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Recommending a book of poetry widely is a dicey thing

October 5, 2015

Recommending a book of poetry widely is a dicey thing. There will be many false hits. It’s like telling people to read the Bible: “If only you would see what I see …” But, if you’re not called, you’re not called.

However, I’ve read a new book of poetry twice now, and it might be one of the more universally appealing collections I’ve seen.

The book is titled “Going Down Grand: poems from the canyon.” Note that I said a “new book of poetry” rather than a “book of new poetry.” Much of the poetry is from the last thirty years, but some is older, such as Mary Austin’s from 1926 and William Wallace Bass’s from 1909.

When the book arrived, I did a quick bit of rhapsodomancy, flipping randomly to pages, reading passages here and there. I said, “Oh,” wrinkling my nose; but I began at the beginning and oh was I wrong. Lesson learned.

If you love the Grand Canyon as a hiker or a boater, you might really love this book. I peeked in the canyon once from the rim and so know it only from the experiences of others, and yet I was intrigued and moved by the collective effect of this book.

Poem after poem, these people—“cowboys, explorers, river-runners, hikers, artists, geologists, rangers, and others”—attempt to express the immensity and grandeur of the canyon, its unique beauty, and the overwhelming sense of how small and brief is the human experience on Earth.

Each poem brings a different view and style to what are fundamentally the same experiences. Reading them is like slowly walking around a sculpture.

Some approach the canyon from the scale of it, the depth, the silence, the colors; others from analogies to other experiences, from reflections prompted by the feeling of insignificance, from camaraderie and the connection with others over time.

Just when I tired of the idea of the canyon as a wound or gash and was thinking maybe it’s more a revealing, in the manner of Michelangelo’s chisel, here comes a poem with that reflection.

One favorite is “Eating fruit at the Grand Canyon—a song to make death easy” by Diana Hume George. It takes several of these perspectives, beginning “Since this great hole in the earth is beyond / my comprehension and I am hungry, / I sit on the rim and eat fruit / the colors of the stone I see, / strawberries of iron cliffs, sagebrush melons …”

And we end at “a place so deep and bright / it has no needs, and we wonder / what we’re doing here on this fragment / of galactic dust, spinning, cradled, / awestruck, momentarily alive.”

There are some beautiful evocations of the silence. I can’t find the lines but the image and feeling remain of tourists leaning in towards the canyon by day but reflexively pulling back as dusk falls and the black silence of the dark canyon rises before them.

One poem begins with a quote from John Muir: “The prudent keep silent.” But I’m glad these poets did not.

Quickly: The book is beautifully made by Lithic Press of Fruita, Colorado, and cleverly designed like a guidebook so that you could carry this on your next canyon trip. It is edited by Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa, a work of love, for sure.

The poems sweep through beauty, history, geology, wildlife, people, personal experiences, and spiritual insights. Even the clever ones are self-effacing, as if no one can make this trip without humility.

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