Robert Sund: Poet laureate of Ish River Country

When legendary Northwest poet Robert Sund died in Anacortes in 2001, Sund's friends began gathering his scattered books, chapbooks and unpublished poems for a volume of collected works.

The just-released "Poems from Ish River Country" (Shoemaker & Hoard, 257 pp, $25) is the result.

In her Dec. 10 review of the book in the Seattle Times, Sheila Farr wondered: "Did Sund leave a larger body of work that was substantially edited for this collection?"

Steve Herold, writer, poet, book publisher, calligrapher, Magnolia resident, operator of Wit's End Bookstore & Teashop in Fremont and longtime friend of Sund's, supplies an answer.

I have just finished perusing "Poems From Ish River Country," the recently collected poems of the late Robert Sund. It is wonderful to have such a selection of his prolific output, and to have it available to a wider audience than his little chapbooks permitted over the last 40 years.

At the same time, it is a great disappointment to see that the book is only a repetition of what little has already been published, with so little included of the literally trunkloads of melodic and compelling poems he wrote over a lifetime.

As Walt Whitman did for America and Robert Frost for New England, Robert Sund sang the soul and beauties of the Northwest as no one has before. No matter where he traveled, his poetry spoke of his roots in the Grays Harbor farmland and his love of the breadth of Washington, from Shi Shi to the Palouse.

When I lie on the floating docks of the Skagit marshes, I hear his songs in the melodies of the living water, and his words connect me to nature and people as if they were my best friends.

As he made his way through his life, Robert was equally poet, artist, craftsman, musician and singer. As in the old tales, he also transformed each little place in which he resided into a magic cottage from another reality, much like that sudden transformation from black and white to color in "The Wizard of Oz," when Dorothy leaves the lands we know.

Robert's death was an immense loss to the arts here, and this book brings some measure of solace.

Born and raised by a Swede-Finn family in the wet farmland of Grays Harbor, Robert gravitated to Seattle and the University of Washington, where he pondered several possible careers before finally falling under the spell of poet Theodore Roethke. Roethke commanded the respect of all who loved poetry, and he changed the lives of many while making them the poets of a new generation in a land so lacking in poets before.

From this mentor Robert gained a strong sense of voice and a natural way of composing that marks all of Roethke's students, and it is this easy manner of speaking that makes Robert Sund's poems so attractive to a general audience.

Consider this beginning to one of my favorite Sund poems, since I first read it in his notebooks 33 years ago, "In the Woods Above Issaquah":

In the woods above Issaquah

near a grey farmhouse

we pick wild plums in the rain.

Another day, on Sauk Mountain,

we lie in a meadow. A bird

jolts a stalk of fireweed

so the light seeds drift over us

and down the slope.

Far below, the Skagit River

winds towards the sea, turning

like a pattern in old jade.

It is impossible to read it and not be vibrantly there, not just seeing but feeling those rich days of summer, and love not yet lost.

I knew Robert as the best of friends during the last 40 years of his life - a fellow poet and artist, neighbor, co-conspirator on many broadsides, books and artwork, and life force of the cooperative spirit of the Skagit Valley artists.

In ways that seemed so natural, Robert brought people together to make greater beauty than any of us could do alone. He was always reaching out to other thinkers and craftsmen.

The first Skagit Valley new-artists show was the 1971 Asparagus Moonlight Group show, even its name being a creation of Robert Sund. I met some of my closest friends through Robert's many projects, and for years after we all shared in the making of art and publications and a community not bounded by space.

In 1973, as Robert and I sat drinking wine and writing poems at his place at Cloud House, he introduced me to the newly arrived poet Eugene Ruggles. Robert made Eugene at home, and then wrote this poem of welcome for him on the spot:

Welcome to Eugene Ruggles

What is there in this wine?

Round the table new friends

come through the door.

We go on talking and enjoying the night,

What is there to be sad about?

This richness in Robert Sund's activities extended to all the arts. Robert considered being a painter before being a poet, and with my enthusiastic encouragement in 1971 - when salvaging a watercolor of his from the trash - he went on to add artwork to his poems and make evocative watercolors that grace many collections and museums. Aside from the cover of "Poems From Ish River Country," this whole world of Robert's is not even discussed in the book.

After "Bunch Grass" was published in the 1960s, Robert somehow avoided making another major publication. Instead, after I showed him how, he made a series of precious chapbooks of short poem cycles. Many of us harassed him to do a bigger production, but for whatever reason he dodged the responsibility.

One night, about a year before he died, I was visiting, and after making us tea Robert said, "Now let's write some poetry." To my surprise we did it as easily as always.

While looking for some fine paper for us, he opened a closet that mostly held two huge steamer trunks. I chided him for maintaining such possessions in a small cottage, and he told me that they were his poetry archives of a life's work. When I again suggested publication, he told me it was to be my job to organize and publish them, as he would not be doing it.

The board he set up to further his poetic ideals after his death, from his poems to the creation of a Poet's House center, took up the job of a major book of poems. Although a couple of us actually had worked on such a volume with him before his death, a not-surprising number of friends thereafter appeared to officiate and decide on what to publish.

There was much spirited difference of opinion as to merely redoing his previously published work or instead making a serious attempt at a more representative collection. I am deeply saddened that the unimaginative conservatives won out. Not only does this book add little that was not previously available - it ignores his vast artistic output and its intimate connection to his poetry.

I can only hope that in the future the Poet's House board will permit the full scope of Robert Sund's life to be shared with us all. For now, buy this lyrical and reasonably priced book and dream poems with me.[[In-content Ad]]