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In Memory of a Banyan Tree: Poems of the Outside World: 1985 to 2022
Three Wooden Trunks
The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Selected Poems
Finding the Top of the Sky  
  James Grabill

ISBN 978-0-9717265-7-4     $16.95  /  $18.95 (Canada)     5.5 x 8.5       

116 pp      
PUB DATE: Spring 2005       Nonfiction


In James Grabill’s unique view no one should settle for a world that conducts itself as though there were no mythic dimension; his other collection of essays and his many stunning books of poems make this clear. But unlike many American writers critical of the way this world we shouldn’t settle for is going, Grabill has the visionary skill to give us a glimpse of how it should be going. In the face of the escalating inanity and aridness of post-industrial life, the fine pieces in this volume insist that compassion triumph over cruelty, meditative clarity over bombast and spin. It is a great delight to feel the weight of Grabill’s conviction (along with his immense talent) and, with sea lions, lorikeets, giant ferns, and humpback whales, to follow it to the top of the sky, where it is so much easier to see what matters and what does not.

—Christopher Howell, author of Just Waking

About the Author

James Grabill

James Grabill was born in Ohio and attended The College of Wooster, Bowling Green State University, and Colorado State University, from which he earned MA and MFA degrees. His book, Poem Rising Out of the Earth and Standing Up in Someone (Lynx House, 1994) was awarded the Oregon Book Award for Poetry in 1995. His work has appeared widely in publications such as Willow Springs, Poetry East, The Prose Poem, Field, East West Journal, New Age Journal, The Common Review, The Bitter Oleander, and others. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches literature and writing at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City.

Actual Energy: Risking Our Lives for Art

In the late ‘60s, I went to college and learned how to smoke a briar pipe. A number of men I knew smoked pipes. They’d sit down to read or write and press exotic blends into their bowls with a finger. Wood-stemmed Diamond matches would flare over old dorm-room desks. Clouds of thought would swirl up and hang in layers in the air.

Smoking a pipe can be enjoyable and a way to focus into difficult language. The fire alerts the body to be careful, smoke drifting over the page as if the solid world were reaching into itself a bit. It calls to mind some of the grandfathers, or their grandfathers who are already smoke. And maybe the act quietly teaches that risking one’s life for the work isn’t so bad.

Sometimes the ancients appear as earlier parts of our lives, say the day we drove the loud 1955 Ford back from the dealer after buying it for $250 in 1971 in Portland. That was a real car, with a domed roof, large thick seats, and a greenly lit dashboard. It drove well enough, but the dealer forgot to tell us it was nearly out of gas. Ever run out of gas in the middle of Broadway in a busy city?

The old blue-green Ford had gray blotches of primer and leaked oil voluptuously. The dealer had warned us about that, but the aesthetics of the cabin of the car seemed more important. 1955 was a year we could believe in, a year that was solid and optimistic, and eventually the car was merging into the massive workings of the late workday flux of metal and commuters and buses and one-way streets. I can’t remember any dreams from 1971 because everywhere I looked, dreams were going on in daylight with their juxtaposed inconsistencies, the primal currents of dusk through the windshield, the streetlight casting its shadows of other cities, and some of our life stories that, if not for a road, would have been without clear bearings.

We named the Ford Mrs. Swanson after our elderly landlady whose hobby was crocheting flag and eagle arm rests, and attached a trailer hitch, rented a U-Haul, and drove with everything we had collected—the art history books, poetry, philosophy, European novels, paintings, sculpture—down the interstate back east. We had little money, but the Ford’s engine was strong, roaring down the road, drinking gas and oil, transporting us, its hypnotic dash gauges glowing.

In Utah, the snow began, and it was snowing from inside the canyons, from the mountains, suddenly the huge flakes falling into the rhythm of the fat ‘55 wipers slapping at them as our sight became more and more dependent on the taillights of the car in front of us. We had decided to roll, were rolling, risking everything, driving back east in the fall, and suddenly snow was piling up everywhere, filling the sky with its walls of substance and white space.

Soon we were going twenty miles per hour, then fifteen, then slower, locked on the taillights in front of us, watching the edge of the road through the open window, unable to see the pavement, unable to see anything but falling white matter, the blurs on the windshield, the red lights and pieces of white line. Cliffs loomed in flashes, rock walls, and unknowns. We were awake, no question, trembling, wondering where the snowstorm was leading, and the road.

In Evanston, Wyoming, the patrol cars signaled us over, down an off-ramp of ice into town. We were told to go to the city hall, where we would be assigned to a family who had volunteered to shelter stranded travelers. In our daze, we followed their jeep to the edge of town, drove further through massive snow, and turned into the driveway of the farm where we would be staying.

Four other cars were also sent to this family. Soon we sat in the living room, sipping a hot drink, shaking but strangely calm, knowing we had been lucky. I can’t remember our hosts’ last name, but they explained a storm of this magnitude happened once or twice a year, that the highway was impassable and we would need to stay there probably a few days. It was definitely a storm, filling passes with many feet of snow. They said a couple cars didn’t follow orders and would be plowed out in a few days if they were lucky. After a distracted group discussion, soon we retired to our assigned bunk in the trailer where we slept in a single bed a few feet from Anna and Eric from Alaska.

