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Review by Bill Yake
Taos Mountain, Robert Sund, Poet’s House Press.
Early in the spring of 1991 Robert Sund spent a rare three months
distant from his damp, sea-level homeland in western Washington
State. He boarded in a farmhouse with friends at the edge of Taos,
7000 feet up in the highlands of northern New Mexico, where he
soaked up the landscape and native traditions that surround that
ancient pueblo. Most nights he wrote poems and created haunting
paintings that echo the designs of traditional Puebloan blankets.
In early June when he headed home for his garden on a hilltop
overlooking Puget Sound (Sund called it the Salish Sea), he brought
gourd and blue corn seeds along with his Taos manuscript: “371
loose sheets of plain paper containing – in Robert’s
casual calligraphic handwriting – long and short verse sequences,
letters to friends (sent or unsent), journal entries, stories
and jottings” (Afterword, Glenn Hughes).
His blanket paintings were sown among friends and patrons.
Now, 16 years later, Robert’s friends and executors at
Poet’s House Press in Anacortes (WA) have published Taos
Mountain, a distillation of that season’s work – the
manuscript, the paintings, the musings. In accordance with Sund’s
wishes, the book was edited by Glenn (Chip) Hughes. It is –
in keeping with Sund’s lifelong esthetic – integral,
unpretentious, elegant and, thus, beautiful.
Taos Mountain contains potent and moving poems, certainly. Yet,
for me, the book entrances especially as a whole; as an intricate
and integrated response to place. Robert arrives as a stranger
and engages a new landscape: ‘making sense’ of a place
very different from his damp Salish homeland. He brings himself
and his interests fully to the task: friendships, calligraphy,
art, meditation, poetry, Buddhism, and, especially, his love of
landscape and its essential occupants.
Being displaced, even willingly, is unsettling. Sund’s
initial reaction seems to reflect this up-rooting:
Too many are landless, in the midst vast stretches of land.
Too many have left the land they had. Not only the homeless are
~ from Speaking From a Place
But there is also the joy of discovery, and Taos Mountain is
filled with that.
seems in its profile from here in town
like figures lying around a fire.
When you turn away
you can tell one of them
stood up and stretched and
sat down again.
Her skirts, her blanket
made quick little winds
sweeping through the ponderosa.
~ from Taos Mountain
Robert stays up nights writing at a table in his host’s
home, goes with his friends to ceremonies at the Pueblo, to hot
springs in a snow storm, to Santa Fe where the setting sun lights
up a cathedral window.
He experiences the new particulars of this place, moving from
assumed generalities to specifics:
I have been watching
these two horses for a week.
Every day they become more real.
~ from Two Horses
He watches, dreams, meditates, writes, paints, and cogitates.
His painting informs his poems, his poems his paintings.
For me poetry and painting are not separate. My best landscapes
are in the poems. My best ideas are in the paintings… To
bring poetry and painting close together, that is my work.
~ from the Foreword
The idea of weaving becomes an important metaphor for the way
Sund integrates the discoveries he is making through his various
means of inquiry.
In seeking a bit of context for Sund’s use of the idea
of weaving to examine this new place, I found this germane historical
note on the internet: “Weaving in the American Southwest
began more than 1000 years ago with the Anasazi… Until the
introduction of cotton, these ancestors of the Pueblo Indians
used human and animal hair, fur, and native plants in their non-loom
Sund’s poetry-weaving uses poetic materials in a way similar
to the Anasazi use of found fibers. He imagines a vertical warp:
Of all the colored strands
down from the sky,
the one that was mine to pull on
Later, painting –
a path back into the world.
~ from Poetry and Painting
Through this warp of art he weaves a weft of sky, mountain, memory,
night, star, and song. Sometimes the bands are recurrent days
and the rhythm of successive horizons: sunrise and sunset, layers
of day and night breathed successively: waking, followed by dreaming,
followed by waking.
Sometimes they the colors created by elevation on successive
…getting the colors down…and up the plateau the scattered
and persistent grey- green sagebrush, where nothing else would
~ from Hot Springs
His blankets are painted in earth-tones, crop-tones, horizon-tones,
and falling-evening tones; and their names reinforce their genesis
in this place: Shadow, Mesa Twilight, Blanket in Moonlight, Night
Blanket, Weaver’s Dream Made Real, Blanket Dream, Red Earth
Blanket, and Prayer for Blue Corn.
Similar materials are used and reused as they would be in weaving
a blanket or rug. [I wonder if Robert considered that when he
played his autoharp, it was as if the tune were woven on the strings?]
Taos Mountain integrates experience and place; poetry, lyric,
prose and painting; black ink calligraphy and color plates, the
waking experience and the dreamt versions that reinterprets experience;
what is seen and heard, what is imagined, and the speculations
and realizations that come through mulling over it all.
Yet, despite the experiences, speculations and realizations,
much of Taos Mountain remains mystery. What is the motivation
to art? What is the result? What is the relationship between artists
of a place and the other inhabitants of the land?
When the wool blankets were woven
When the jars were painted, using
blades of yucca plant
It could have been a plain blanket,
it could have been a jar with
no figures on it.
or a grass basket unadorned.
would the lightening go to rest
where would the streams
remember to flow,
where would the willow hang its leaves.
what home would
the mountain grouse have
How would the young woman
remember her grandmother’s hands
Where would wool go to be beautiful.
and a story go to stretch itself out.
~ from When the Wool Blankets Were Woven
The questions of this poem seem to evoke the native tales that
turn questions into lessons, tales that assume that the beings
and powers of the world – wind, mountains, snow, sunlight
and coyotes – are invested with spirits and personalities
that make these powers players in stories of creation and causation.
In many of the Taos poems native beliefs seem to have dovetailed
with the spirits-and-essences that inhabited Sund’s dreams,
the creatures in his poem-worlds, his tools (pen and ink bottle),
and the artistic creations that sprung from these sources. In
Taos, Robert seems to have added a native sensibility to his understandings
of his Buddhist practice to meld a sort of native Folk Buddhism
that served as the creative center for his poetics.
When Robert returns home to the early summer showers of western
Washington, we can easily imagine him bringing not only gourd
and blue corn seeds, but also the colors of the Taos landscape,
new mysteries, seeds of Pueblan culture, and a widened vision.
These are the gifts we and Robert traveled for, and Taos Mountain
gathers them bountifully and elegantly for Sund’s growing
community of readers.
1Southwest Textiles: Pueblo and Navajo Traditions: St Louis Art
Bill Yake worked as a scientist for the Washington State
Department of Ecology for 24 years. His book This Old Riddle:
Cormorants & Rain (Radiolarian Press) was reviewed in issue
five of the PRRB.