Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Notes from Disappearing Lake

review by Michael Daley

Notes from Disappearing Lake: The River Journals of Robert Sund
Edited by Glenn Hughes and Tim McNulty
Pleasure Boat Studio
$15.00, 98 pages

For Henry David Thoreau’s poems at Walden Pond read Robert Sund’s Notes from Disappearing Lake. Had Thoreau been less of an explainer, and less obsessed with teaching his fellow men and neighbors, his astute observations in Walden might well have been refined to the minutely focused, musical poems Sund wrote by way of journal entries. By contrast, if Walden was Thoreau’s response to several months building and then living in his own shack at the pond, Sund’s journals span fourteen years of his life, and also include the renovation of his shack, originally the net shed for fishers along the Skagit River. Thoreau, however, did see it through for two New England winters, while Sund spent those winters in the town with friends. Robert Sund is on the way to publishing more books after death than in life. His first book, Bunch Grass, was published by the University of Washington Press in 1969, while his next, Ish River, for which he was awarded the Washington State Governor’s Writing Award, was published by North Point Press in 1983. Although he published several chapbooks, his posthumous collected poems, Poems from Ish River Country (Shoemaker & Hoard), came out in 2004, and Taos Mountain (Poet’s House Press) in 2007. He was widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Western Washington.

Though Notes from Disappearing Lake is a collection of the best of daily entries over so long a time, culled and introduced by Tim McNulty and Glenn Hughes, it is fair to assume that entries not selected for this volume were also written as poems or prose commentary. The editors tell us, “For most of the 70s and 80s Sund spent part of each year at his shack in the tidal marsh and estuary of the Skagit River. His small shack was only a short row from nearby La Conner, Washington…” So, like Thoreau, he went frequently back to ‘civilization,’ and though sometimes in his hermitage, he did not lack the comforts of human contact, and did in fact, as evidenced in many of the entries, steep himself in the joys and lives of others.

There’s something to be said for keeping a journal in daily or frequent poetic form. “The River Journals” represents, one would think, a practice of observation, emotion, and gestures; it depicts a life lived otherwise, away from the world, for there are no mentions of the news of the day— whose regime, which wars, the cost of gas, bread, wine, no intrusions by government and media. In his October 4, 1978, entry, Sund meets poet, painter and translator, Paul Hansen on a day when both made trips to town:

We look at the world—
something in the newspaper, maybe—
shake our heads and
break out laughing..

The image of Zen monks comes to mind as it does frequently in the book, hermit poets who removed themselves from the pace of the street, the influence of “the world.” Two stanzas later, Sund issues first a gentle, prosaic comment on their laughter at news events defining the lives of others, and then with more precise, clinical detachment employs an image at once stinging and rife with the freedom of flight:

You could call it
shaking off the
dust of the world—

Like the heron
picking lice out of
his wingfeathers.

Although there are some brief narratives in these journals—arrivals, travels and meetings with friends, encounters with mice, with a weasel, with swallows, and geese—Notes from Disappearing Lake reads like a primer in embellished lyrical form. Sund uses his front porch frequently, or the stillness at night, to capture the sound of migrations, of wind in marsh grass, of moon and cloud. The poems form an impressionist’s gallery, evident from the name he gave the estuary he saw change with the years. It would be misleading to overlook the narrative—fourteen years in the life of a poet prepared for beauty, awaiting both a tidal and a personal change, is the story here, much as he did in Bunch Grass where Sund lays down his “songs” during the defined period of the wheat harvest in Eastern Washington. The book has several poems about gathering materials from “the lumberyard,” that is, salvaging planks with “tarpaper still hanging” from another shack too far gone to restore, or about the pleasures of a roof that doesn’t leak, of relocating mice and even trying to coax swallows to nest elsewhere. He speaks of being alone and in two poems combines missing someone with a change he notes in his own spirit. This entry, dated May 10, 1981, seems thematic:

If you’re a friend of mine
and remember me otherwise—

It was the time I lost the light
and was stumbling on the way home.

Things change
things change
and I see my life going for the better.

An ancient wave breaks over me.

