|Ed Folsom, Iowa City, Iowa (June, 1991)|
Ken McCullough’s poetry reminds us of the most basic facts, one of which is that poetry itself, before anything else, is a journey. The journeys that McCullough takes us on are distinctly American ones, treks that guide us down, under, through to the intricate and regenerative lower layers of existence that hide beneath the daily surfaces of our lives, like the crystal lingam ensconced in a deceptively rocklike geode:
I scout south along the ridge
“Geode”: earth-form. For McCullough, the world is a geode, a stone with crystal-lined cavities that are accessible only by the kind of penetrating attentiveness that poetry demands. McCullough’s journeys, after all, are journeys of language, a rip-rap of words that move us step by step to a dawning realization, the oriole (from “aurora”: dawn) in the sycamore.
McCullough’s characteristic line in Sycamore•Oriole developed from similar shorter works in Creosote  and Travelling Light  is one that moves the eye around, short ocular journeys back and forth but always and inexorably down. The lines work like water does in the Lao Tzu proverb that opens the book:
“nothing is weaker than water
The lines have an insistent flow; they respond immediately and abruptly to any interference, but the jagged flow always arrives at vision: nothing impedes the ultimate descent.
I know of very few poems that prepare readers so carefully for the journeys they are about to take. These are poems of a vision quest, but the vision and the quest require a preparatory regimen, both for the narrator as he hikes deep into the sacred lands of Montana and northern Wyoming, and for the reader whose vision and whose questionings will be trained and tested as the eye follows the I deep into unfamiliar territory. The ocular gradually becomes oracular; the seer as observer gathers his observations into modest prophecy and becomes momentarily a seer of another order.
The most essentially American quest is the peeling off of layers of “civilization” in order to touch the buried spirit of this paved-over land: it is a descent through the palimpsestic layers of American history in order to touch, if only briefly, the savage mystery that this culture has been so intent on forgetting, on denying. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner, in his influential 1893 essay on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” wrote of how “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier,” and how the American character can be understood as a desire for “perennial rebirth” by a “continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society.” Turner portrayed the archetypal American quest as a powerful and irresistible decivilizing transformation:
The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a
In Sycamore•Oriole, McCullough records and takes us on this same journey of native redefinition:
off with hiking boots, socks, denims
These poems take us to earth places where ancient rituals still work, where sage-smoke rubbed on the body can “drain the poisons” from a self that has for too long ingested (and been ingested by) a civilization hell-bent on turning the world to profit: “there is power in the symbols/ through my own faith be weak.”
Again and again on these journeys, McCullough arrives at magical spots. These moments never ring false, nor are they arrived at easily: he never abandons the problematics of being a white male Euroamerican trying to imagine his way to a native encounter with the land of his desire. Even at a key moment of unity—
I stood in the meadow
—a phrase like “we whites” modulates the achievement and quietly acknowledges allegiances that cannot be erased, even as the self feels those allegiances dissipating. Deep in a native sweatbath ritual, McCullough is nonetheless precise and honest (and often funny) about how he is destined to be “a mere pretender/ pseudo-Indian.” But such awareness does not preclude a leap of imagination, nor does it preclude learning a new discipline, nor is the attempt to merge natively without efficacy:
Making the two voices one is every American poet’s desire, and McCullough comes close to achieving the impossible melding, to incorporating the tense cultural dialectic into a unified dialect. When the narrator re-emerges into the American cultural present and reverses the stripping off of his civilized clothing—
take off lungota
—we experience the conflation of McCullough’s American upbringing with the strangeness of native rituals. The “wrestling sweatshirt” has become a sign now of something more than a high school past: the effects of the sweatbaths persists under (and redefines) the sweatshirt, just as the body’s memory of the lungota remains beneath the jeans, and the narrator will now wrestle with the attempt to live both two lives, to dress in two cultures. Back down from his spiritual journey up Mount Hornaday, he knows he has been to a very different “high” school (This place was my teacher, my Marpa,” McCullough writes in a recent poem about Hornaday [Part II, “Obsidian Point”], has sweated for a different set of purposes, and has learned he must wrestle opponents unlike any he has faced before. Once the re-dressed body has been stripped and put through a set of ancient rituals, it must wear its old familiar clothes in an unfamiliar way; the identical clothes no longer signal the same identity.
So, when the narrator climbs Mount Hornaday in his “un-Injun” fashion, he realizes
…you can set yr sights
The “yr” is part of McCullough’s dialect of ease and informality (working to de-form and re-form and in-form the shape of the poem), but this slangy abbreviation—“your” trimmed to “yr”—also neatly captures a cleaning out of a part of the self, turning the self lean, emptying the vowels, ridding the self of selfishness, a ritual of purgation, surprising yourself by discovering the ur-self that offers a unified base, a centered point of light around which “you can set yr sights” and begin yr progress.
The vision quest in this book—the mystical encounter with bear, rattler, and bull elk, with chipmunks, chickadees, and butterflies—are finally in the service not of a retreat to the past (to be “the first to step here / in 100 years”), but rather of a life lived in the present. The sacred and remote landscapes in these poems open finally onto the secular and the familiar; the piss firs and chickadees yield the sycamore and oriole. If the journeys recorded in this book were initially withdrawals precipitated by the death of McCullough’s father and the absence of his son, the journeys work through loss and guide McCullough back to renewed relationships with both father and son, lead him to the mystery of generation(s), to the discovery of the centered “path of light” that passes from father to son—the “stream of light” that, like the water, brooks no interference:
…I see behind his black eyes
Sycamore•Oriole concludes with a stunningly lyrical pentameter set of instructions to McCullough’s son, yielding the fruit of his journeys. They are directions to a place where there are no dams, to a place where his son might hold his own ground, where he must learn to “Breathe. Speak sharply.” In this book, McCullough teaches himself—and all who are lucky enough to read him—the same lesson. On this journey you will travel light, and to light.