What the River Says: The Methow River Poem Plaques of William Stafford

Spring 2015

Subhaga Crystal Bacon

By Subhaga Crystal Bacon, executive director – Methow Valley Community School

Spring is almost upon us! All that has been buried throughout the frozen winter months is waiting to burst forth: bulb flowers, bird song, new grass. Out of the fertile, moist earth, our renewal comes forward as we move toward the spring equinox later this month.

April is poetry month, and what a great month it is to celebrate these songs of our souls.   Chaucer chose it to begin his epic series the Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe course y-ronne . . .

A Valley like this, William Stafford

I can never resist the music of the Middle English! It’s just close enough to our modern speech to resonate like a dream memory, with its sweet showers piercing the drought of March, the liquor that brings forth the flowers, the sweet wind and the young sun having run its half course in the time of the Ram, from March 21 to April 21, the equinox, the middle year.

TS Eliot, the poet who exhorted us that good poets borrow while great poets steal, riffed on Chaucer calling April “the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”   His modernist corrective to Chaucer’s gleeful pilgrimage.

Our Valley is a great place for spring pilgrimages.  One way to enjoy both poetry and nature is to visit the “Methow River Poems” plaques by the poet William Stafford that meander along the river from Pateros to Winthrop. The Forest Service approached Stafford in 1992, a year before his death, to write a series of poems that would reflect the landscape and spirit of the North Cascades. Stafford has long been associated with the expansiveness of nature and of the human spirit. A lifelong pacifist, Stafford’s relaxed and conversational poetics reflect his embodiment as a human being. Writing of a late night flat tire in the mountains of California when the only traffic that passed in the dark was a flock of Hells’ Angels, his son described his father’s “studied slouch,” a relaxation of his body that innately communicated his inner cool. Neither predator nor prey, his Being emanated composure and utter peace with the world.

The first Stafford poem that I read while still in college, a poem that has continued to haunt me to this day, is “Traveling through the Dark.” In spare yet elegiac verse, the poem crisply details the speaker coming upon the body of a pregnant doe on a dark mountain pass, her young alive and unborn inside her, and the logic—why a driver would not have swerved to avoid her—that foreshadows its chilling conclusion:

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

There’s a palpable sangfroid in this speaker, but also a deep humanity. “Traveling” is the title poem of Stafford’s first book, which won him the National Book Award in 1963. In the nearly thirty years between this book and the series that became the chapbook, Methow River Poems, Stafford’s poetics underwent a gradual and organic softening. Of his writing life, he once said, “I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.”

Which brings us to the River Poems. Asked by the Forest Service to write poems that might serve as meditative plaques along the Methow, Stafford followed his own “hidden river” to produce seventeen poems, seven of which were originally selected for plaques. Two or three of these are in the area of the Pass. To keep your pilgrimage close to home, here’s a meditation on the four that are nearer at hand.

My favorite of the bunch is the sonnet “Ask Me,” which adorns the plaque located roughly behind Trails End Books in Winthrop, or behind the Farmers Exchange Building, new location: “Ask Me”

Some time, when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Like “Traveling,” this poem explores a paradox. It begins with an invitation, “Ask me,” and then in stanza two, after the questions one might pose, he says “I will listen to what you say.” But in the end, it’s the frozen river that speaks with its hidden currents that “hold the stillness exactly before us. What the river says, that is what I say.”

But I’m starting in the middle of things. The remaining plaques run from Mazama, or vice versa depending on which source you consult, or where you begin! Let’s start with the plaque at the confluence of the rivers, roughly across from the Rest Awhile Fruit Stand.

Time for Serenity, Anyone?

I like to live in the sound of water,
in the feel of mountain air. A sharp
reminder hits me: this world is still alive,
it stretches out there shivering toward its own
creation, and I’m part of it. Even my breathing
enters into this elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still–this tranquil
chaos that seem to be going somewhere.
This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it.
This motionless turmoil, this everything dance.

Like “Ask Me,” this poem investigates the paradoxical nature of Nature as experienced through human consciousness. Everything is breathing. Life is “tranquil chaos . . . with a great peacefulness in it . . . motionless turmoil.”   The location of this plaque where the two rivers merge captures that nature of what is fluid and also concrete. Methow. Columbia. Two names for one water on its way to the sea.

Another half an hour south on 153 toward Winthrop brings you to the next two plaques. Between Carlton and Methow at McFarland Creek you’ll find “From the Wild People.” It begins:

Time used to live here.
It likes to find places like this
and then leave so quietly
that nothing wakes up.