And later, on May 23, of the same year, in one of the few titled entries, “Lily”:

There is no use fooling myself.
Something is happening.
My old self and
my new self
are having a long look at
one another.
They are having long, long looks.

Months later, in October, Sund writes an entry precisely acknowledging his dedication to poetry and the cost he must pay for it:

Rowing upriver, I thought of you.
You are gone like the summer,
and I am alone.

The oarlocks creak
in the foggy silence,
the river still and dark.
… … …
Both banks
are foggy and dark.
I stay warm rowing my boat.

Sund records the changing years by recognizing his birthdays and that he’s been on the river for ten years. Yet it seems changes he notices are not those we associate with aging, or maturity. It was a mature decision to enter into this life at forty-four, to step away from the call of academe, and the illusions of renown. Instead, he demonstrates a recognition of this value which, though it arose long before coming to Disappearing Lake, he articulates clearly on April 3, 1979. He calls it devotion. This may be one of the most didactic poems of the collection, yet it reminds me of a George Oppen statement. Certainly the least didactic of poets, Oppen kept a journal called “Daybooks”. In an entry to his first Daybook, written in the early 1960s, he writes how the mind can be dedicated to poetry: “At least two kinds of devotion. The devotion to art, a sort of pragmatism of art which refuses to think anything which will not contribute to poetry. The other is a devotion which makes poetry of what the mind, the free and operating mind can know—know—and is going to know.” I think of the way a computer or an electrical service can be referred to as “dedicated,” and understand Oppen to mean something like this, that is, not so much in an emotional sense, one in which the mind must constantly attempt to persuade others, but the mind available, continuously, to its voluptuous art. Sund came to his devotion, and expresses it as a process, somewhat as Thoreau might have, if more succinctly:

The man who is not devoted:
he knows neither himself
nor what he has turned his back on.

The mysteries
are all words to him.
There is only a series
of cheap transactions
going on inside.

Before concluding, I hasten to remind readers that this book is composed of Sund’s journal entries, and that the poems we find here, unlike those in Poems from Ish River Country, for instance, can easily be termed “less polished.” True, some became drafts for Shack Medicine, and many entries were drafts to work on or discard, yet Sund’s technical gifts are evident throughout. One example from Poems from Ish River Country illustrates a practice he employed frequently. In “Just Before Sleep, I Dream of my Grandfather returned to His Farm in the Early Spring,” the line “he liked to tromp lopsided in a furrow” shows he knew his way around a vowel, the line packed then softened by alliteration or sibilance: “behind his horses…” He ends this poem using the same technique: a vowel driven rhythm, then alliterative with internal vowel rhyme, concluding with the matter-of-fact:

In the corner of the woodshed near the house
patches of powdery mold
are spreading
over his work shoes

Shoes the poet no doubt wanted to fill. In Notes he shifts again between aural qualities, in this case in an undated poem, and the prosaic:

Winter weeds
outside my shack,
High water
in the windy morning.

The tops of marsh grass
stick up
above the 12-foot tide.

In the wind, bent grass
writes on the crests of waves.
I sit alone with
my first cup of tea.

The W sounds of wind reinforce what he was hearing so much so we are prepared for the grass like a poet who leaves nothing behind. I’m reminded of Chinese monks who left their poems strung from branches to weather, and Sund’s own calligraphed “Wind poems.” A lesser ear would have heard “rides” instead of “writes,” and a dramatic poet, “writhes.”

Robert Sund’s Notes from Disappearing Lake is remarkable less for the fine work Hughes and McNulty have uncovered from his journals, and not even so much because his practice led first of all to his chapbook, Shack Medicine, in which Sund himself selected the very best from these journals, but the journals are remarkable because he wrote them seemingly without audience. A poet who chooses such a hermitage “turns his back on” not only the world, its “dust,” its “lice in his wingfeathers,” but on its ears and the aspirations he might have had to a public voice. He abandons the ever-present need for audience to devote himself to beauty alone; for this we can be thankful.

Michael Daley was born in Boston, is theauthor of three books of poems, a book of essays and several chapbooks, his work has appeared in Ajournals and on Garrison Keilor s Writer s Almanac. In 2001 he received a Fulbright grant to live in Hungary for a year. His most recent book is Moonlight in the Redemptive Forest.