Thinking like a Canyon by Jarold Ramsey

Jarold Ramsey
Author photo: Dorothy Ramsey  

Oregon rancher, teacher, family man, good friend, and aficionado of all things native, Jarold Ramsey wears his many hats with grace and presents us with poems rich in wit, benevolence, and energy. In Thinking like a Canyon, his long-awaited New and Selected offering work written over nearly forty years, earth and heaven intermarry. His peers in the world of poetry have been delighted by the range and depth of the poems in Thinking like a Canyon. From Ursula K. Le Guin, this praise: “A fine artlessness hides the depth of feeling and the skill and sophistication of Jarold Ramsey’s art. Reading the title poem, I’d swear iambic pentameter is just as easy and natural as a horse walking along or a hawk soaring. The quiet, often conversational quality of this poetic voice, the clear modesty of language, the dry, kind, self-deprecating humor, the sudden intensities, all are deeply in accord with, shaped by, expressive of, the landscape and people of the poems.” Kim Stafford has commented that “if Shakespeare were local today among us, this would be his voice for taming sorrows and deepening joys. You will learn in this book abundant lore and story, affection for the lost and witness for the living. These poems are fresh-voiced implements for vivid life.” Brian Swann has added that “Jerry Ramsey’s rich poems are a delight to read and re-read… With a quiet, open-hearted, impassioned voice, he evokes ‘the withness’ of the world, paying attention to the small as well as the large, even to the humble tumbleweed.

Cover print: John Young (1855)



Jarold Ramsey grew up on a ranch north of Madras, in north Central Oregon, where his grandparents were early homesteaders. He earned a B.A. from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. After graduate school he and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Rochester, New York, where for many years he was a member of the English faculty at the University of Rochester and directed the Plutzik Memorial Poetry Series. In 2000 the Ramseys moved back to the ranch in Oregon, where they serve as “Groundskeepers Emeriti” and enjoy visits from their three children, Kate, Sophie, and John, along with their families, which include five young and very lively grandchildren. In addition to his books of poetry (most recently The Bones of the Heart: Uncollected Poems 1970-2010), Jarold Ramsey has written two influential books on native American traditional literature, as well as works celebrating folklore and local history. Recently, he and his wife published the first study of the Irish priest, poet and translator, Father James Keegan. His essays on Shakespeare, modern poetry, Native American literature, folklore, and Oregon history have appeared in many journals. His honors include the Lillian Fairchild Award, NEA and Ingram Merrill Grants, the Helen Bullis Award for Poetry, and the Quarterly Review of Literature International Poetry Prize. In 1999 he was a judge for the National Book Award for Poetry. Ramsey says that his poetry grows out of his love of the austerely beautiful range and hill country of his native Central Oregon, and out of a delight in the energies of colloquial speech. He likes to think of poems as ceremonies of love, praise, and remembrance.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-14-6

Copyright © 2012 Jarold Ramsey

6" x 9" paperback, 148 pages





Everything about it is rank, vulgar, echt
which is why I love it so much: the opened jar
frankly reeking of compost, the tang of forbidden salt
and gastric sour in these limp and worm-colored shreds
of unspeakable cabbage, which I close my eyes to devour.
Home-canned, of course: who would be the snobbish knave
to let such a legacy die? Each October,
a sauerkraut séance with my earthy ancestors—
the heirloom slicer still keen enough to add
a little protein of fingertips to the batch, no problem;
the pure-white stuff mounding in the hand-me-down crock,
to be tenderly bruised with my grandfather’s baseball bat—

And then, the anointing with salt, precisely three tablespoons
to five pounds of cabbage, according to oral tradition—
once I followed a recipe in a book that specified
ten times too much salt, so much for literacy
in things that matter. Then all hands thrust stinging
into the mass for the final kneading and mixing,
the coaxing of the juices out and the salt in,
with a wordless prayer for the circumambient angels
of fermentation to descend now and enter in,
and in six weeks change this cabbage to kraut, amen.


On a Route 390 overpass
for all the northbound world to see
in yellow three-foot strokes
I love you both whatever happened
even if Kerry now takes a different route
to work and Mike now rues his reckless artistry
hanging over the railing after midnight
painting his heart out upside down and backward
the true posture of love


Then there are the stories and after a while I think
something else must connect them besides just this me.
– W.S. Merwin, “The Child”

“Mommy, take me home, I’m a changed boy!”
they say I promised
after Grandpa kept me for a week
drilling on my lisping l’s and r’s
until I had them safely tongued-in-cheek
and had ceased to be the insufferable,
the unspeakable “Jewwy Wamsey.”
Now, presumably, I was me? Wrong—
though storied, I was indecipherable.

In all this folklore of my growing, I miss
knowing the primitive little boy, the Urknabe.
Some days I feel like a tattered biplane, viz.
the Cal Rodgers Special, “Vin Fiz,”
first aeroplane from coast to coast in 1912,
which finished up its flight with only four
original parts, three wing-ribs and a strut.
Poor rickety bionic windhover—
a crash a day, tut tut, that’s me all over.

