Tuesday, March 22, 2022


Dendrochronology is the word that comes to mind in assessing poet Walker Abel’s body of work in anticipation of the April 22, 2022 release of his fourth volume of poetry Deer Hoof on River Cobbles, to be published by Homebound Publications. The science or technique of dating events, environmental change, and archaeological artifacts by using the characteristic patterns of annual growth rings in timber and tree trunks—the history of wood, if you will—is, for me, an apt characterization of the unfolding growth of Abel’s vision and the maturation of his craft.

You could say that Walker and I met each other as saplings in mid-December 1986, when he attended Gary Snyder’s seminar “The Girl Who Went Off With A Bear”, sponsored by the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco (where I was a full scholar at the time). The seminar’s venue was the historic Firehouse at Fort Mason in San Francisco. At that particular event, I was helping out the Institute’s public programs by passing out box lunches to the participants. When I realized that Walker had not pre-purchased a box lunch and was going to go without, I offered him one for free. He was grateful, we exchanged contact information, and thus began what has been without question one of the main epistolary friendships of my life.

In what Walker later characterized as “a daring overture”, I wrote Walker after the seminar, stating: “My responsibilities to the seminar kept me from having much time to converse with you, but—in the brief time that I did—I felt that words were nothing more than small berries on a twig of juniper for you, and that twig hidden in a forest of junipers.” He confirmed in his response: “You are right … about my relation to words. I don’t say much. And I do emulate the wordless ways of nature, be it creek or juniper berry.”

During the ensuing years, Walker shared his freshly drafted poems with me as he maneuvered through his education. I even read—and learned a lot—from his Masters Thesis “The Poet and Nature: Emerson, Whitman, And An American Spiritual Path From the Perspective Of Transpersonal Psychology.” His eventual employment with the Sierra Institute allowed him to put his wilderness psychology into practice. Each year’s worth of poems, each achieved goal, registered as a tree-ring indicating his growth as a writer. It was intriguing to watch the typewritten manuscript of Runes In Present Mountains, which he offered me to read, transform (albeit amended) into his first published volume of poetry, The Uncallused Hand (2014), which won the 2014 Poetry Prize from Homebound Publications, went on to become a Finalist in the Foreword Reviews 2014 Book of the Year and to win Gold in the 2015 Nautilus Awards. The Uncallused Hand was followed by Stories Dreamed from Dust and Distant Light (2017) and Five Hearts of Aloneness (2019). How pleased I was to see Walker achieve his audience. He was no longer small berries on a twig of juniper hidden in a forest of junipers.

Which brings me to the tree ring closest to the bark. At a time when so much of the world has lost its previous meaning and I struggle to retain my footing in our contemporary moment—let alone set out towards an uncertain future—troubled by pandemic waves, political-corporate corruption, and heart-wearying environmental degradation, Walker’s most recent collection of poems—Deer Hoof on River Cobbles—offers redemptive hope to my apocalyptic mind by suggesting that I remain in the power of the present moment, to not wrestle with meaning, neither meaning forlorn and lost, nor meaning feared and anticipated.  

Deer Hoof sagely begins with versed contemplations on how Walker recommends his poems be read. Etymologically, contemplation is an act of being “together with”, “near”, “by”, “beside” a piece of ground that has been consecrated, and that is meant to be used to build an edifice, a “temple”, to honor and worship the spirit of that place. The demarcation of a space that becomes sacred enough upon which to build a temple, however, sprang from much simpler origins. A space that was marked out for observation—let’s say a hilltop—leant ancient augurs opportunity to portend or prognosticate towards bad or towards good. From that hilltop they could have a commanding view of birds in flight and craft their predictions. Should their crafted predictions become reliable, that marked-off piece of land, that hilltop, gained sacred credence, earning it the stature of a temenos, a precinct set apart from the ordinary, and an eligible site for an altar, and eventual temple, to worship the spirit of place. But before becoming too enmired or wedded to that religiosity, I would suggest that the temenos was deemed sacred simply because that was where one could go to be one’s true self. It’s in that inflection that I approach the act of contemplation, which I understand as being in the temple of one’s own being, especially as reflected by nature, or rather as being understood through the evidence of nature. I’ve long thought of Walker as an augur poet able to read nature. His unique gift, however, is that he can mark off and have a dialogue with the sacred from any point of observation, implying that the sacred is not within any one person or any parcel of land, but rather in the interaction between person and land, and most assuredly between a poet and land, which is to say nature. Among his proposed contemplations, he offers: 


Like listening to instrumental music 

or gazing at abstract or impressionistic art 

can I notice what effects come to me 

rather than pushing 

to figure out what the poem means? 


If each poem is its own being 

like a plant or animal 

can I let the presence and the gestures of that being 

have their place in the world— 

something arisen out of Mystery 

representative not of a life 

but of Life? 

