With summer hitting full stride in the Roaring Fork Valley, the Ideas Festival crowd turned into more of a Mountain Fair crowd, and instead of contemplating the economic value of a human life, I find I am contemplating the value of a poetic life. Partially spurring these thoughts have been two recent local poetry readings from the late-Karen Chamberlain’s posthumously published book, “Ephedra.” While I am not the first to say I miss Karen — who served for many years as Mountain Gazette’s poetry editor — I might possibly be the first to hope she really is just late, and maybe so wonderfully late, she will miraculously appear at a poetry reading, barn raising, horse dusting or goose-inspired fly-by.
Or perhaps, while collecting stinging nettles or yarrow, or plucking small wild strawberries, which are, at this very moment, very ripe, and very very tasty, I’ll look up and she’ll be there, smiling, the dusty desert and mountain babe of my dreams, second only to the salty surf and mountain babe of my reality. Until that time when Karen might appear, I’ve been reading and thumbing through the pages of “Ephedra” the same kind of way I might be reading and thumbing my way through the West. And what I have found in Karen’s collection, among poems dedicated to James Tate, Louis Simpson and Larry Levis (I have a bumpersticker on the back of my manly black Ford Ranger 4×4 that says “I heart Larry Levis”), are poems about real places and real people. OK, maybe not “Yerokastrinos,” which I wasn’t able to find in either Google or the Encyclopedia Britannica, though it captures both Greece and the feeling of longing in a particularly sweet, dark-red-pear kind of way. And who doesn’t love poems about real places and real people?
In “Medicine Women,” Karen takes us on a rooted, ridiculous and incredibly spiritual journey centered around sponge-capsule animals, of the variety you put in a glass of water and watch the gel capsule dissolve and the sponge saturate (along with mini-stories about the healing and strengthening of the three women). In “The Holy Fool of Bahia Kino,” Karen seeks a humane, human and spiritual connection with a boy who her friend describes as the village idiot, but who Karen listens to use the language of beauty to connect with both a dog and herself. Karen ends the poem by saying: “…Hapless boy,/ wronged by wonder…/ tomorrow I must leave the sea, drive/ the road of broken glass and dead tortoises,/ turn north toward the border. Then, even more,/ I’ll want for whatever’s wrong with you/ to be what’s wrong with me.”
So what’s the value of a poetic life? Everything. And then some. And then some more. As the old adage goes, you might even be one and not know it. A poetic life is like a bluegrass band wailing away on center stage with a sweaty audience dancing their hearts out. A bottomless dish of elephant ears, sno-cones and curried lentils. The righteous and valiant forward thinkingness of Carbondale’s Green Team, bio-degradable everything and coalitions that protect us against thoroughly fracking up the environment. But I digress. “Ephedra” captures, if ever so briefly, the life and lens of one of our very own poets. If we may claim her. And I think she would be generous enough to let us. One who graced many of us with her presence, and continues to grace us with this collection of poetry.
“Ephedra” is available through People’s Press, peoplespress.org, and the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, www.aspenwriters.org.
Cameron Scott is a freelance writer, teacher, and a fly-fishing guide out of Basalt, CO. If you have leftovers, he will eat them.