Fire, Ice, and Poetry: Coming Home to Big Sky Country

Fire, Ice, and Poetry: Coming Home to Big Sky Country

By William O’Daly

One freezing night in March 1979, the small cabin I was renting along Rock Creek burned nearly to the ground. With two full months remaining on my Artists-in-the-Schools contract with the State of Montana, I was sheltered for the duration by a close friend and his girlfriend, in Missoula. The clothes on my back and the three large boxes of books I kept for traction over the rear axle of my Dodge van were among the few possessions I had left. I managed to rescue a heavily smoke-damaged backpack and other outdoor gear by crawling into the enclosed back porch and handing each piece to an NFL-size neighbor, before he abruptly picked me off the floor by the back of my jeans, and with one arm hauled me out of there. A couple of minutes later, the entire porch burst into flames. We watched the fire illuminate the snow surrounding the cabin and the tops of the highest evergreens. Despite the fire department’s best efforts, what remained was the stone fireplace, by which many a stormy night I had warmed myself, and the carport. Over the next week, fellow writers and friends provisioned me with all the clothes and towels, gloves and coffee mugs, utensils and pots, notebooks and pens I would need to get me back on my feet.

About two weeks after the fire, I gave a reading in Missoula, choosing among the fourteen poems I had reconstructed from memory; and I was soon to discover that, in my altered state, I had remembered every phrase and line break. My friend and I drove out to Rock Creek and rummaged through the ashes that filled the cabin’s foundation space. We recovered a few items: a charred pewter pitcher and two matching goblets; my cross-country skis, now melted into a round mass smaller than a soccer ball; and the large lower-left drawer of my oak desk. In utter defiance of physical laws and all reason, every single writing, even fragments of poems and prose that it seemed had no future, was tucked snugly in its file folder within the drawer, the folder tabs mostly seared off and the manuscript pages damaged by water and smoke. Already in mild shock, my psyche was transported further south by the utter improbability of the oak drawer and all my work surviving the inferno. Over the next few days, I would find every fragment of poem and paragraph, every scribbled revision, legible—despite the damage.

After my final school visit that May, I left Montana for Eastern Washington University, to accept the reins of Willow Springs magazine from its editor in chief, Thomas J. Smith. He, along with several fellow students, had founded the magazine two years earlier. They had done a remarkable job of building the magazine and its profile over the first four issues, and my job would be to continue that process, if possible at an accelerated pace, while poet Jim McAuley and fiction writer John Keeble pursued an ultimately successful proposal to establish at EWU the first M.F.A. program in creative writing in Washington State.

Until October 2009, when I had the opportunity to visit the University of Montana, Missoula, and the Bitterroot Valley, I had spent no real time in the state since May of ’79. My visit was arranged by Dr. Maria Bustos—the chair of the Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures Department (MCLL)—in collaboration with my good friend, Barbara Michelman, a professional and fine arts photographer. I would soon see that Barbara is doing some of her strongest work ever, in her landscapes and in montages that arise from her visit to family grounds in Lithuania. The montage sequence is one of the most heartbreaking, humanely aware, and ultimately hopeful works of its kind I have ever seen. But not to get ahead of myself, for this is intended to be a chronicle of a homecoming to a place where, relative to the whole of my life, I have spent little time. So, to pick up the yarn and start knitting…

Barbara met me at the airport before noon on Saturday, October 24, and Maria joined us in Missoula. After lunch, we three attended the Festival of the Book at the Holiday Inn Express. A poet I had not seen in many years, who had been one to donate necessities after the cabin fire, Thomas Aslin, was at the festival with his first full-length book of poems, A Moon Over Wings, recently released from Clark City Press. When I met Tom in 1978–79, he was studying with Madeline DeFrees and Richard Hugo in the University of Montana Creative Writing Program, and now it meant a lot to stand there and catch up with him, holding in my hands an inscribed copy of his book.

