When you read about a little girl becoming a butterfly in “Lupine Dew,” or the grief of a mother’s loss of her son in “Mother and Son,” in the poetry collection, “Thinking Like A Canyon” by Jarold Ramsey, you experience the sharpest moments of life. The poems dance between the lively experience of being a parent and stories that emerge from the land (or freeway overpass). There is a lot of the quirkiness of life in this accessible collection of current and past work. In each piece, the place where the poems are set becomes as real as a main character.
A judge for the National Book Award for Poetry and Professor Emeritus of the University of Rochester, Jarold Ramsey knows language. As the editor of two books on Native American traditional literature, he understands how stories and a sense of place mix. But I think it is his sense of humor and his homegrown knowledge of the place he lives and grew up in (Central Oregon) that brings the most sensual and heartfelt details into his poetry.
This book to me is a more than a listing of moments and places, but acts as a primer; a friendly guide for the road ahead. Ramsey, who has experienced falling in love and nurturing marriage, growing children, while watching parents age and die, and friends too pass away and then experiencing children leaving the nest, and grandchildren coming back, shares his understanding of where the joys of life are found. These are lessons delivered in the lightest of ways, like in the roaming of a local tumbleweed in “Uncle Tumbleweed.”
“But Uncle Tumbleweed, / I fancy you’ve been a loner, a rover, / avoiding fence-rows and ditches and walls / altogether. I’d love to collect your story / if I knew how to ask for it, beginning at that moment / you gave up your roots and turned your first amazing somersault over the furrows.”
You’ll find that lightness also in “Hunting Arrowheads”, and in the making of “Sauerkraut” or the “Naming of Tools.” For lovers or readings at weddings, try the sweet “Volo Ut Sis”, or the stunningly beautiful “Cloud Shadows over Blizzard Ridge.”
I would also recommend “Thinking Like A Canyon” to those who devour nature writing and poetry in the vein of Jack Kerouac’s pal, poet Gary Snyder and Northwest writer, Barry Lopez and for those that like the unpretentious style of Mary Oliver. Within the pages of this collection, Native American heritages and mythologies share space with German and Irish emigrant histories all making their home amongst the secret lives of the deserts, mountains and junipers of Central Oregon.
Sometimes it is nice to take a break from reading novels and experience a shorter form like poetry. The stories that are poems in “Thinking Like A Canyon” are a grouping of one great timeline. The plots change from poem to poem, but the major theme that links them is the experience of being a parent, and being still a child of the world.