This Old Riddle: Cormorants and Rain

Author: Bill Yake

Publisher: Radiolarian Press, Astoria, OR



A Review by Chris Dahl



If the natural world had petered into extinction, Bill Yake would be its archaeologist, delving into its middens, (" ...fluke/and fin, the winter rain, a village of800 rising/on shucked shells and charcoal. .."), sorting through its splinters and ash, categorizing, analyzing-then assuming the Herculean task of building back, layer by painstakingly assembled layer, an ecology far richer and stranger than we would have conceived based on our own arbitrary assumptions and preconceived notions.

Yake's first strength as a nature writer is his ability to concentrate on the moment. A poem such as "While Sleeping at Otter Lake" could be typical (albeit even by those standards extraordinarily well-wrought) nature fare, a focused vision of a water bird capturing a frog, eloquent in its simplicity. Reflect on the title for a moment, though, and wonder how the writer could know of the bird's hunting expedition when it occurred while he slept. The moment he has taken for his focus is simply the discovery of tracks left earlier by the bird. All else is extrapolated by Yake's imagination. But the image, and its consequent power, is no less lifelike because it hasn't been literally "seen." In fact, the poem has been strengthened by the torqueing of the title. How much do we miss by being asleep to the world? "While Sleeping at Otter Lake" could have been a simple paean to nature, in Yake's hands it becomes a call to attention.

Another strength I'd like to point out is his ability to pinpoint and describe precise details that clarify his vision. Galleries and dendrites of shadow," or something less easily poetic, "65 feet of poly rope," populate every poem. Not only are the details true, they are often rendered in vivid, sensual, fresh language which bring them to life: "Frigatebirds whirl in early thermals, drawn/up in ash-like plumes," "Christmas farms/treed so thickly the ground dies black." " ...the tangled understory--patched in prismatic green. .." In every poem the reader finds language that rises to the occasion. This is consummate craftsmanship that more of us would do well to emulate.

As poets, anxious to get vision or thought down, we often forget poetry's dual nature as story and song. At his best, Yake harvests the subtle music that can be gleaned from unmetered and/or unrhymed poetry. In lines such as "In time threaded larvae and tiny/spiders dangle from his hat-brim/well inside the stiffening focus/of his aging eyes. Tiny lives itch/across his cheek," we hear subtle echoes. Time, tiny, tiny again, but far enough away the repetition soothes rather than irritates. Think about the pairing of itch and cheek, how the unstudied reversal of the 'ch' sings a little song. In his best poems, Yake's music flows as complexly musical a river around stones.

But there is more to these poems than just classic craftsmanship. In many of them, "Whitman in the Northwest Woods," "Drying Salmon," "Songs from Wolves," Yake steps outside the confines of the phenomenological world and guides us into a stranger realm where Whitman has been transported into the Northwest woods, taken apart and transposed by nature into itself; where salmon suddenly appear in the portholes of Laundromat appliances. These kinds of vision contain their own vitality and apprehension leading us, for a few seconds at least, to enlarge the possibilities of our world.

The collection, of course, is not perfect, but there are few poems that would not be worth studying for one of the reasons mentioned, if not for the sheer joy of the poetry itself.  The author has an annoying habit of separating or indenting the last line, as if to say, "O.K., pay attention now." There are one or two instances where the academic language becomes burdensome. But after the exhilaration of exploring these poems, the objections feel like carping. This Old Riddle: Cormorants and Rain is a book worth occupying the real estate of your bookshelf