I lived most of my life in the Southwest, far from the upper left-hand corner of this country. How did I encounter Mike O’Connor and come to hold his poetry in my heart?
I’ll make a long story short.
In 2002, wildfire roared through northern Arizona’s high-country forest and chased me from my retirement home. I returned to find the structure mercifully spared but surrounded by a charred moonscape. My wife and I resigned ourselves to the wounded view from our windows.
A year later, friends sent us a postcard with a picture of Dungeness Spit. They invited us to an adventure as lighthouse keepers for a week. After forty years in the parched Southwest, we gladly accepted. Those days by the Strait of Juan de Fuca opened our hearts to the healing balm of water, big snowy mountains, and towering evergreens. We moved to the Olympic Peninsula in 2005.
As a life-long poetry lover I dug into the local literary scene, read Tim McNulty, Michael Daly, Finn Wilcox, Tom Jay and especially enjoyed Mike O’Connor’s The Rainshadow published in 1983 by Empty Bowl. In “Late Autumn at Graywolf Bridge” I found a poet with a deeply rooted spiritual alignment to this place I’ve come to love:
I watch the dwindled river bleed
the dark ravine of a water
that begins in the complexity of the stars,
sings in the watersheds of leaf and valley
and yields our blue planet a light and necessary bliss.
Energy in Mike’s poems flows where his attention goes. He wants “to plant ourselves again / in what we see.” His poems are events, occasions of experience that enact a vivid instant. “Elegy for a Log Truck Driver” shoved me into the driver’s seat of a runaway truck:
And the valves of your heart
thumped and fired like pistons
diving at your gears
trying to hold a dragon by its tail.
After ‘forty crashing tons of you’ burst into a gasoline explosion, the driver’s spirit “awakened / on a hillside // with a bird book / in your hand.” Mike’s poems turn always toward the land to embrace the sacred this-ness of wherever he lives — “not the ‘home of the Goddess’ / but the Goddess.”
Mike treated many loyal friends with his infectious humor. In “Terracing with Friends above the Dungeness River” Mike is the boss of a Forest Service tree-planting crew. His employer points to a crew member working on a precipitous slope above the river:
“That guy’s too slow;
I’d get rid of him.”
“Get rid of him!” I say. “That’s
Chuck Easton, the jazz guitarist.
He has to be careful with his hands,”
The employer shrugs and says, “It’s your show.” And drives off. Mike thinks about his responsibility to the Forest contract.
“Hey Chuck,” I call down.
“Can you step it up a little?”
For 13 years I hosted a poetry reading series at Northwind Arts Center in Port Townsend and delighted in presenting gifted Northwest writers like Mike to local audiences. One night my microphone crapped out while he was reading his lengthy poem “Immortality.” Chuck Easton jumped up from the back row, hurried out the door, rummaged in his car, returned with a professional sound rig in hand and hooked it to my amp. Mike soldiered on.
Of the many poems Mike wrote during twelve years spent in Asia, a favorite is “Sakura,” set in ‘light-rain, small-lane Kyoto.’ As he lingers in the rain, waiting for his wife to come out of a public bathhouse, Mike watches a woman bundle her children off to school in ‘colored rain boots and umbrellas.’
Now the woman is crossing the lane,
coming directly toward me. She wants
to give me her open umbrella,
insists I take it
without knowing where I’m going
or who in the world I am.
Deeply touched by this woman’s compassionate gesture to a stranger:
Kyoto, the old capital,
Bursts into blossom in my heart.
With a sad heart I learned of Mike’s passing in January 2021. I treasure his books of stories, his translations from the Chinese and his volumes of poetry including The Basin, Immortality and When the Tiger Weeps.
Hats off to Holly and John at Empty Bowl Press for bringing us Old Growth, a generous selection of Mike’s work lovingly compiled by his friends Jack Estes, Tim McNulty, and Finn Wilcox. The poems they’ve gathered here invite us:
while washing a pot or tying a shoe,
to renew in a casual upward glance
our sense of the otherworldly beauty
of the world.
On the flyleaf of my copy of “Immortality” Mike wrote “For Bill — Poet to Poet.” As his admiring friend in poetry, I recommend this book. To paraphrase Stephen Spender, the clear, direct poems of Mike O’Connor in Old Growth leave the vivid air of his beloved landscapes signed with his honor.