Checking for an Archangel or the Buddha. Guest Poetry Blog #23 – Introducing the Latest Contributor, American poet Luther Allen – Part One of Two

American poet Luther Allen. Photo Credit: Dean Davis

rising

first thing every morning
i look into the yard
and check for elk.

 

there has never been an elk here.
the nearest one miles away
with no reason to wander.

 

i might as well be checking
for an archangel.
              or the buddha.

 

but the elk might be the buddha.
or something more important.

Luther Allen, December 2023

RICHARD INTRODUCES GUEST POETRY BLOGGER LUTHER ALLEN

I remember the meeting room at the Honeymoon Bay Lodge and Retreat center so well. It’s where I attended countless four-day retreats with the master Canadian poet and teacher Patrick Lane. And it’s where I remember seeing the American poet Luther Allen, from Sumas Mountain, Washington,  across the circle for the first time. He was sitting there with his partner Judy Kleinberg, poet and poetry blogger.

I remember from that time I was struck by how soft-spoken and reflective Luther was which somehow stood out for me considering his height and rugged build. And it seems so appropriate that for his guest blog I remember him so clearly from that time at a Patrick retreat since his blog post, below, ends with such a reflective and thoughtful tribute to his mentor and mine, Patrick. (For a full biography of Luther’s writing history please see below at the end of his post.)

To say that Luther and Judy are a force in Washington State poetry is a huge understatement.  Their reading series, SpeakEasy, held in Bellingham, south of the Canadian border is a knock-out. One of its trademarks (something they do occasionally) is to invite a group of guest poets to collaborate in a round robin of poems that are thematically linked. Each poet that directly follows another links their poems in some way to the two previous poems written by that other poet. This all happens and is collated into a book form before the reading occurs.

I was lucky enough to participate in one of these round robins six years ago, back in early December 2017. I was joined by other Canadian poets, Barbara Pelman, Susan Alexander, Terry Ann Carter and Linda K. Thompson. Most recently SpeakEasy hosted a another round robin of spiritual poems. Those poems will be coming out in a new collection published by Other Mind Press and will be released at the SpeakEasy series on February 25th, 2024 in Bellingham.

I did not get a full sense of Luther as a poet until after I read the poem that follows that he sent me because it had been inspired in part in a poetry retreat I had led in Bellingham. Luther says in his post below that writing is his spiritual practice and you can see how, in this poem and in rising, above, how wonderfully he wrestles with the big spiritual questions. How he allows without judgement, mystery, so easily into his poems. For this I am grateful.

religion

my new yellow car hits a patch of black ice
spins round 360 degrees, finds dry pavement and somehow
continues down the highway. i confess i neglected
to see the wind-scarred mesas, the dark piñon trees,
the neon 7-11 signs. but i did not miss
the now of it, the clear gift of further life.
yellow. i don’t know why i need to tell you that
but i do. it was yellow and it was the color
of understanding my mortality.

six months later i was spun around again
following motorcycle tracks laid down
in a perfect yin/yang symbol in an arroyo.
the arroyo where my best friend’s uncle
and father died. like walking a labyrinth,
thinking how their hounds had howled
and howled all afternoon before they drowned.
i finished walking the bisected circle
and found a flesh-colored rock. the same rock
i had meditated with for two years at my old
adobe house above the river, ten miles away.
the same battered rock that had been missing
since they died. this time i saw the wind-scarred
mesas, the dark piñon. i don’t know why the rock
was flesh-colored, but that was the now of it. the color
of not understanding mortality, of knowing
that my life would be always confessing and neglecting
the mystery. being careful with yellow.

now, 45 years later, the rock is on the nightstand,
next to my bed. with the sacrum of an elk, an obsidian
spearpoint, a statue of a peruvian llama
with a hunchbacked rider, five nondescript rocks
from the ranch a half-continent away — a constellation,
each rock a family member. i don’t know why
these things have come to me, but they have.
there is no yellow in the house, there is no bible.
and every time i think i understand
i hold the rock. neon flashes and i am turned around
back into my breathtaking ignorance.