Whenever a rock finds what it likes
it hardly ever changes. Oh, rain
can persuade it, or maybe a river
out looking around. But that’s the exception.

This is one of the more playful poems, instructing us in the value of waiting and watching. Time has left the place of the rocks. Some danced and fell exhausted, and some are
“nonchalant.” Like “Ask Me,” there’s a paradoxical stance in the poem. Midway through, he introduces the reader “You can see,” and in the stanza below “Now and then one stirs when nobody is looking, then it stops and looks away.” The shift in perspective from watcher to watched is couched in amusing personification, but it points to a complex relationship between seer and seen: what we look for we often miss.

This brings us into downtown Winthrop and “Ask Me,” which is where this musing began, so we’ll move further south to Mazama and “Where We Are.”

This speaks with the same poignancy and humility as “Ask Me.” It begins in fog and rain and ends in the importance of human connection.

Daylight will love what came.
Whatever fits will be welcome, whatever
steps back in the fog will disappear
and hardly exist. You hear the river
saying a prayer for all that’s gone.

And at its end, the human is introduced, “unless we hold on, unless we tap like this.” We must learn to live like the fog, like the rain that “convert[s] one boulder at a time into a glistening fact.” We must tap our own message of conversion: “Friend are you there? Will you touch when you pass, like the rain?”

If you have the stamina to go as these poems ask us, all the way, to touch and see and become, then you will experience more than what the vistas, the river music, the trees, rocks and clouds themselves convey.

The word poetry comes from the Greek and means “a made thing.” A poem is not an accident. It’s not a natural occurrence. It’s a translation or interpretation of what is experienced by these sensitive instruments of human consciousness into something that is at once greater and less than what they have perceived. Commissioning these plaques was a gesture toward this truth. We can read the poems in the comfort of home; we can hike and imbibe the trails’ messages directly through our senses. And in a handful of places, we can experience both our own and another’s impressions, a synesthesia of sorts, where the written word lands in our heads, our hearts and our bellies to nourish the deepest parts of us.


Methow residents Curtis Edwards and his wife Sheela McLean placed the Stafford poems on the river in 1993-94 while working for the Forest Service. “It started as interpretive signs about the river (Respect the River program) and developed into the companion signs when we went looking for some truly inspiring writing, ” says Edwards. “The Methow River poems were some of the last he wrote.” Edwards has recently repaired and replaced several of the plaques throughout the valley. Explore our Public Art Map to find the locations of the Methow River Poem plaques in the Methow Valley. Contact: info@methowartsalliance.org, 509.997.4004.


Subhaga Crystal Bacon is Executive Director of the Methow Valley Community School.

If you have an interest in submitting writing, photography, artwork or poetry in our ART Magazine, please email us at info@methowartsalliance.org for information.

Subhaga Crystal Bacon | Issue 1 Poetry | Humana Obscura — humana obscura

Subhaga Crystal Bacon is the author of two volumes of poetry, Blue Hunger
(Methow Press, 2020) and Elegy with a Glass of Whisky (BOA Editions, 2004).
A cis-gender, Queer identified woman, she lives, writes, and teaches on the
east slope of the North Cascade Mountains, in Twisp, Washington.
— Read on www.humanaobscura.com/subhaga-crystal-bacon

Manifesting Embodiment: Integrating Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Ability, and Sexual Orientation into Awakening

The current socio-political climate in the US, and much of the world, is such that we all have work to do to understand our relationship to differences in personal identity. Doing awakening work today requires us to lean in to how we embody our lived experience. In the Trillium Path, we awaken as embodied consciousness, which means that we do not transcend who and how we are. We transcend the limitations of who and how we are. It’s a fine distinction.

Our work starts with Greenlighting, saying yes to what is. As we Greenlight our experience, our feelings, patterns, and conditioning, we come to a point at which we can drop more deeply into Radical Embrace, which means that we embrace what is at the root of ourselves and we embrace it fully. The difference is between saying yes and saying come home to me. Radical Embrace is how we begin to integrate all of who we are. We awaken to the paradox of both and: we are both undifferentiated consciousness and a limited, finite, human person. These two things can’t be separated. I know that I am undifferentiated consciousness because I am in this body. Otherwise, I would live in the spirit realm!