Rather than have his poems allude to something other than what they are through ascribed and parlayed meaning, Walker suggests that poems exist intact within their own structure, their own being, and that—if fortunate, if attentive, if disciplined—the reader can breathe with the poems, match the rhythm of the poem’s breath, to earn the relaxed company of the poem. He asks us to be with his poems and to take part in what he describes as their “expansive moment”. In mastering the description of nature, or his impressions of nature, Walker’s poems simulate somatic certainties about nature. Although people might have varying cultural (i.e., mental and ideological) attitudes about nature, the effect of nature on the human body translates universally. Across the board, witnessing a supreme sunset can calm and soothe the body, or hazarding an extreme storm can instill fear and awe in the body. He quotes Mary Oliver: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” By striving to capture a clear description of nature—rather than trying to interpret nature—Walker is, in effect, making the images of his poems somatically accessible, thereby minimizing the distance between the poem and the reader. He is playing with the ancient Hindu adage tat tvam asi, thou art that. To become one with the poem, Walker assures us, is to witness the Absolute, by way of nature. This is his temenos, the ground of his poetry. He intimates as such in his poem “Not One, Not Two”: 

just a voice clear as the river 

and paired with it, a listening 

made of the same water. 

And again in “Everything Happens Of Itself”:  

So perfect, the pale green of sagebrush 

summoned out of light and leaf 

as though there could be severance 

between the seer and the seen. 

Through his poems Walker situates his reader, acknowledging the dynamic tension between the “complementarities”, as he terms them, of thought and language, handing the reader the punctuational diagonal slant as if saying, “Here is your oar, Raftsman, navigate your two shores.” This energizing principle of thought and language and how it is structured is what I envision not only as the raftman’s ruddering oar, but a holy hinge, something that connects and utilizes complementarities, allowing movement in two directions, like a hinged door swinging both ways, or the bellows Lao Tzu describes in the quote Walker provides. Further, I like to think of that door as swinging both ways at once

In his observations of nature, Walker is sometimes oneiric. Nature becomes so specific, so exact, written in sensuous detail that it borders on the dream-like for escaping the quotidian. But nature itself is an everyday phenomenon so the quotidian speaks more to a failure in language. Just as dreams are often just what they are without our being able to interpret or understand them, nature in its being is the same. You might also notice that Walker avoids speaking about nature in the past tense, but most often keeps it in the present, preferring aspect to tense, often speaking in gerunds. In this way a sacred moment of observation lasts forever because it is continually happening, which one can interpret as a shamanic point of view. If memories are indulged, it is to resuscitate them into the present moment. An invocation of an observation from the past necessarily occurs as a present observation. This allows the inherited wealth of a lifetime worth of observations to thrum through each new observation, but Walker tempers the weight of the cumulative by reducing description to its quintessential truth, as he relays in “Too Die For”:  

By stripping time this spare 

the naked moment 

hatches out of thinnest air.  

The poem from which the collection borrows its title has this visionary stanza:  

Behind every tree, she said 

an unseen column of space. 

That after sticks are gathered 

beauty burns with fugitive heat. 

That “unseen column of space” imagined “behind every tree” is as much an understanding of how the visible world of phenomena—nature, if you will—relies upon and is informed by something invisible, something which it is not, that again through complementarities advises the poet who cares to pay attention that—if something is corporeal, something must be incorporeal; if something is conceivable, imaginable, thinkable, communicable, definable, expressible, speakable, it remains forever ineffable. No one ever said the poet’s dance with words would be easy. Perhaps the greatest danger is when a poet becomes inflated with his own words. To his credit, Walker is humble in his lucid descriptions. He knows that he doesn’t invent these things; he simply has the heart and the visual acuity to describe them clearly to the best of his craft. He knows that the “unseen column of space” is what makes beauty burn with fugitive heat. Everything we cannot know, we cannot see, cannot express, is what makes what we can know, what we can see, what we can express all the more beautiful for being fleeting, fugacious, fugitive. “Forever you want me to say,” he states in “Lifting Anchor”, “but never is just as true.” Poetry is the human experience expressed at its best. 

There is significant generosity in Deer Hoof. Segmented into 10 sections, including a preface and an addendum, Walker introduces each section with a pair of selected quotes that he has gleaned from years of reading. The quotes give thematic shape and structure to the individual sections, as well as pay deference to respected influences. Walker has a compelling need to share gem-like snippets of writing from the likes of Lao Tzu, Mary Oliver, Jim Harrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Freya Mathews, Galway Kinnell, Pablo Neruda, W.S. Merwin, Wallace Stevens, among others. Apparently, clarity loves company and seeks to share its light. With tender wryness Walker summarizes in “Ars Poetica”:  

If it were critiqued 

that all my poetry 

amounted to variations of 

I was here 


would be immediate 

if allowed to add 

You were too. 