From the Book Room, Barbara, Maria, and I made our way to the Florence Hotel to attend one of the final events of the festival, the first annual Montana Poetry Salon. One attendee, who shared his table with us, had driven some distance. He wanted to know about Pablo Neruda, and I obliged. Then Montana’s new poet laureate, Henry Real Bird, got things rolling by speaking about the nature of Native American song and singing a poem, “Willow Wind,” without the benefit of a microphone; beautiful and strong, his delivery did not suffer. Former Montana poet laureate Greg Pape, who teaches in the Creative Writing Program, described his own and others’ efforts to raise public awareness about and the educational role of poetry. Greg was followed by several others who spoke passionately about outreach efforts undertaken by the Yellowstone Writers Collective, the Drumlumon Institute of Helena, Many Voices Press, the Missoula Writing Collaborative, Bent Grass Poetry Troupe, The Writer’s Voice, and other organizations and projects. The presentation that brought the salon to a close hit the closest to home, as teenaged April Charlo read a poem, “Buffalo,” written by her father, Vic Charlo. In addition to being a treasured Montana poet, Vic is also a playwright, theologian, and a co-founder and former principal of Two Eagle River School on the Flathead Reservation. April and Vic, direct descendants of Chief Victor Charlo of the Bitterroot Salish, appeared on stage together. April read “Buffalo” in Salish, and spoke with humor about her efforts to learn the language and preserve it, and also about her feelings of connectedness to a nonlinear sense of time and thus to a greatly expanded sense of community that she experienced in the process. She and Vic seem to view the writing of poetry in Salish as one means of naming what remains, of preserving the essential spirit and ways of seeing inherent in the language.

That evening Barbara and I attended a party, thrown by friends of hers, celebrating a piano that had been neglected for many decades but was now restored. The friend and craftsman who had restored the piano played it elegantly, his song choice offering a dram of nostalgia as he completed the giving of the gift to his hosts and their guests. Barbara introduced me to two people whom I would have the good fortune to get to know better in the coming days, Bobbie McKibbin, an acclaimed painter of landscapes, and Shirley McKibbin, longtime professor at Grinnell College, now retired.

Sunday afternoon, Barbara hosted a reception at her Eastside Studio outside Stevensville, in the stunning Bitterroot Valley. Meeting many welcoming people, each with a story of how he or she came to live in the valley or in Missoula, quickly became for me the tenor of the event. About an hour into the reception I was talking with Gene Mim Mac, who with his wife, Robbie Springs, had sailed the South Pacific for nearly a decade before mooring in Stevensville and beautifully refurbishing its historic hotel. We glimpsed a man walk through the door. It took me only a couple of seconds to recognize him, but a little longer for my delighted shock to fade so that I could welcome him with a coherent sentence. Thomas J. Smith, co-founding editor of Willow Springs, had driven 230 miles from Fairfield, Washington! We had spoken over the phone and exchanged a few e-mails across the years, but we hadn’t seen each other since 1986. We soon found a couple of empty chairs and began to catch up. We were joined by Michael Howell, a philosopher by education and in his approach to life, who with his wife, Victoria, publishes the Bitterroot Star, the only locally owned newspaper in the valley. Jung and Nietzsche, as well as the difficult and sometimes ephemeral lives of literary and academic journals, were a few of the topics we passed around. And Tom’s arrival was only the first of three surprises at that reception.

?I also made the acquaintance of Stan Roden, mediator, arbitrator, teacher, and a former Santa Barbara County district attorney. Earlier in the afternoon I had the honor of meeting Phyllis de Picciotto, founder of the Santa Barbara Film Festival, a community organizer and Stan’s remarkable wife. Although I had never before met Stan, my awareness of him dated back to the end of my freshman year at University of California, Santa Barbara, in the aftermath of the protests that sought an end to the Vietnam War. Stan had courageously supported the human rights of UCSB students engaged in nonviolent protest, and he notably intervened when law enforcement accused one individual, who happened to be in jail when the crime was committed, of a felony. The Santa Barbara Sheriffs and the City Police, as well as the Los Angeles Police Tactical Squad, had overstepped their authority by the use of excessive violence against nonviolent protesters, students and nonstudents alike. I was one of the students jailed for illegal assembly, failure to disperse, and violation of curfew, and who was mistreated—though far worse was perpetrated against other nonviolent protestors. Stan was one of only a few voices in government and the judicial system who risked his reputation and standing in the community to lobby for sanity and justice.