Luther Allen, first published in a slightly different version in Psaltery and Lyre, May 20th, 2019.Now, in his words, the American poet and great friend of poetry, Luther Allen.LUTHER ALLEN’S GUEST POETRY BLOG POST # 23 – PART ONE OF TWOAs I enter the latter stage of my life, I think about aging with grace, the mystery of consciousness and death and the universe, and the eternal questions of who we are and why we are here. And I am ever angrier about the crumpling of hope for an ecologically responsible, civil, and compassionate world, which translates into some of my new poetry that throws punches instead of nuance. I toy with abandoning all myth, all the stories that have been passed down, and seeing the world with absolutely innocent eyes — a difficult and ultimately radical task.But on good days I write in a more reflective mood, about beauty and light and love, reveling in the dance and salvation of poetry. The poem, rising, I wrote recently, above, is one of those “good day” poems. I try to pull words out of the ether that are straightforward, meaningful, and that might make some sense out of the chaos —a spiritual practice.

Now all these years later I can say rising is just a more refined way of finding the feeling of my first-ever poem I wrote as a junior in high school when I was supposed to be taking notes in English class. It was a terrible poem, but I will never forget how the act of writing it made me feel: powerful, affirmed, awakening for the first time to my actual self. Using words that came out of the ether to fabricate something that was deeply meaningful, something that in the moment made some sense out of the chaos of the world. It was a sacred act, at least to my inner world. And almost 60 years later, I can still have that feeling when immersed in poem-making. That is why I write.

From that moment in high school on I knew I was a poet. Not to the exclusion of other things, not to be shared with most other people, not to have that label out in the world, but internally, deep in my — what? Psyche, soul, spirit, inner self? Not sure that I could name that then, or even now. But the act of poetry grounded me, gave me solace, gave my being an inner strength. It still does. So, yes, as Kate Marshall Flaherty wrote in an earlier guest post for this blog, poetry is my spiritual practice.

I have always written sporadically. I used to say that I wrote a poem when I had to. When the anguish of relationships or emotional insult or intellectual confusion or the craziness of the world threatened to overwhelm me, I would write. Regardless of what the poem was about, what the words were, it would bring me back to an equilibrium. A poem from my late teens:

making a sidewalk with my father

 

our spent hands
smoked the glasses of iced tea
the wet cold following the cement
into our puckered palms

 

cool bonded cool
and sweat shrank
and cool crept through
calloused soles
from the cloistered dank earth
somewhere beneath

 

outside, the heat, the concrete we poured
like ugly gritted jello
sat turning to rock, hiding
things that will never be seen, be said

 

Luther Allen

As my practice evolved, I wrote more frequently about nature, place, and experience. I developed a strong predilection toward writing about what actually happened, what exact images I saw. I began to believe that reality was complicated enough and pretty hard to figure out, and that it was important to try to describe reality without warping it with fiction — otherwise, how could one make any useful sense of the world?

I’m not sure where this attitude came from, or even where the notion of writing poetry came from. The classical poetry I was exposed to in high school I found uninspiring, pretentious, confusing. My family was working class; books and poetry were not part of our lives. The first poetry that I found interesting were a few snippets in freshman English class in college. Then I found Gary Snyder — his books were in my backpack for the rest of my time in the university. Then I found the early Chinese poets— Sunflower Splendor spent about 10 years on the dashboard of my truck.

I read other poetry occasionally, exploring, but truly and stubbornly felt I had everything I needed. I never took a poetry class at the university, not wanting to dilute or compromise what I felt was my authentic poetic voice. This was more than a little naïve, of course, but I was writing for myself and it was working for me. There was no mentor to set me straight, and I had fairly good luck in getting published on the rare occasion I submitted to journals. A poem from that period:

twilight
walking the mountain shadow
blue, fancy flight

Luther Allen

I grew up in New Mexico and moved to southwestern Colorado in my late twenties. By my mid-thirties I was still in search of a viable career, and returned to a small college to obtain a teaching certificate. I took a class in linguistics to fulfill a requirement and that class broadened my perspective about the use and meaning of language, and that began to trickle into my poetry.

