Painted Thrush Press, 2015, 65 pages, $12
Available via Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Cascade-Siskiyou-Poems-Pepper-Trail/dp/150848435X
The Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon and northern California are what writers of stories of the west, both historic and fictional, call “rough country.” It is in fact about as rough as anyone might ask for in the lower 48 states, particularly in the steep tangled chasms of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness at the western end of the complex. The whole region has in recent years become a land in transition as its history of winter snows is now matched by summer fires of brutal proportions.
This is the home range, if you will, of Pepper Trail, a forensic biologist and one of the nation’s experts on the identification of feathers. It is this country of a thousand borders, this land of stony pockets, hard-faced shrubbery, and random defensive trees, that he inhabits with such poems as “The Border,” which ends with the stanza:
In this world of solid things
Of wood and stone, rough ground
And green enduring leaves
My fingers reach, reach past the real
Forever seek the border
Crossed, again and again
But never found.
Like every poem in this highly local collection, “The Border” is linked to a specific site, Soda Mountain. The entire collection was written on-site and there is a definite sense of immediate experience and hands-on knowledge in most of them.
The great poet of human experience J. D. McClatchy once wrote that the natural world is an “uncongenial” source for poetic inspiration. Setting aside the fact that nature is, as Gary Snyder put it, home, not a foreign place, I can’t help but doubt whether congeniality makes for the best poetic experience. This collection stands for the primacy of what is rooted in the ground, as does the work of Pattiann Rogers, Mary Oliver, Loren Eiseley, and others.
Some poets assemble poems with some structural similarity in order to create the theme of a collection. Trail has instead gathered poems with a commonality of place, so we go from a set of seasonal haiku to longer ruminations on winter survival, human passage, the movements of deer. The genuineness of the poet’s connection to place is obvious in “Haiku – Winter,” which perfectly describes the way kinglets move through the forest:
A drift of kinglets
Passes, leaves behind only
Sound of falling snow.
This is knowledge gained from the forest, not read in a book somewhere. There are few birds in the montane forest in winter – there are few human observers, either. There is also in this collection a profound sense of the seasons, necessary for the haiku and densely informative in other poems as well, such as “The Berry Woods”:
How secret and alive, the berry-woods
All song stilled, the boasting season done
Nothing to be heard but murmurs and calls
Bursts of flutter, birds lost within the leaves
Swallowing the pin-cherries, bright as rubies
The Oregon grapes, hard and full of spice
The manzanitas, their little apples sweet
Today, the world balances dark and light
The agitations of spring long past
Summer’s full schedule forgotten
This autumn work is simply gathering
Feasting, growing fat beneath the feathers
Preparing to fly before the cold
Before winter opens its empty hands.
Let’s unpack this characteristic Trail poem and see what’s in it. First, it is profoundly regional in the sense that the presence of Oregon grape and manzanita in the same place breathes of the collision-space of the moister climate of the coastal northwest with the more sere shrub-forests of California. Then it is about as seasonal as a poem can be, clearly written on or near the autumnal equinox (set forth where it should be, halfway through the poem). We digest (pardon the expression) an evocatively restated outline of recent seasons.
Then the poem, which has to this point been an amiable, detail-rich meander on a ridgeline filled with fruit-nibbling birds, ends with the oxygen-sucking hammer fall of what winter really means in the high country: death. This bold tonal shift in the last line changes the meaning of every previous word: all this cheerful chewing is not a casual avian picnic. It is a desperate bid for continued life by way of energy-hungry migration.
There is some variation in craft and weight among these poems, but the best among them are very good indeed. A review should not reveal all the goodies, of course, as readers should read the real thing, but I’ll mention “False Hellebore,” “To a Young Lizard,” and “Late Riders” as among the most fully realized and thoroughly carved of the collection.
The lizard poem is a reptilian cognate of “The Berry Woods,” but more tightly focused and directive throughout, as though Trail is urging the lizard to get into a safe hole pretty quickly. False hellebore and “real” hellebore get a mutual apology and a taxonomic dusting-off in what is perhaps the best poem in the collection. “Late Riders” is one of the last poems in the book and is, in truth, the natural closer for the collection because the sun descends and the human observers, having seen all the day permits, feel their way home in darkness. Yet, the concluding poem, “Juniper Years,” makes its own claim, concluding:
Time enough to accomplish our own perfection
To grow, to express in the shape of our lives
The beauty of our afflictions
The worth of all the time there is.
I am told that Pepper Trail was named the official poet laureate of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in 2013. And why not?
Alan Contreras is author of the poetry collections Night Crossing and Firewand. His collection In the Time of the Queen will appear in 2018. He is co-editor of Birds of Oregon (OSU Press 2003), author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding The American West (OSU Press 2009), Northwest Birds in Winter (OSU Press 1997), State Authorization of Colleges and Universities and other titles. He is editing a collection of essays about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and will soon begin work on a history of Oregon ornithology. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Eugene.