For myself, awakening healed a lot of past trauma around gender and sexual orientation. It brought about an ongoing integration of my parts, past experiences in which I was shamed or which brought about a sense of shame; emotional wounds from not being seen and by being seen as a threat to masculinity, femininity, and  heterosexuality. It brought me to a place of familiarity, in which I knew myself as Self—beyond gender, orientation, ability, race, and ethnicity. I think for many of us, this relief of awakening to the truth of our Self as consciousness is a deep release from the burden of being separate, being Other. At the same time, the ongoing integration process requires that we deepen in our lived experience of the core paradox. We are simultaneously Divine and Human. In his book, Tantra Illuminated, Christopher Wallis says something very helpful about this: “It is out of love for itself that Consciousness bodies itself forth.” Consciousness bodies . . . forth.

Each of us bodies forth as a particular manifestation of consciousness, what I think of as a flavor or a filter. We have a race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and physical ability. These things are of the body. They’re not outside of us like religion and social class, and they are less fluid than age. Everyone everywhere experiences aging to a greater or lesser degree. We’re born; we’re infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, adults, elders. We can still be othered because of these differences, but they’re not inherent to who we are in the way that race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability are. These are things that we cannot and never do leave behind. They are the filter through which the world sees us and we see the world.

Today it is more than ever important that those of us living awakening come to a deeper understanding of the role these elements play in our embodiment. When we say, with all good intentions, that we are color blind, what we’re saying, in effect, is “I don’t see you.” Because a person of color is never not a person of color. A Transgender person is never not transgender. A Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, or non-binary, non-gender conforming, or asexual person is never not that. That is who and how consciousness bodies forth as them. When we say, “I don’t see your race, color, ability, ethnicity, orientation or gender identity,” we may mean to say “I see your soul” or “spirit,” or “essence,” but that soul, spirit, and essence abides in a physical body that has its differentiations.

I have a number of tattoos on my arms. I wasn’t born with them. I had them put on my body on purpose. I chose them. I didn’t choose to be a cisgender, Queer, white woman of European extraction. My lived experience in the decades before my awakening was shaped by those qualities, and they cannot be removed. I’ve integrated my unique holding of the feminine with its flavor of the masculine, my sexual attraction to men and women, my Queerness in my generation’s LBGT spectrum which made the Q necessary as a place for those of us who identify as outside of what felt like a limited menu for sexual and gender expression.

Having lived among Black people for much of my life, I see their Blackness. I see the differences between African, African American, and African-Caribbean. And yet there is a world of Blackness that I do not know or inherently understand. But what I do understand is that Blackness is part of who those people are. It’s a part that has been denigrated, and subjected to attempted erasure. So I would not say to a Black person: “I don’t see your color” because to say that is to say “I don’t see your history. I don’t see how you got here.” I can see them as more than their color, but I can’t see them without it.

For many of us of a certain generation, we were taught to try to become colorblind. Michelle Alexander makes great use of this concept in the title of her groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, which in itself explores the paradox that we are not colorblind in this age. A recent image that appeared on Facebook makes this clear. Two men, one white and one Black who committed the same crime from the criminal history, adjudicated by the same judge, got horrendously different sentences. The white man got 2 months in county jail. The Black man got 26 years in federal prison. No age colorblindness there.

The murder of George Floyd, one in centuries of murders of Black men and women at the hands of whites, set off a strong chain reaction. It has put us on notice that because all lives matter, Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter. While children of immigrants are separated from their families and kept in inhumane detention centers, Brown Lives Matter. All of us, wherever we land on the spectrum of Race, Ethnicity, Ability, Gender Identity and or Sexual Orientation have a responsibility to lend our love and our courage to supporting those who for centuries have been shown by our mass dominant culture that their lives are expendable. When we say “I see you,” we have to mean “I see ALL of you. And all of you is welcome here.” Anything else is too little to honor the beauty of consciousness painting herself on the canvas that is herself.

Fierce Wind

for George Floyd

George, the air today is charged with light.

I breathe and hear your words seeking breath.

Because I can walk, can breathe, I push

uphill the hard way, steep and close

with rocks, tight as my throat, closed and angry

with words I can’t find the voice to say.

Instead I speak your name to silent stone

older than law or hate. I say your name

to the fierce living wind, sing your name

like birdsong in waving grass. I give

your name to the endless sky that holds

this weeping world spinning in black,

star filled space.

Blue Hunger Collection Available Now!

me_bookI’m delighted to announce the release of my new collection of poems, Blue Hunger from Methow Press.  You can order a signed copy of the book from the Confluence Poets Store.