?Toward the end of the reception, Kelly Noe, an MCLL instructor of Spanish language and literature, having heard that I would be using Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to My Socks” (“Oda a los calcetines”) in one of Maria’s classes on Tuesday, told me that she had spent five years in Chile, mostly in Valparaiso (a port city, sometimes referred to as the San Francisco of Chile, where one of Neruda’s three homes is located). Kelly related that her boyfriend’s grandmother was none other than Maru Mori, the woman who appears in the first line of “Ode to My Socks,” a presence I had wondered after for thirty years and at times suspected was fictional. During her time in Valparaiso, Kelly developed a close relationship with Maru Mori (as the poem refers to her), the woman who wove a pair of woolen socks for Neruda. Far from my image of Maru as a peasant woman of the rainy south, she was an urbane and erudite feminist, well ahead of her time. It had never occurred to me that the mystery of Maru Mori would be solved in, of all places, Stevensville, Montana, a town of about 2,000, bordered on the west by the rugged, snowcapped Bitterroot Mountains and on the east by the gentler Sapphires.

The kind people who congregated that afternoon, those I have mentioned and others, along with the powerful spirits of Maru and Pablo, brought me face-to-face with the magical vortex I had reentered known as Big Sky Country. There we all were, for the first time and somehow again, old friends and new—sharing stories, memories, reveries, ideas, plans for the future—surrounded by extraordinary photographic art hanging on the white walls of the recently built studio, the landscapes and montages telling their silent stories, in that place and those hours blessed with astonishing synchronicity.

The next morning I could barely take my eyes off of the Bitterroot River, just east of Highway 93, with its branching loops among small trees and autumnal brush, as Barbara drove us north to Missoula. We were again meeting Maria for lunch, and joining us would be Eduardo Chirinos and Jannine Montauban, who both teach in MCLL. Eduardo, a renowned Peruvian poet, has a readership that hails across much of the Spanish-speaking world. Maria, whose comprehensive knowledge of Spanish-language literature and global social movements would quietly become apparent, spoke about how students have changed in character over her years of teaching. Jannine talked about Don Quixote, how the students respond so well to that text, and of her specialty, the Spanish avant-garde poets, who were most active in the two decades before the emergence of the Generation of ’27. Eduardo offered glimpses of his views of poetry and teaching, both views stemming from his belief, born of a life as an international poet who grew up in a household without books, that “poetry is a fate which one either accepts or does not.” Eduardo and Jannine invited Barbara and me to join them at their home later that afternoon, after I visited the university and before my evening event.

At the university, Maria introduced me to several colleagues and to Karin Schalm, assistant to the director of the Creative Writing Program. Karin would be hosting my talk on literary publishing and editing the next afternoon. She showed me her collection of photographs of poets such as Robert Frost and, as a young woman, the late Patricia Goedicke, who arrived at the university two years after I left Missoula for EWU. Everyone agrees that Patricia, who died in 2006, was and her work is a creative and intellectual force, a source of inspiration for students and her colleagues. We cut the meeting short, however, so that I could visit with poet-professor Prageeta Sharma, the director of the Creative Writing Program. Prageeta was scheduled for a round of afternoon meetings, and we conversed only briefly. She lamented the lack of time, hoping we would have another opportunity down the road. The Creative Writing Program faculty had been highly involved with the Festival of the Book during the previous week, and they were working hard to catch up.