Anna and Eric were short-statured, and thick, perhaps sixty years old. They seemed part Eskimo, and Eric certainly knew all about sub-zero weather. When a car didn’t start, he said all you needed to do was soak a few rags in gasoline, light them, and push them under the crank case of the car. You gotta get the oil “cooking,” he said, you gotta get it cooking and then you’re in business. Eric knew about the cold and about risk, and slept close to Anna, snoring from Alaska, flying off into the snowy sky, at home with all the snow. We were still awake, and I tried to stop imagining Mrs. Swanson exploding when Eric shoved the flaming rags under the crank case. Miriam and I held each other, and soon, I have to admit I felt myself charged, erect, and she was wet. We pushed together and moved slowly as Eric snored.

Fortunately, she didn’t become pregnant. Why we weren’t more careful, I can’t say. On one hand, I think I asked her if she wanted to have my child, or I remember her saying she would like to have our child, and that’s how we decided to become engaged. But basically I didn’t want children. I wanted art. Freedom. I wanted to survive the workweek, and didn’t know how I’d make a good living. How could I possibly support a pregnant artist on a poem-writing janitor’s salary? Clearly, it was impossible, I figured, and yet the sense was so clear: we wanted to have the baby we’d make because we loved each other—probably you know the feeling.

Our baby became the art, the poems, the jazz we listened to, the dog who knew what was happening. When we felt the love, snow was from the soul, and the sunlight, and the fir trees we walked through near the Columbia River. Our nurturing became hinged on seeing, on aesthetic seeing, and soon the actual energy of sexuality began to drift sideways, away from what we were risking, away from the potential of impregnation. I don’t know what eggs think about when they are told that they can’t be used, but they must have a few thoughts. And the legions and jazz groups of sperm, what must they be dreaming about, rushing down the channels of the river when they are called?

If you look at the paintings and poems from those times, perhaps you will be able to see an egg opened by a lively fellow hundreds of times smaller, diving into the broth of the spiral coils, breathing into the body he had been asking for, and the egg like a sun in the earth. Perhaps there is transference of that energy into the way fish are painted with greens and violets, the way judges take on crimson and deep blue, or the way leaves turn from within their power into paint or words. When I type the word sun, sometimes I think of the egg impregnated, or when the grass moves in the wind, or when I look at my face in the mirror and try to shave off the forest hair. When the car starts sometimes I think of Eric, cooking the oil. He emphasized the “k” in cook at the beginning and end with a curve of his tongue and throat that sounded the way an engine might be persuaded to start, or the way a man might face impossible weather.

We stayed in the Evanston retreat for three days and ate bacon and eggs, and farm chicken, and talked with other families, held by community energy and the host family’s constant generosity. They were ready with jeeps, chains, at least two freezers of food from their farm. And it was Wyoming. It was snow. It was actual energy that stopped us and that let us go a few days later, and actual gasoline that worked in the motor, and actual Eric talking gutturally about what he knew. Mostly, though, Anna did the talking and Eric nodded.

The Ford drove us all the way to Michigan, and didn’t start in some of the harsh weather. Eventually we bought an electric dip stick that kept the oil warm. We walked to college through the Michigan snows, and again I became confused about what to do for a living. Soon we were on the road, moving to Ypsilanti, then to Indiana, then to Ohio, and back to Portland, moving to find where the road was going, to find the next painting and poem, to follow the asking of the body, to avoid the harshness of the regular week with its lack of the sun that the river pumps toward, its lack of . . . what was it?

We moved seeking a place of soul. And what we risked was a natural result of having almost no money, but also of not knowing what we wanted to try to give back to the culture other than art. We drove and landed, and drove and read Galway Kinnell poems out loud on the way. When we got to a new place, I set up my desk and she assembled her studio. We stacked up a half dozen records and sipped coffee or beer, and started working. We worked through most of the weekend. And we walked through the forest with the dog, who knew how to do that. We walked by the river of the colors and words, and felt ourselves in the current—when we weren’t cleaning buildings so we could pay the rent.

Approaching the blank canvas, or blank page, there is excitement, the open road, perhaps a snowstorm or forest trail, and a huge risk. Shapes are risked for their context, colors for their reciprocal reachings, movements for their unities and fragmentation. Sometimes the inner earth of the whiteness breaks into eyes of a foreman in 1970 near the Akron railroad crossing, or into how she looked in the yellow sundress that afternoon in Cincinnati, in a single brush stroke or phrasing.

As years pass, rooms of paintings are carried off by the snow, trunks of poems are blown away by the ocean wind, but we survive, and risk our bodies as we move. And risk our souls as we continue through our time. Marriages dissolve, cars break apart into their partial witnessings, and the years blow through the fir trees. The cities change and smoke builds as furnaces heat the exchange between dreams. A Diamond match flares, as a person smoking tries to light his soul, to turn the volume up or slow the day down. The cloud swells, disbursing its road tars and oxidized phrasings. Of course, one by one, people learn to stop smoking.

Back in the changes of 1971, a cat jumped out of a field in Michigan literally onto my shoulders. She dug into my army surplus coat, sensing who we were, I guess. We adopted her and named her Moss because she was wild and her eyes were green. She traveled with us a while and soon was pregnant in Alma. In our small house, she began to purr and cluck and didn’t go into the box we set up for her, but climbed onto my chest, with her face just below my chin, and began to pump out her babies. We gently carried her to the box as the babies slipped out of her—four blind kittens—and she knew what to do. She licked them into health, nursed them, and taught them where to go. Her heart was beating quickly against my chest before the first kitten was born. In Ohio, she sat by my desk when I wrote, and the energy moved through us and was around us.

© 2005 James Grabill