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.