Later, sitting with Eduardo and Jannine around their dining table, Barbara and I were treated to their warm grace and hospitality. Eduardo responded to a question of mine by saying yes, he did like to give readings. So I took advantage, asking whether he would, at the next night’s event, read the first poem from Still Another Day—my first Neruda book—in the original Spanish. I would then read the English version and take the reading from there. To my delight, Eduardo agreed. Near the end of our visit, we descended the stairs to a room that doubles as a study and library. Eduardo showed Barbara a new manuscript, and I took the opportunity to read more of Eduardo’s poetry, in Spanish and in English, with its singular voice and emotional range blending a keen eye, intelligence, humanity, and a seer’s wit. I hope that Eduardo’s work will soon be more available in the U.S., via his translator, G. J. Racz.

That evening’s event featured a screening of Il Postino. Based loosely on Burning Patience, a novel by Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta, the film tells the story of Mario, a ne’er-do-well young man hired solely to take each day’s bundle of mail to a single customer: the Chilean poeta del pueblo, Pablo Neruda. Neruda is in exile from his beloved Chile, and with his love, Matilde, has just arrived on the small Italian island. (The screenwriters moved present time twenty years back from present time in the novel, and transposed the setting from the poet’s home in the Chilean seaside village of Isla Negra to the island.) The film was well received, and after a brief interlude I introduced the idea of metaphor as a “rose of energy,” an image taken from Neruda’s poem “The Central Hand” (in The Hands of Day), and referred often to scenes in the film as illustrations. The well-attended screening and lecture, orchestrated by Kelly Noe and Maria Bustos, focused on how metaphor in poetry makes things happen, how those roses of energy both receive and release emotional, intellectual, and cultural currents that sometimes lead to defining action. In the film, when an irate aunt pays a visit to Neruda, she spouts disparaging metaphors about Mario, who has been lavishing Neruda’s metaphors on her niece, the gorgeous barmaid Beatrice (see Dante’s Paradiso). Mario hides in the kitchen as the famous poet takes the heat; and after the aunt leaves, Mario, in a hilarious exchange, blames Neruda for making him fall in love with Beatrice. It isn’t until Mario accepts responsibility for his behavior and his words, and takes certain action, that he comes to possess his own voice. Of course, as with all creative undertakings, the poetic process is not a closed system, and so metaphor, too, can have intended and unintended consequences. Mario writes his poem, “Song for Pablo Neruda,” and events unfold in powerful and unexpected ways.

On Tuesday morning, I gave a presentation to one of Maria’s classes on the nature, process, and various approaches of literary translation. I also offered a few tips with regard to the publication process, and then we compared three separate translators’ versions of “Ode to My Socks” (“Oda a los calcetines”). The original poem, like the other “odas elementales” of Neruda, has a relatively simple surface and unfolds in the imageries of common things. The students seemed surprised by the range of differences among the translations, and offered perceptive comments, line by line, with regard to navigating the original. It was revealing, too, how several of the students’ differing interpretations, all of them reasonable, underscored the complexity of bringing the poem, not just the words, into English or any other language. We made it through the first eight lines, listening closely and imagining, discovering the relationships within the poem, making choices, and soon the process grew sufficiently interwoven and complex, and with each interpretation more personal, so as to offer some perspective on the art of translation.

Afterward I met the former English Department chair, Casey Charles, who teaches Renaissance Studies and Gay and Lesbian Literature, a poet and a translator of Spanish-language poetry and the author of The Sharon Kowalski Case: Lesbian and Gay Rights on Trial. Brandon Henderson, current editor of CutBank and a writer of creative nonfiction, showed me the magazine office. From there, with creative writing graduate students and CutBank staff members—poet Maren Vespia, an assistant editor and an organizer of the program’s Second Wind Reading Series, and poet John Myers, one of the poetry editors—we ate a delicious lunch at Food for Thought (it was my first “Buddha Burrito”) just off campus. I forgot about the clock (and about seeking the black bean at the center of my cosmic burrito) as my companions responded thoughtfully to my questions about their work—when they weren’t asking far more about my history in editing and publishing, the founding of Copper Canyon Press, and about my life in poetry and translation. Whatever Casey, Brandon, Maren, and John took away from our time together, for me sharing the meal with them renewed a feeling of solidarity with others committed not only to generating one’s own work but also to making available the work of others in publication and translation.

