The late Washington poet Robert Sund modeled his simple country lifestyle and his writing voice after the Chinese and Japanese masters he admired. Sund died in Anacortes in 2001...
The late Washington poet Robert Sund modeled his simple country lifestyle and his writing voice after the Chinese and Japanese masters he admired. Sund died in Anacortes in 2001, and a newly released volume of his collected poems and translations, “Poems from Ish River Country” (Shoemaker & Hoard, 257 pp., $25), brings together his earlier books, beginning with the seminal “Bunch Grass.”
It also includes recent and previously unpublished poems, adding up to a welcome tribute to a Northwest icon who wore the title “poet” with pride. Sund’s friend Tim McNulty wrote an afterword for the book and co-edited it.
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Born in Olympia in 1929, Sund studied poetry under Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington and later lived in a series of shacks and cabins along the Washington coastline and Skagit River. “Bunch Grass,” published in 1969, made Sund into a local hero a role he seemed to relish. With his long white beard and ponytail, Sund was a familiar figure around La Conner in the 1970s, when I lived there. He drank beer and shot pool at the local taverns, worked as a fisherman or laborer when necessary, wrote, painted, translated and hung out with friends, to whom many of his poems are dedicated. “Bunch Grass” was dedicated to Roethke, who died in 1963, and one poem describes Sund’s reaction to learning of Roethke’s death on the radio news.
Sund wrote plainspoken poems of family and farm, in praise of the natural world. He aimed for clear, sensory descriptions, as in this poem from “Bunch Grass”:
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
brilliant and sunlit,
in an old, unformulated language
the single word for
Many of the poems reference a particular time and place, which can make the work personal and appealing. Followers of Northwest art and poetry will recognize names and dedications in the book. They include painters Joseph Goldberg and Bill Slater, and writers Kenneth Rexroth, McNulty and Wendell Berry. Mary Randlett shot the photograph of Sund that’s printed with the title page the bearded poet seated pensively at his desk with the tools of his trade: pen, paper, books, a few simple treasures.
The short section of Sund’s translations from the Swedish poems of Rabbe Enckell (1903-1974) and his versions of poems by Issa, Buson, Basho and others brings pleasure and demonstrates the abiding influence they had on him. Here’s a Buson poem in Sund’s version:
Deep inside the peony,
the bee stays
and doesn’t want to go.
Here is a section of one of Sund’s later poems:
inside this ink bottle,
There is a starry sky!
A few poems haven’t held up well with time. The kneejerk anti-establishment sentiments that occasionally crop up railing against big business or life in the city limit Sund and make him sound curmudgeonly rather than wise.
One frustration of the book is that so few of the poems are dated. You can get a sense of chronology from the publication dates of individual collections, but the previously unpublished poems are mostly undated and fall at the end of the book. It’s disorienting to suddenly come upon poems from the 1960s and others that have no dates mixed in with Sund’s most recent writings.
And the book leaves many questions unanswered. This isn’t a “complete” poems, but we are given no sense of what is left out. Did Sund leave a larger body of work that was substantially edited for this collection? Who was the Swedish poet Rabbe Enckell, what was Sund’s connection with him and did Sund translate more than the handful of Enckell’s poems published here? Are there more Sund versions of Chinese and Japanese poems? Maybe the next edition will tell us more.
Sheila Farr is The Seattle Times art critic.