I had never read my poetry aloud, had only attended scattered poetry readings (had once walked out on a reading by Lawrence Ferlinghetti!). Then one night after class in this mountain town I heard N. Scott Momaday read in a mostly empty auditorium. It transformed my understanding of poetry. He put me under a spell. The words were shamanic; they spoke directly to my soul. I was transfixed and shaken by his voice. It was an aspect of poetry I had never experienced.

When I was 40 I moved to Washington and began to think more seriously about being a poet. I moved to an island across from Bellingham and started writing a nature- and place-based collection of poems for each day of the year, which led to The View from Lummi Island. I became involved in community poetry; I read my poems aloud, to both friends and strangers. I was dedicating more time to reading contemporary poets, and opening into a more contemplative, conceptual based practice. Things were fine. I was self-assured with my writing, content with my evolution in the world of poetry. Then I met Patrick Lane.

Occasionally you meet someone you are awed by, someone you wish you could have been — had you been smarter, more courageous, more dedicated. That was Patrick. I was invited to one of his poetry retreats on Vancouver Island and that blew open many of my self-imposed (and limiting) prejudices about poetry. My poetic sensibilities were elevated by immeasurable levels in a series of his retreats. His presence, his mastery of poetry, his authenticity, his graciousness will remain with me always. His background was far grittier than mine, he never went the academic poetry route, yet I think he never called himself anything other than a poet. His presence is always with me when I write now, his gentle nope or yes! hovering over each line. The one person who was truly a mentor. I miss him.

BIOGRAPHY

Luther Allen writes lives and writes poems from Sumas Mountain, Washington. He co-facilitates the SpeakEasy reading series, is co-editor of Noisy Water: Poetry from Whatcom County, Washington, and is author of a collection of 365 poems, The View from Lummi Island, available at http://othermindpress.wordpress.com. His work is included in numerous journals and anthologies, including WA 129; Refugium, Poems for the Pacific; For Love of Orcas; Washington Poetic Routes; Solstice: Light & Dark of the Salish Sea; The Madrona Project – Human Communities in Wild Places, Art in a Public Voice, and The Empty Bowl Cookbook; I Sing the Salmon Home; and New Mexico Poetry Anthology 2023, and  His short story, The Stilled Ring, was finalist in an annual fiction contest at terrain.org. He views writing as his spiritual practice.

6 Comments

  1. Gisela Ruebsaat
    Posted December 31, 2023 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    This is powerful and makes me ponder the purpose of poetry in my own life. I think I intuitively knew that poetry was/is my spiritual practice but never allowed myself to articulate this so clearly until I read Luther’s blog post. Thank you Luther and Richard.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted December 31, 2023 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    A huge I agree Giesla! I know for me it is a spiritual practice for sure. More so as I live into my 70’s. How it keeps surprising me. Did yoiu see I am leading a poetry as prayer, speaking odf spiritual practice, at Bethlehem Center at the end of January. Great group of poets registered so far! All best to you in 2024! And thanks for being a Recovering words reader.

  3. Leslie McBain
    Posted December 31, 2023 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    That is where we met, Richard. Being in Patrick Lane’s retreats was a humbling experience, and very rich! Besides learning the errors of my ways I was stalked by a cougar on an evening stroll. I smoked strong pot with L. C. and accidentally erased all my work. It was the best of times, etc.. ❤️

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted January 12, 2024 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Leslie: This is one of the most lovely responses to a blog post! The line about pot and erasing your work cracks me up. Was that the time you wrote about working in a tollbooth on the Coquahalla?

  5. Posted January 2, 2024 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    such a lovely poetic account of a poetic life – I’m with you all the way, Luther! loving the sense and attention of your poems – and yes, Patrick was a mentor, an anchor, a light in the murk of writing. I always wish I had his eyes.

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted January 12, 2024 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Arlene: A light in the murk of writing. I always wish I had his eyes! Thank you. So glad you have your eyes. Your light.

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