Dec 5, 2012

Anita Sullivan Reviews Scott T. Starbuck's River Walker

River Walker
Poems by Scott T. Starbuck
Mountains & Rivers Press, Eugene, OR, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9793204 ($12.00)

                        by Anita Sullivan

In November after most of the leaves have fallen from the trees here in Western Oregon, and the winter rains have reliably begun, an enormous mulching process goes into full production. These leaves are stretched, soaked, shredded, tromped upon and ultimately drawn back by earth and waterinto earth and water, to make new life. I like to call it aloggingprocess, since the dry leaves that clog the rivers, streams and pathways becomewater-logged,ormud-logged.

River Walker by Scott T. Starbuck is about this kind of loggingthe endless, magnificently slow wheelings and dealings between earth, air, fire and water, which keep producing the essential muck we humans require to stay alive. Mostly, we don't pay attention to these lower and slower workings of the world, nor do most poets. But Starbuck is a patient listener. His poem How to Fish the Wind says:

            You start by listening 40 years
            so it can put you through enough
            to see if you are worthy
            of what it has to say.

            Most people can't listen that long
            so they have to get the message
            secondhand from trees.

As a fisherman, Starbuck has spent many hours with at least the bottom third of his body immersed
in water. As a ceramic artist, he has spent many hours mucking about with wet clay. From this, he seems to have drawn a quiet body-wisdom that he spins out in his poetry, sometimes with tongue in cheek, as in the lines from Glacial River Poem:

            Without glacial water
            there are no apples, pears, or cherries
            near Hood River
he begins innocuously enough, but then raises the bar:
            There are no rowboats or campfires
            at Olallie or Timothy Lakes,
            no skiers or snowboarders
            at Timberline or Meadows.
And finally:
            All around the mountain,
            bankers, mayors, sheriffs
            believed they were in charge.
            They were wrong.
            It was clouds that fed
            the glaciers.

Starbuck's poems go back and forth between the human and the natural worlds, but always his antennae are tuned into the geologic rather than the historic timeline:

            Ordinary Grass on Cascade Head

            is extraordinary when one considers pre-Earth emptiness
            followed by wood flute music, stone carvings
            watercolor meadows, shell and bone sculptures.

            Closer, a child lifts a hand-drawn rainbow shirt
            over a branch.

His title poem is a kind of whimsical dialogue between two different versions of how the Columbia Gorge was carved: either by Coyote and Beaver, or by glaciers. When people show up in his poems, they are often outsiders like himself: wounded war veterans, renegade salmon poachers, unemployed fishermen, or the ancient Kalapooya of the Oregon river valleys, dying off from the white man's fevers.

The entire collection fills 39 pages, which makes it a kind of hybrid between “chapbook” and
“full-length” (the arid border region between 35 and 48 pages that used to distinguish these categories seems to have been fully breached, and the barbed wire taken down, plants growing there.. . .) With the exception of a few weaker poems (notably the final one), the collection is a credit to Mountains & Rivers Press, consistent with its preference for poetry that comes out of the spare, meditative Haiku tradition. The fine cover art by Jennifer Williams, within this tradition too, tells an enormous story without a single drop of water out of place.