forgiveness, and the sort of love that understands it might never be seen for what it is… (back cover)

And that comes as close as I can to explaining why I’m sharing this book with you. Hashimoto has crafted poems here that collect and treasure family voices, stories of internment and military service, education, and a grandmother, peeling onions, or rising from her bath. Every subject is given such poise and dignity, even when buttocks and breasts are “plump bags,” “socks stretched.” It is a book of family, and a book of witness to that family’s particular (and particularly) American history.

It’s also exquisitely crafted, both the book and the individual poems. In the first section, “Japanese-American Dictionary,” I found myself reading aloud, just for the pleasure of Hashimoto’s words, carefully chosen like ingredients her grandmother uses in her recipes: “shoyu-soaked ropes, / chicken sizzled in garlic and fat. Home // was smell: seaweed, ginger, and rice wine / vinegar” (“Oriental Flavors”).

Language abounds here. “What I knew of Japan / was in my parents’ faces: / okasan, ojisan—the baby sounds / I sometimes used for mother, father,” as we hear in another poem (“A Matter of Loyalty: Question #28, A Nisei’s Response”). These ghostly voices, though, are what I believe will stay with me.

Those Left to Tell: For A. C.

The Igbo of Nigeria believe
you’re only gone when the last relative

who remembers you has died. Dear cousin,
we’re old enough to recall Grandma’s kitchen—

the Nehi bottles of orange fizz lined up
for special meals on New Year’s with the shrimp,

those stiff translucent shells we snapped in half.
Her sink was wide and deep—big enough

to wash my sister in. Fifty years:
the largest anniversary picture

barely held us all while our numbers
quickly spread like ripples fanning far

from shore. Only Aunty Meri
lives on; my mom, your dad—a fading story

that holds huge holes we’ll never fully know.
Memory makes of us brief cameos.

—Sharon Hashimoto

If you’d like to learn more about Hashimoto and her writing, visit Poetry Foundation, Off the Grid Press, or follow this link to the Edmonds Bookshop poetry reading from April 21, 2022.

Ursula K. Le Guin, So Far So Good

SO FAR SO GOOD: FINAL POEMS: 2014-2018, Ursula K. Le Guin. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2018, 89 pages, $23 hardback, https://www.coppercanyonpress.org

I was standing in front of the poetry shelf in Edmonds Bookshop, planning to pick up a book by Jericho Brown or Ada Limón, when this little treasure caught my eye. Hardback, brand new. Not too long after Le Guin’s death in 2018.

How It Seems to Me

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

The poems here are elegiac, but also playful (“Judging beauty, which is keenest, / Eye or heart or mind or penis?”). They draw from Le Guin’s childhood, and lean into science and natural history. A sequence of 12 poems are built on the final voyage of Lt. William Bligh—or, not “the subject,” but “the metaphor” (“this little boat my body / its ragged sail my soul”).

As a wannabe novelist, this poem especially appealed to me:

The Old Novelist’s Lament

I miss the many that I was,
my lovers, my adventurers,
the women I went with to the Pole.
What was mine and what was theirs?
We were all rich. Now that I share
the cowardice of poverty,
I miss that courage of companionship.
I wish they might come back to me
and free me from this cell of self,
this stale sink of age and ills,
and take me on the ways they knew,
under the sky, across the hills.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Did Le Guin know this would be her last book? Maybe my knowing was enough. But Le Guin does seem to be letting go, or taking hold of something else, something larger: “I am such a long way from my ancestors now / in my extreme old age that I feel more one of them / than their descendent” (from “Ancestry”).

I bought the other books, too, by the way. But this one is such a lovely artifact. There’s no end of praise—and awards—that I could list here. You can read more at https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/authors/ursula-k-le-guin/ and https://www.ursulakleguin.com/home/.

By the way—should you miss it on the home page, I am reading with four other Northwest poets on April 21, 6-7 p..m, on Zoom, hosted by Edmonds Bookshop and Rose Alley Press. Navigate to https://edmondsbookshop.indielite.org/event/annual-poetry-night-virtual-again-year to find out more.

Holly Hughes & Bethany Reid

Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

On Thursday, 15 October 2020, Edmonds Bookshop is hosting a virtual reading with poet Holly Hughes, me, and moderator David Brewster. I would love to have you join us!

Click on the link (above) to go to their Events page, where you’ll be redirected to Facebook.

If you are looking for any of my books, Edmonds Bookshop has signed copies of Sparrow (2012), Body My House (2018),and Ravenna Press’s Triple No. 10 (2020),which includes my chapbook, “The Thing with Feathers.”

Here’s a sample from the chapbook:

Like Emily, She Hears a Buzz

Maybe I did hear a fly buzz
but I hadn’t died.
I wasn’t dressed in white.
I never said “I do.” 

So if a fly buzzed, what
stopped me from buzzing, too,
zipping right out that window?

I don’t think I was a fly–

I was all in black and gold
like a bee or a queen.
Everyone bowed and buzzed
as I passed by.