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

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.

Terminal Mental Illness

Some years ago, the daughter of an acquaintance of mine died by suicide. While her husband and children were out, she lit a hibachi in their living room and died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The obituary her parents wrote said, quite truthfully, that she had succumbed after a long illness.

The recent suicide death of Gregory Eells, head of the University of Pennsylvania’s mental health services, brought to mind my friend’s comparison of lifelong mental illness with a chronic and ultimately terminal disease. In suicide prevention work, we say that many suicides can be prevented. Many, not most or all.

For some people, the lifelong challenges of a mind that berates, undermines, and negates their value as a human being is ultimately unbearable. No matter their outward signs of success, love, or accomplishment, they “know” themselves to be inferior, undesirable, unlovable. No matter the support they have in the form of medication, talk therapy, and interventions, like the Safety Planning Intervention developed by Gregory Eells’ colleagues at U of P that is proving so useful to many people living with anxiety and depression, the illness thrives at the expense of their wellbeing and life force.

We’ve come a long way in our attitudes toward mental illness and its compatriot, addiction, but we have a long way to go.

Myself, I struggle to accept the choices of the terminally ill who seek self-selected euthanasia under plans like Death with Dignity. I’m inclined to a world view that says life is what it is and is ours to experience no matter what. But when I encounter deaths like Eells’, I understand the analogy to terminal disease, that the suffering of acute, unrelenting mental illness can become too great. The prognosis unfavorable and unchanging. The best option to “shake off the mortal coil.”

What is the counterpart, for those with unrelenting mental illness, to hospice and end of life care available to the physically terminally ill? I only know that its foundation is compassion. We can no more blame those who succumb to mental illness than we can those who succumb to terminal illness of the body. We need to start loving, listening, and accepting that we cannot know another’s suffering, nor can we fix it. Our good intentions, pep talks, and interventions may, in the long run, only add to the weight of depression and anxiety. Not only does our loved one feel that the world would be better without them, but they carry the extra weight of our implicit message that they should be able to do something to make things different. Instead, our responsibility is to stand in compassion and serve the best we can as witnesses of life’s various ways of being.

The metaphysical poet, John Donne wrote “No man is an island. . . Every man’s death diminishes me.” Each is a cause for grief and contemplation of our own fragile mortality. “To live in this world,” the late Mary Oliver wrote, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” For me, this is sage advice for those of us who bear witness to friends and family for whom life is an insurmountable struggle, to love each other’s mortality and to hold it as our own. Our lives depend upon it.

Portents

Beetle, snake, apples. We walk single
file under willows, the dappled light
casting shadows. First the beetle, on its back,
and one side missing a few hairlike legs.
I flip it with the fine point of a pen revealing
its pale shell with elegant black stripes.
What to read in the moist spot it leaves
scuttling into the weeds? Immediately,
a slip of snake whips quickly into hedge,
slender tail a question mark, disappears.
Three small apples in a row far
from orchard. Four of us stepping
lightly on the concrete walk, stepping
lightly into the mystery of being
here together in this moment,
where everything is contained.

August Gift

Over the usual dry silence,

the million soft footsteps

of rain, exotic on this desert

summer Sunday. Awakening,

my mind reached out to cup

the din in the cistern of memory,

penetrated by recognition.

I unfurled from sleep,

from the deep fear of fire,

to the smokey grey sky

of cloud. Trees offset in limpid green,

their leaves bowed by the press

of wetness. The earth patters

beneath falling water, volume

increasing in sound and ground.

The generous eave built for snow,

where winter’s ice melts into spears,

this morning drips with summer’s

grateful tears. Runoff returns to river.

Reprieve from burn.

Tantra: A Teaching for Tough Times

No matter what your political bent, most of us can agree that we are going through some tough times. Ideology can’t fix global warming, drought, rising seas, poverty, alienation, isolation, or a bevy of other social ills that cause many of us pain. What it does do, all too well, is create riffs between ourselves and others, whether they be strangers or family members. If they see the world differently from us, we see them as “other,” and, typically, as wrong.

Today is the eighth anniversary of my awakening as embodied consciousness. It’s been a wild unfolding over the last eight years. One of the cornerstones of my awakening was the unshakeable realization that there’s nothing that’s not God. This statement invariably brings up questions and complaints. Poverty is God? War? Rape? Incest? Genocide?

Yes; it’s a hard truth to grasp. But for me, and for a little over a thousand years of nondual Tantra, it is the truth to which one ultimately awakens if one realizes the elegant non-separateness of this path. Writing in Tantra Illuminated, Christopher Wallis anticipates the questions of those who find this precept difficult or impossible to grasp.

Why not create a universe in which suffering is not a possibility? This form of the question presumes a dualism between creator and created . . . If we alter it to the question of why the universe is created in such a way as to allow for the full range of possibilities, from the most horrific to the most sublime, then we have the sort of question that was of greater interest to the Tantric thinkers . . . It is out of love for itself that Consciousness bodies itself forth as a universe, and it is out of love that it allows for the total range of possibilities in that universe (because to negate any possibility would be to reject that aspect of itself.)

For me, this gets to the crux of the beauty of the Tantric path. When we realize Consciousness, when we fully embody it as that which arises fully and freely as and through everything that is, we can come to a place where making others wrong is a fool’s errand. Wallis says “differentiating those we wish to call ‘evil’ from those we wish to call ‘good,’ [reflects a] relative degree of ignorance of the true nature of reality.”

Judging is an innately human, maybe even incarnate, function of survival. Is this being I encounter my friend, or my foe? Predator or prey? Poison or nourishment? And this is important to our wellness of Being. But when we shift that simple and important act of discernment of duality to a world view, we are lost to the truth that everything we encounter is Consciousness manifesting as itself in limited form. It cannot be “wrong,” or “bad,” or even “right,” or “good.” It is Consciousness painting itself onto the canvas of itself. It is a continual unfolding of life’s arising as life. We are passengers, not drivers.

It’s normal to find others’ repugnant ideas off putting. But beneath that limited, localized perception, we can lean into and find the love that is at the core of everything that arises. The Christian Bible says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son.” This is the nature of Consciousness “bodying forth.” If we find fault with that, we are missing the point of being here. We’re missing the heartbreaking beauty of our human life purpose, to see, feel, live, and speak our truth in the midst of uncertainty. To stand together in the recognition of life’s unending paradoxes: loss and gain, love and hate, birth and death, sickness and health. We are not powerless if we rest in the truth of nondualism: there is nothing that is not Consciousness/God/the Universe. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” We are “under heaven,” here in this human realm seeking our divine nature, which lies in the realization of the Truth.