Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

'There's not much that's ordinary if you look closely at it'

Much of "The Last Man in Willapa," which is out on Tuesday and contains more than 75 poems, is familiar Pyle territory, place-based writing that dwells near Grays River, Washington, where he has lived and studied the landscape for more than 45 years.

Pyle is the author of 28 books, including "Wintergreen," a winner of the John Burroughs Medal, the National Outdoor Book Award winner "Sky Time in Gray's River" and the novel "Magdalena Mountain."

A Yale and University of Washington-trained ecologist and lepidopterist - or butterfly expert - he has written several field guides, in addition to essays, articles and peer-reviewed papers. His poems have received five nominations for the Pushcart Prize.

"The Last Man in Willapa" is Pyle's fifth full-length poetry collection, divided into five sections, "books within books" as he called them. "I think I'm looking within a little more," he said of the new book. "Not necessarily writing about myself more - I'm in all of my poems, but not very many of them are strictly about me, so much as they're about something through my eyes."

I'm in all of my poems, but not very many of them are strictly about me, so much as they're about something through my eyes."

His recent writings have also reflected more time spent close to home. "I don't have the desire to travel as much, or the strength to travel as much, so I'm much more a creature of my home habitat now than I ever was," he said. "I could almost say I'm a sessile organism ... I'm kind of like a mussel or a limpet in that I'm rooted to place."

There are exceptions. One section of the new book came about from a visit years ago to Havana, Cuba, with a group of writers. "This book largely has rural roots, with a number of Astoria-based poems, so I thought the Havana poems would be about as far away from the other poems in the book as I could get," Pyle said. The book's opening and closing poems, both about bears, start at Pyle's mailbox. In the book's title poem, which is written in the third person but based on experience, changes in land management have seen black bears return to the Willapa Hills. "Bears came back over the past 15 years or so, but everybody seemed to be seeing bears but me. It just frustrated me, because I'd written about them, how they ought to be there, and the poem tells what finally happened," he said. He felt like the last man in Willapa to see one. "That's what the title means. There's no hidden meaning, there's no symbolism. I'm not the last man in Willapa period," he said. The book's closing poem tells the story of its cover art, "an abstract expressionist bear" in Pyle's words, and the work of Neil Johannsen, a retired Alaska State Parks director turned painter. Another section, titled "From the River," borrows some titles from "The Tidewater Reach," a field guide that paired Pyle's poetry with images by Cathlamet photographer Judy VanderMaten. "The Book Boat" sees a reprint, as does "I Cover the Waterfront," a poem about Ilwaco. Some new additions, like "River of Carbon," focus on environmental issues of the Columbia River. The book's last section opens with "Ceremony," again about a bear. "It's maybe the heaviest poem in the book, and maybe the heaviest poem I've ever written in what it deals with," he said. "It concerns a very sad roadkill story and yet it ends up being about my late wife, Thea." As he wrote, he was surprised by where the poem took him. By the end, "I realized it made me think about what we do ceremony for," he said. "Was this ceremony for the bear? I don't think so. A bear is just a bear, a bear doesn't care when it's dead. We know who it's for, and we're not going to say so, but the reader will get who it's for." Many of Pyle's past poems have dealt with loss and grief, but in this collection, he has found more hope. Even in a poem about the early part of the coronavirus pandemic, with "waves through the windows of ICUs," there is joy to be found in watching birds. "... So that's the score at my place / today: hummingbirds 2, corvids 19," he writes."The book has a lot of celebration in it, celebration of the simple and the so-called ordinary," Pyle said. "There's not much that's ordinary if you look closely at it, and that's what I try to do in my poems is attend very carefully with very ordinary things and let them tell their stories."

 

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