The Answers are Inside the Mountains

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing LifeThe Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Memorial
In Nagasaki they built a little room
dark and soundproof where you can
go in all alone and close the door and cry.

William Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975 until 1990, crafted over 20,000 poems during his time on Earth- a staggering output. A pacifist—soft-spoken, yet fierce—Stafford was a teacher, a mentor, a wide-eyed, gracious observer and recorder of life. His poems are clean, without guile or pretense and most often set in the natural world. He eschewed the rules of writing, rising above convention to state simply that showing up to the page was enough. That writing made one a writer, not publishing, not critical acclaim, not commercial success.

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

The earth says have a place, be what that place requires; hear the sound the birds imply and see as deep as ridges go behind each other.

I immediately lent it out to a writer friend and now I am bereft, trying to write this review without the treasured work beside me to flip through and reread. But I took notes in my journal, and took great comfort in reading that Stafford too kept journals, that they were the source of his creativity, one of the places he turned to in crafting his poems, where he worked out ideas and themes, from which he pulled his own material.

Save up little pieces that escape other people. Pick up the gleamings.

At this precarious time, when I struggle to find hope and beauty, I am reminded the answers are in the mountains, the mountains of art that surround me.

We drown in ugliness. Art helps teach us to swim.

I’m closing with a poem that wasn’t in the book, because in searching for another poem, I came across this. It’s been one of my favorites for years and reading it again opened up a river inside me. A river frozen over, now melted by Stafford’s words.

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.

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Book Review: The Outlander, Gil Adamson

The OutlanderThe Outlander by Gil Adamson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love being drawn in and surprised by a great story. And when the writing is as beautiful as Ms. Adamson’s, a celebrated Canadian poet, it becomes an all-too-rare treat: a book I must tear myself away from as the clock ticks into the start of my work day.

Following The Outlander is a conversation between the author, Gil Adamson, and the writer Michael Ondaatje. Ms Adamson describes an image that came to her unbidden, one which she set to paper. She saw a young woman in a black dress fleeing an unseen pursuer. The image became the opening scene of this powerful historical suspense.

This is a thriller, not a mystery. We know who committed the crime, and as the story unfolds, we learn why. But the chase grabs us from the first sentence and holds us to the story’s final words, “Find me.” At times the followed become the pursuers; at times they become the left behind. The thrills are woven into a rich and deeply satisfying tale set in the Alberta Rockies at the turn of the 20th century.

The author’s gorgeous prose reveals the awesome and dreadful beauty of the setting . She presents us with a host of vivid, unforgettable characters: grim, ginger-haired twins bent on revenge; a Jeremiah Johnson-like recluse who runs from the shelter of love; a pugilistic preacher and an enterprising dwarf who provide moral guidance and whisky to exhausted miners; and the protagonist, Mary, a beautiful runaway, driven nearly mad with grief and terror. Her Odyssey through the mountains and plains of central Canada holds us captive. We shrink as she slowly starves, we soar when she is saved by strangers, we will her to survive as tragedy crushes her hope.

There are dark and terrible images, balanced by sweet moments of humor and grace. Ms. Adamson has created a thing of magic in The Outlander– a literary Western deeply connected by careful research and intricate details to the history of its setting that is also a wonderfully imaginative thriller you cannot put down.

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