By Paul J. Willis ’80 MA, ’85 PhD
Stephen F. Austin State University Press: 2018
Hiking solo through the mountains can be a lonely endeavor. Missing human companionship, some turn to the subtle moods and personalities inherent in the woodland world itself.
Those emotional complexities come alive in this lovely little volume written while author Paul Willis explored the North Cascades National Park during an artist-in-residence program and a subsequent residency with the North Cascades Institute.
His verse covers territory from huckleberry love to a welcoming pile of bear scat. There are also testy discussions with Oregon grape and belated apologies to Jack Kerouac.
Most of the poems are quite pithy with a touch of humor.
Madrona, that strip tease of yours is working again, Willis writes in seven lines extolling the beauty of the tree’s peeling cinnamon-brown bark. In twelve, he delights readers with tales of the Hooker’s Fairy Bell. In nine, the Cow Parsnip, most clumsy and bovine of herbs and flowers, a stubborn Holstein shouldering her way to the trough.
Within nature’s exuberance, Willis inevitably weaves the somber tones of aging and death, particularly that of his mother and, someday, his own. The words linger as he contemplates the sponge-like appearance of deer bones, and the creamy inflorescence of Death Camas: I knew one day that I would take communion with your bitter oils.
Today, however, the poet-naturalist continues to charm with muses like Horsetail.
Little ancient forest of pipes,
the reed section of the Cascade orchestra,
you are as old as an instrument of nature
can be, counting back the endless codas.
Fossils put you in the pit
along with those Tchaikovsky-loving
dinosaurs, stomping out their tympani,
marching to their own bassoons.