?We walked back to the English Department at a brisk pace, my companions making sure that I made it directly to Karin Schalm’s office, and in short order a small group of us were headed to the room where I would give a talk on literary publishing and editing. I focused on independent and small presses, while taking a look at trends across the publishing spectrum. The role of technology and the ways in which it is rapidly transforming publishing also came up, with the breadth of the changes making it difficult to discern, in some cases, the apparently positive from the ambiguously negative. I offered an overview of my personal history as a literary editor and a cofounder of Copper Canyon Press (CCP). The press’s success, and I would venture to say the success of other independent and small publishers that have played an integral role in our literary culture, is largely attributable to its having evolved out of strong aesthetic principles (in poetry and in book design), in part inspiring and conjoining with the commitment to publish poetry. The principles that CCP evolved from allow not only for conscious evolution but also a broad range of style and voice. Publishing ethics—in particular, the ethical treatment of authors and their writing, premised on dignity, honesty, and hard work—has been instrumental in drawing some of the world’s best poets to CCP. This is certainly true when considering the unexpected opportunities and unanticipated gifts that have come as a result of maintaining the high quality of all aspects of the operation.

Tuesday evening’s reading took place in the Gallagher Building—which houses the School of Business Administration—in an amphitheater-style lecture room. The audience included creative writing students and students of other disciplines, faculty members from MCLL, the public, and I also was honored to see Casey Charles of the English Department there. To my further delight, I spotted, smiling in the back row, the gentleman who had shared his table with Barbara, Maria, and me at the Montana Poetry Salon two days earlier. Maria’s opening remarks introduced both Pablo Neruda and his translator, in terms that beautifully and accurately framed the Chilean master’s life and work and that I found most generous toward me. In the reading, I included two recently published poems of my own and ended with a poem for my daughter, Kyra, a poem I’ve just learned will appear in the next issue of CutBank. My translations of late and posthumous Neruda—from Still Another Day, Winter Garden (the poem “Homecomings,” appropriately), The Yellow Heart, The Hands of Day, The Book of Questions, and World’s End—constituted the major arc of the reading. Early on, Eduardo delivered a fine Spanish reading of the first poem from Aún (Still Another Day), and I read my translation. The audience seemed to appreciate the bilingual treatment. Their questions after the reading were typically impressive (the UM students I spoke with never failed to exercise, and in the best of spirits, curious intellects and knowledge of their disciplines). One audience member asked me to address what is lost in translation, which allowed me to speak about general expectations of translation (the cloning of a poem in another language is an impossibility) and to point out that what is gained in well-wrought translation nearly always far outweighs what is lost. After all, through translation we are given a viable new poem in our own language, intimately related in its DNA to the source poem, thus giving birth to a third gift—a nearly endless source of dialogue between the two poems and their readers, and, in some sense, the creation of a community. During the book signing that followed the Q&A, I met Peggy Meinholtz, who promised to send me a few of her most recent Rilke translations.

On Thursday night, before my reading in Hamilton, the county seat twenty miles south of Stevensville, Barbara and I visited The Frame Shop & Gallery on West Main. Barbara introduced me to the owner, Ann Harding, and I was deeply moved by the current three-artist show, featuring Barbara’s newest work and that of Robbie Springs and Bobbie McKibbin. Barbara’s experiments with the play of light on river water, among rocks and in rapids, which had begun twenty miles up the highway from my home in Auburn, California, had come to fruition in the clarity and sophistication of effects (where in one the play of light on water was surely a photograph of the cosmos), and the landscapes, with their mildly disorienting perspectives, their almost hyperrealism, breaking new ground. Robbie’s use of color and geometric shape posed their questions, inviting the viewer in to puzzle them; and Bobbie’s landscapes, on large canvases and in small renditions, offered a vision of what has been lost but that, in reality and sometimes only in essence, remains—and in the imagery’s uniqueness is ours to perceive. After a delicious supper at the Spice of Life Café, Barbara and I headed for Chapter One Book Store.

