Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Taos Mountain

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 homeless.
~ from Speaking From a Place

But there is also the joy of discovery, and Taos Mountain is filled with that.

The mountain
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 weavings…” 1

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
was poetry.

Later, painting –
another thread.
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 life zones:

…getting the colors down…and up the plateau the scattered and persistent grey- green sagebrush, where nothing else would thrive…”
~ 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.

Then where
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 Museum

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.