Here’s some advance praise for the book:

Initially, the poems in Subhaga Crystal Bacon’s fine book show her keen eye for delivering the natural world. It’s tempting to think of her as a naturalist, but as her book progresses it becomes clear that, more broadly, she’s a human nature poet; poems of love and loss and community occur with the same acute precision. For example, in “Awake at Night” . . . she begins this way, “I feel beautiful, young and dying/as the cricket song lifts and calls/and you are far away. No happiness/like this…” All in all, a wonderful collection.

–Stephen Dunn, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Pagan Virtues.

Grounded in the beloved Pacific Northwest, Blue Hunger is an account of a soul’s journey, “empty of longing./Luminous, lambent.” In this world where grief merges with love, so does the poet merge “with that great distance.” Each moment and season in a life is carefully observed, and Bacon’s world abounds with raspberries, garlic, choke-cherry, jays, owl, deer, lizards: a “tunnel of loss.” . . .” Blue Hunger is a book—a place—I will revisit again and again because “What I remember most was the flavor of those words, scented with lost possibilities.”

–Jennifer Martelli, author of The Uncanny Valley and My Tarantella

These poems show the love for one’s vision of nature as the shifter of shapes. All of the landscape’s Thingness–as Rilke saw it–ebbs and looms here, and Bacon follows their rhythmic changes. Bacon builds an album that honors the universe’s traffic, the gaze melting to honey. In these poems, the economies of silence, well: The lotus has its foot in the mud.

–Cynthia Arrieu-King, author of Futureless Languages

In these intimate, meticulous, compassionate poems, Bacon seamlessly marries the self with the world . . . of wild rivers and dark trees, of coyotes and hawks, of snow and summer grasses— or the human body, with its love, its aging, and its griefs . . . With a deep mixture of curiosity and vulnerability . . .  Bacon sings of our human hungers— “diligent, defended, devout”— with wild consciousness.

-Kenneth Hart, author of Uh Oh Time

High-Desert Spring

Earth exhales
moist, fragrant
breath of thaw.
Pungent pine bark,
needle rot composting,
soil awakening below the top inch.

No rain falls. Snowpack
long since melted
feeds grass and flower,
flows up tree trunks
into gauzy green haze.

Meadow thrush,
redwing blackbird,
Steller’s Jay’s ecstatic shrill,
and flicker’s knock on tree and barn
all call to mate.

Clouds gather and glower.
On the Cascade peaks
shadow-snow or rain
falls like a mirage.

Garden draws deep,
footfall welcome in yielding touch,
sighs a sweetness short lived

until summer sucks it into sun.

Pandemic Artifact

What are these people doing?
What slow dance, moving one
to another, pairs of arms clasped
around backs, necks entwined
like swans. And rocking as if the ground
beneath them beats with a rhythm,
fluid. Both exotic and nostalgic.

Not the clutch of passion, the simple
meeting of belly to belly. Like food
but sweeter, meatier.

I salivate tears. My whole body
hungering for touch.

Painstaking

While we’re separated here by illness,
the bold forsythia risks the nightly
cold to burst forth in golden flame.

Likewise, the chokecherry, with its
furry buds, lifts its arms the way
I’ve heard that trees breathe
at night when we’re not watching.

And the red maple has nascent keys
dangling like platelets, small spurts
from its heart.

Life hurts. We go on,

even when we feel we can’t go on.

Go on.Go on. Walk the floor
to the nearest window. Something
out there is singing.

What is blooming

in you today that you’re mistaking as pain?

 

Go Outside

Whatever time of day it is,
wherever you are, crowded
city, tenement with its narrow stoop,
or high rise with its pricey airspace,
the streets are empty.

Stand and face,
the sky. Be patient, are there clouds,
continents shifting against the blue,
or a slip of moon? Windows bright with life,
laundry hung to dry?

Or if your suburban
house has a yard, a lawn, maybe
a bush or some weeds, or maybe you’ve
tended the grass, mulched the beds
and flowers spring up from the thawing ground.
Are you in a country lane? A farm?
Cattle, sheep, horses—even wheat
or soybeans.

Here is the news you need:
this blue and green marble continues to spin
bringing the new day and rich black night—
beyond the lights that burn to keep your fear
away. The fences are plunged into soil,
the wrappers lifted by wind.

The songs of birds
calling each other is all you need to learn.