Shawn Wathen, one of the owners and current manager of this store, was our host. The audience was small but attentive, and included Barbara, Michael Howell, Bobbie McKibbin, as well as audience members so utterly interested that two or three began asking questions—about translation, Neruda, and how my own work fit into the picture—before the reading began. I can’t remember that ever happening before. I read Neruda, and as an offering of one of my own works I read a long antiwar poem, “The Flag Is Burning.” The poem is woven around the theme of how we tend to abstract the consequences of war, its real effects, direct and indirect, particularly of wars of choice—how we think overwhelmingly in idealized terms, utterly disconnected from the truth and the black seeds scattered by the unnecessary bloodshed. One woman began to silently weep, and another also was affected on what was likely an intimately personal association. Creating upset on that level is never my aim—but neither woman seemed to turn away from the poem, neither woman rose to leave, and both stayed through the Q&A after the reading. I hope that, in some way, the poem offered them needed emotional release or some solace in awareness, a ray of hope; I want most of all for the poem not to pointlessly have stirred up pain. That said, it was all in all an evening I remember with gratitude. Before I left, Shawn asked me to sign the store’s event tablecloth, covered with signatures and brief notes, in all colors of Magic Marker, by writers I have long admired and have learned from.

The events described herein were beautifully punctuated by a long walk among ranches and farms outside Stevensville, a drive over The Bench (from where one can easily view much of the valley’s length and its magnificence), a few relaxed gatherings, and engrossing conversations. One such conversation in a relaxed setting was spurred by a warm welcome and delicious wine courtesy of Bobbie and Shirley, in their lovely house at the foot of the Bitterroots, grazing deer and all. That late afternoon and evening culminated in Bobbie giving me a tour of the sculpture and art gracing the shelves and the walls, and her providing for many of the pieces the human background of how they came to reside where they do. The next morning, we picked up the conversation over coffee, as Barbara, Bobbie, and I, joined by Michael Howell, sat in the Bitterroot Star offices in Stevensville. I also cherished the visits in Missoula over coffee, tea, or lunch, or an after-event drink, with Maria Bustos; with Doris Armstrong; with Barbara’s welcoming friends, Celia Grohmann and Julie Bell; with Maria José Carreras; with Kelly Noe; and with Elizabeth Hughes Bass, whose fine work with ink and watercolors, and with oil on canvas, was a most fortunate discovery.

In retrospect, my experience of Montana has always been exploratory, whether I was hiking in the northeastern Sapphires and the aspen meadows along Rock Creek; or teaching in Missoula and the remote towns along the High Line (Highway 2), where the grassy plains roll south from Alberta; or participating as a visiting poet-teacher at the Community School in Browning, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The occasional visit to workshops taught by Madeline DeFrees, who, newly ninety, is still writing remarkable poems, or by Richard Hugo, who helped mentor so many young poets in the shaping of their voices, provided welcome contrast and fuel in those heady days of 1978–79 that I spent navigating icy highways and snow-drifted roads. The many ideas and perspectives, the fascinating people, the spectacularly rugged and severe landscapes—all have helped to shape me in ways I can and cannot describe. I have been transformed unequivocally for the better—in my ability to understand my experiences and how I see the world—from having availed myself of Montana’s unique mix of mystic mountain realism and high plains surrealism, all of which reaches from the depths of the Sand Arroyo Badlands in the northeast, to the clouds harboring snowy Granite Peak and the Beartooth Mountains in the south, to the forested islands of Flathead Lake in the west, at the southern end of the Rocky Mountain Trench. For me, spending time in Montana illuminates and strengthens the inextricable link between inner and outer landscapes, through experiences sometimes as bitter as fire and ice, and more often as seminal and elemental as the poetry that sustains us.

My week in Missoula and the Bitterroot was a coming home to who I have been and who I am. I am grateful to Maria and Barbara, and to all those who made the experience what it was, the rose of energy it will always be.

© William O’Daly
All rights reserved
December 2009