BOOKS
Poetry volume conveys a strong sense of place


"This Old Riddle: Cormorants and Rain" by Bill Yake, Radiolarian Press, $12.

One of the nice things about poetry is its portability -- you can tuck felicitous lines or meaningful verses in your memory for reflection later on. Olympia poet Bill Yake's new collection of poems, "This Old Riddle: Cormorants and Rain," contains stellar turns of phrase that have been coming back to me at welcome moments.

Consider the birds described in the poem called "Rain and Cormorants": They "alight in ragged firs/to roost and clack their beaks/a hundred little- godlike ornaments/penciled on the sky."

Or in the neighboring poem, "Obstruction Pass," Yake makes our spot in the universe seem a little less lonely when he writes, "Unseen, stars swarm in the sunlit sky."

"This Old Riddle" is Yake's first comprehensive collection of poems. They were written during three decades -- the first were composed during his college years in the Palouse, while later work was informed by his job on this side of the state as an environmental scientist for the Department of Ecology.

In his preface to this book, Spokane-born Yake describes learning to adapt "to damp subtleties west of the Cascades," and says that poetry became a means for him to explore and record the discoveries he made along the way.

Indeed, these poems reflect a deeply rooted regionalism such as I rarely have had the pleasure of reading. They are given form by mountain boulders, ancient trees and skeletal shells; they are inhabited by merlins, deer, coyotes, endangered butterflies and fish; they are washed in the waters of familiar lakes, rivers and saltwater bays.

As a naturalist, Yake gets acquainted with his subject matter in down-and-dirty fashion, whether it involves the hand-aching task of checking fish in a chilly creek in "Counting Deformities" or spending quality time with a slug on its daily rounds in the wonderful poem titled "The Lowly, Exalted."

Many of the poems are haunted by the poet's preoccupation with the transitory nature of things, be it the erosion of the headland at Tokeland or the archaeological clues left behind by a once-thriving, now-vanished Indian village.

Granted, decline is an inevitable part of the natural cycle of things, but with his scientific training and years of field experience, Yake fears that "our species is irreversibly shredding the natural world."

As a career-spanning collection, "This Old Riddle" also features poems inspired by some of Yake's backcountry travels to other parts of the globe -- Mexico, China, New Guinea and more.

These pieces adhere to the same high standards of meticulous detail and open-heartedness, but -- scattered as they were amidst the Northwest-based poems -- I found them to distract from what could have been a stronger message of place.

This winds up being a small complaint in the context of more important things.

Yake's wish that his poetry will help us "attend to imagination and perishable wonders" is realized in this slender but spirited volume.

"This Old Riddle: Cormorants and Rain" was published by Astoria's Radiolarian Press.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on books, authors and publishers of the Northwest. She can be reached at bkmonger@nwlink.com.