“Pathfinder, Selected Poems, Essays and Tales” by Robert Love
Up On Big Rock Poetry Series, a Shipwreckt Books imprint, Winona, Minnesota, 2023
By James Ross Kelly
I go to Montana about every other year, and my wife goes every year, as her mother lives there—she’ll be flying out there this year. Last year we drove, and it is a long drive from Northern California. Robert Love came to Montana from Pennsylvania about the same time I went back to Oregon after the Army and college in the early 1970s. Back in Oregon for decades, everyone I knew that went to Montana did not come back. When I finally got to see it, I knew why–there’s a special something. Robert Love’s new book Pathfinder is part of that special something. He, like some of my friends, did not go back. This book is organized as half poetry, and then essays and tales.
Selected Poems 1973-2022
The poetry Love gives us is studied verse after 20th century American poets. The introduction by Ken McCullough makes a comparison with Gary Snyder, and this is not off the mark at all with a deep rich notion of the natural world that is not one of a day hiker in for quick walk up some of the Montana trails in August then slamming down a poem for the New Yorker. Robert has lived the life of Montana as a logger. Yet, this poetry is not unlike William Carlos Williams the MD from Patterson, New Jersey that turned modern poetry on its head and sent the century on and away from the stale rhymes of the past. But Love made a living as a timber faller among the confluence of many rivers and lakes out of Western Montana down to the Absaroka Mountains. The comparison to Williams the MD to a timber cutter might seem far-fetched unless you’ve been in the industry even a little bit. Timber fallers are resolute intelligent men who have to be as careful as surgeons, or they may be casualties—not losing a patient’s life but their own. Love’s rich panoply of Rocky Mountain material and capturing this: the there and back of it, from a life of cutting logs and hunting in Montana. These poems are as important as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” American literature has never really been mainly urban. One or two of these poems should be in the New Yorker.
Robert Love creates poems that may be as good as any now in American Literature. “Cinders,” while completely different than Williams, “Widows Lament in Springtime,” is just as powerful. Love’s poem, “Four Elk Dreams,” about elk hunting then dreaming about the elk turning into people that give voice, share empathy, and understanding about using them for food, ends as an other-worldly type of experience for a few moments with a cognizant idea that he should eat something else. “Reading Bukowski: Lunchbreak” has Love reading a well-worn book and other than the title he never gives the big guy a mention but turns it into an homage amidst a break with logging gear. “The Pine Martin on the Gut pile,” wisps you into a Montana scene, you read it, and know it happened, and it is simply not like anything else.
Essays and Tales
Since the 1970s there has been a rage over forests in the Pacific Northwest. Love has been embedded into this and reports back. Tree planters, loggers, Forest Service employees, have seen the result firsthand. Making a living in the middle of clearcut forests is a visual experience not unlike seeing a hellscape aftermath of war. It will grow back if left alone. The problem is it will not be a forest for one hundred to five hundred years. That educated men traded forests for money via schools of Forestry funded by timber barons is the way of the world. Robert Love, after cutting timber for Plum Creek for twenty years, left the big and much maligned company and has for some time now been advocating something else. There has always been a way of cutting timber that was friendly to ecology, the land, the animals, and the great beauty of this land. Love left Plum Creek and began logging small scale for private parties with a method of considering that landscape as it is–this is a friendly method. Love’s subsequent essays here pop with a scintillating prose that explains the dilemma. There are methods and reasoning to change tactics from the industrial forestry that eliminated forests in favor of tree farms— to advocate for kinder and gentler way of leaving larger trees and managing species as they are adapted for ever present forest fires. The first essay “Signatures on the Land,” begins with a quote from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. So, if you know anything about the rage over forests you then know you are in good hands. Then you read:
It appears our forests in the Northern Rockies have been over logged, but in light of what fire ecologists are learning about pre-settlement forest densities and fire patterns, it’s more often true they’ve been poorly logged. While forest densities may have once been lower than they are today, average tree size was larger. The extensive forest and the prolific elk herds that our ancestors knew have been whittled into isolated remnants, and the genetic reservoir of mature, dominant individual is steadily evaporating.
We know that we have landed in the patch of a truth teller. It is the crux of the landscape of the entire Northwestern United States and Canada. Robert Love is telling us the truth with his essays. Timber management has generally been portrayed in no other manner than production and the bottom line. These are not essays of reminiscence of the good old days as a logger-—they are from a study of the land firsthand and the available literature to find out true science and a better way. “The Forests of Lookout Ridge,” bring us up close and personal into a forested watershed in the Rocky Mountains and see a complexity that is deep and abiding and quite unlike a plot of vegetables.
A poignant moving piece well into the book, “Grandfather’s Gun,” about a Thanksgiving deer hunt around Love’s property with his son who has come of age and is out with his father to harvest a deer with Love’s Grandfather’s gun. The simplicity and bare and accurate description of the humanity of his family, landscape, and wildlife are more than a workman like product. We know the territory from the poem “Cinders.” There is a completion here and we see why this was not, two slim volumes poems and essays—yet the connection stays random.
After completing the essays and a revealing “Journal of a Feral Shaman,” toward the end we see something that was revealed in the poetry, and our dilemma is we want more of the poetry, but not fewer essays.
The richness of dreaming of talking elk, burying a friend who had requested a grave on Love’s property and the heartfelt descriptive sanctity what that entailed, it all comes around that there’s a special something about Robert Love’s poetry and prose—this book will take you down into some Montana trails and truthful notions as if you were not a tourist.