 Deer Hoof concludes with an addendum—“Poetry, Qigong, and Expansive States of Being”—which, along with the volume’s introductory contemplations, are welcome pieces from the poet offering glimpses into his own craft. “But the appeal of poetry through the ages,” Walker defines in his addendum “is exactly because, even in its use of words, it can nevertheless be a portal for the reader (or listener) into a moment not limited by language. And an expansive moment, however achieved, has proven itself deeply appealing to humans.” It is his description of this “expansive moment” that I recognize as his temenos, as his sacred ground of being, which he observes faithfully so he can share it with others. 

Earlier, when I was opining that the ineffable delimits all human expression, Walker appears to concur. He understands that “the poet is someone who is able to leave the verbal mind, and enter a space that is in itself wordless and yet out of which words cohere.” In hopes that his poems allow readers to share in their expansive moments, Walker goes one step further and offers qigong techniques that he uses to put himself in a ready state of acceptance. Qigong might not be the technique that works for you, but the poetry of Deer Hoof on River Cobbles will certainly aim you in a direction that will.

Monday, March 21, 2022


What a difference a decade makes. Or for that matter, try short of two.  

The Evening Class project began in 2006 as an enthusiastic exploration of the self-publishing possibilities of the blogging medium, which was then in its ramp-up stages. The promising ideal of a “citizen press corp” (a term, I believe, coined by Susie Gerhard when she was serving as editor for SF360, the journalistic arm of the San Francisco Film Society) idealistically offset what was being recognized as the gradual weakening of what the fourth estate could offer to cinephilia. As ad revenues dried up for newspapers, so did columnar space for film reviews and commentary and—as the cogs often work in these geared transitions—blogs proposed an alternate form of publicity. It was a particularly exciting time for being the onset of the “blogosphere” when bloggers throughout the country and into other countries introduced themselves, shook each others’ hands, began meeting up at film festivals, and began linking into each others’ work to demonstrate and enjoy the variety of approaches to film coverage that editorial policies at newspapers could rarely afford. 

Some of the blogs were erudite and incisive, such as Girish Shambu’s eponymous site, nuancing films with academic tools to better understand their structure and cultural import; others were like fanzines focusing on favored genres—horror, westerns, police procedurals, sword and sandal sagas; some were alert to all film-related events in their regional calendar, such as Brian Darr’s ever-informative Hell On Frisco Bay; some served an aggregate function like David Hudson’s itinerant Daily, strengthening the network of the blogosphere by profiling individual efforts swept up in the collective stream. There’s no doubt in my mind that without the interactions formed in the blogosphere—without Girish’s skill in gathering writers together to discuss film cogently, or Brian’s notifications of rare but important screenings, or David’s promotion of the best of our work—The Evening Class would never have found what it needed to grow and thrive: camaraderie. 

It was a proud frenetic season of work and contribution. Being one of the very first bloggers in the Bay Area to request and be granted press credentials remains in my mind to this day a singular achievement. I helped lead a charge against the gatekeepers of film publicity, established working relationships with publicists based on new strategies of coverage, and watched over the years how the passion and practice of so many individuals fed into the strengthening of local film cultures and the capacity of film commentary to educate, enthuse, inform. I never identified as a film critic, always as an enthusiast, and tried to remain true to that spirit within.

Though I may have been one of the first to seize opportunity, however, it wasn’t long before storming the gates seemed like a high-flown scene in a Cecil B. Demille Biblical epic, a race to get the word out on a film before twenty-five others did, before fifty others did. As press passes began flying out like cards in a hand of poker; as publicists began hunkering down on what they required, if not demanded; as eventually each film festival developed their own social media departments with full-time committed employees, the obsolescence of the blogging format revealed itself. No longer needed to pick up the slack of the fourth estate, what was the role then to be played? How many blogs could a person keep up with? How many broken links before a broken spirit?

The decimating effect of the COVID pandemic on brick-and-mortar film festivals bifurcated access, producing virtual festivals and hybrid festivals (combining virtual screenings with in-theater screenings) that attempted to simulate the festival-goers’ experience. These were effective in varying degree; but—without question—the old days of audiences communally watching movies together in the dark shifted into the realm of the nostalgic. After two years of canceled film festivals, several have initiated re-entry into live screenings and it is yet to be determined how much of an impact the safety-in-place directives have influenced viewing habits. Who will return to watch movies in brick-and-mortar moviehouses? Who will fear to do so?

Not quite knowing where The Evening Class was to go next, I’ve elected to branch out from exclusive film coverage to incorporate literary and musical domains, using the same strategy of producing direct source material by way of interviews and Q&A transcriptions. During the COVID Interruption, I discovered the Academia website, joined, and was delighted to discover that conversations from The Evening Class were being incorporated into academic papers all over the world. This has given me the incentive to imagine this blog into the future. What follows will be the results of that incentive. I apologize to my readership for the long lapses in coverage, but hope you will join me in months to come.