Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Robert Sund: Lost Harvest

I live near Seattle, on an island in Puget Sound, the salt body of water--arm of the Pacific Ocean--that sneaks into the middle of Western Washington, bordered by the Cascade Mountains (including Mount Rainier) to the east and the Olympics in the west. As most folks know, the climate tends to be wet, but that also means lots of flowing rivers available year-'round for irrigation and hydroelectric power.

A poet friend of mine named Robert Sund many years ago stated some of those facts more elegantly. (Sund consciously modelled his work and his life on the live-simple, subtly intellectual, boisterous-with-drink poets of ancient China; he studied calligraphy and often wrote his crisp, direct poems out longhand using some trusty ink bottle and favored pen or brush.)

"Ish River"--
like breath,
like mist rising from a hillside.
Duwamish, Snohomish, Stillaguamish, Samish,
Skokomish, Skykomish... all the ish rivers.

I live in the Ish River country
between two mountain ranges where
many rivers
run down to an inland sea.

Robert died several years ago, and his subsequent collected poems volume inherited the title Poems from Ish River Country. We were pals way back in the late Sixties and early Seventies when I was actively writing poetry too. But to make a living I was also writing for King Screen, a company which had won several Emmys and Academy Awards for its documentary movies; since these weren't bringing in much money, the company sought to continue by producing educational films as well.

One of my first suggestions--a film I've carried in my head unproduced for four decades now--was to show something like "a day in the life of the vast and beautiful wheat fields of Eastern Washington during harvest season." Dawn to dusk, the big combines turning, the grain elevators filling, wind rippling the stalks, birds bursting up, dust swirling everywhere, the men at work and at rest, and so on. I knew the dust-filtered light would approximate a whole film shot during Hollywood's beloved "golden time" (that gorgeous, refracted light ahead of sunset), the action and machinery would be powerful, the contrasting peaceful moments equally compelling, and a judicious choice of music and natural sounds would enhance it all. And to add a welcome, unexpected touch, the soundtrack would replace pedantic narration with a selection of poems from Sund's rich and graceful book Bunch Grass, his multi-part account memorializing one such wheat harvest experienced firsthand.

Just the other day I bought a copy of Robert's collected poems at last, and the whole scenario came sweeping back. I had written a solid treatment back then, and his poems enriched the text greatly; the King Screen bosses were interested and tried to make the sale. But no sponsoring company or television network (no PBS back then) or AID agency person would commit any financial backing, so the idea finally died.

In Robert's memory now, I want to quote a few of his brief harvest poems, so calm and precise and easily absorbed, to convey a bit of what we had hoped to present to the world 40 years ago...

Dark leaves lift in light wind.
At dawn, dew
slips away from hidden cloisters in the grass.
Near a bed of lupine
the meadowlark sees his shadow
wakening beside him.
among the lavender blue spires
surely upon the light blossom of wonder,
he tries to remember
but can recall
only part of a song he must have once
known fully,
and he sings again....

First there is silence; then,
farther on,
at the edge of a field,
the riddled song of a cricket. Beyond that,
And still beyond, barely audible,
the hum of a combine
going uphill through rows of wheat.
No wind at all.
The sky is a sailboat,
scarcely moving....

America is a strange man
lying in a wheat field.
are coming in the distance,
gearing down
to take the hill.
will stop them.
Working fourteen hours a day,
three weeks now
without a day's rest, the combine men
are tired, and praying
for rain.
Lying in the wheat,
the strange man
turns over on his side.
In his hand
a clod of dirt

Just outside the elevator
in the hot sun,
you hear
the slow lament of flies.
Listening closely,
you hear also,
just under them--
it might be miles away--
the wind,
and steady.
It's lunchtime in the fields.
Combines are cooling off....

with just enough of a breeze for him to ride it
lazily, a hawk
sails stiff-winged
up the slope of a stubble-covered hill,
so low
he nearly
touches his shadow....

Let these poems be like bunch grass,
in ground winds,
flash floods, and sunlight,
holding together
while one cricket sheltered here
sings his single song....

Sharp lines
soften in the reflected light
as the sun falls lower and lower.
slowly lift the fields.
Coming from somewhere unseen,
a barn swallow shoots up into the bright sky,
dips down into
the shadows, sweeps
back up,
brilliant and sunlit,
in an old, unformulated language
the single word for

My compressed edit can't convey the complexity and simplicity and beauty of Robert's 54 individual harvest poems, nor the rich, golden-time visuals awaiting some camera somewhere in wheat country, from vast fields rippling in the wind, to clattering-machine excitement, to dust-streaked elevator workers collapsed in exhaustion at sunset, to the bird-haunted onset of night, with all the big machines poised for a new day. But perhaps even this much suggests what we had hoped and what some filmmaker still could achieve.

(Both photos of Sund are the work of photographer Mary Randlett.)

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