How can there be a plot worth scanning
when the hero metamorphosizes every inning?
Still, once more into the book of changes
I leap, for love’s ultimate ploy,
crying, “Darling, take me, I’m a changed boy!”


Old plug, old sorrel mare
we named you “Flicka” from the movie
but the spinster in you drove the filly out.
Foaled when I was four, we reckon,
now you’ve slowly died beyond the gate
because not one of us was man enough to use the gun.
You never loved us, did you, never mooched
for oats, or nickered, lonesome, over fences—
and yet how close your bleak life’s a frame for mine!
They say a horse at thirty’s in its dotage;
I take such lore to heart now, at forty.

The sharpest little cow-horse in the County,
“turn on a dime and give ’em change,”
you’d primly separate the calves at roundup
despite my misdirections from the saddle.
Twice one afternoon you cut so sharp
you sent me flying like a flapjack;
in brush you did your best to scrape me off,
and once as my city girlfriend tried to mount
you reached around, old snake, and bit her fanny.
Jealous? No, just ornery—
my dad kept better-tempered horses, still
how many trips beginning, longer and longer
away from home, have you stood alone as usual
like a stick horse in the farthest pasture
the last member of the family I’d see
and wave goodbye to, no one watching,
dour Flicka dainty hoof, so long.


for a daughter, eighteen

Dear child, first-born, what I could give outright
I’ve given—now there is only a father’s wishing.
What can I hang around your neck for magic,
or smuggle in your pocket? I would draw
you a contour map of the territory ahead
but in truth it could only show you X—you are here.
The rest would be your Terra Incognita.

Years ago, in the trees beside a mountain lake
after bedtime, your mother and I sat up
together, reading the fire. Each flame, leaping,
seemed a stroke of the future, a signal for us
for you asleep in your nest at the rim of firelight
where great jagged shadows danced like knives.
We faced our ignorance until the fire was ash.

Once, in the first transports of adolescence,
you wandered over the hills behind the Sky Ranch,
remember? Suddenly beyond your feet
the country plunged away to utter strangeness,
and you were lost. The south wind carried your cries
like birdsong. At last I found you quiet on a stone,
your eyes full of the world we do not own.

Now it is all before you—wonderful
beyond a father’s bedtime reckoning,
beyond his fears. What is it love must say?
Go forth to the fullness of your being; may
a merry kindness look you in the face.
Where home was, may your travels bring
you to a fellowship of open hearts.
So love must change our parts, my child no longer
child. I stand rehearsing at the door,
and think how once at bedtime, a dozen years
ago, I taught you how to cross your wrists
in the bright lamp-light, and link your thumbs, so,
and there on the wall a great bird arose
and soared on shadow wings, to the wonderment of all.


When all else fails
there is always the naming of tools—
Coping Saw for instance,
one of the great family of saws, Crosscut,
Rip, Miter, Hack, Keyhole, Dovetail, Dado—
and the fierce blind brotherhood of hammers,
Big Clawhammer, Little Tackhammer, Ballpeen, Mallet, Sledge,
and the sharp-tongued tribe of tools for dressing,
Spokeshave, Drawknife, Rabbetplane,
Rasp, Burr, Rattailed File,
the Chisels, Straight Gouge, Bent Gouge, Fishtail, Pod Spade,
Macaroni, Fluteroni, Backeroni,
each with its elegant shape
and singular blessing of purpose—
and best of all, the rabble
of indispensable gadgets, Countersink,
Centerpunch, Prickpunch, Easy-out, Plumb-bob,
Studfinder, Hermaphrodite Calipers,
Breechmount Squeegee—
oh tools enough to spur the most sorethumbed
crosseyed carpenter forth again
to cobble his screwloose world!


Once again I wake up first, and explore
the country of your averted face
while the simple dawn light grazes
the Irish complications of your hair,
the stern true curve of jawbone and chin.
the full lips pressed all night against
the words you have left unspoken.

At the neck, a token pulse throbs and throbs
and I quail, counting my own. Dear pilgrim,
where are you now? Far upstream at break of day,
do you near the terrible stony source
of your river of blood, still fraught with my old betrayal?

From what seems like miles away
in the great light that does not fail us
I see your eyelashes shine and flicker
and I know somewhere you wake.
Can we be the same people come back
so far to this room, in the new dawn?
Turn to me, though I be struck blind and deaf,
show me, as only you can,
what remains of myself.


When the big Seattle earthquake spoke
to our hill in a voice so deep our houses
bowed and scraped, you ran for the out-of-doors
but I caught you and held you bravely, me, the laird
of a home that quakes, and therefore stays, together.
Oh we had a cozy year, I guess, in the doorframe
where the Building Inspectors say always to go
and I thought I had finally saved me a life
after a lifetime of trying
and perhaps if you’d been a stranger-girl
you’d have kissed me, and I’d have taken you in.

But my dear such flat heroics!
If I’d known then as I know now
your plumb heart my world turns on,
your graces that simply make it go—
I’d have let you dance right out on the rollicking
street in your dangerous joy and skip
barefooted the flipping electrical wires
and sway with our neighbors’ undulant chimneys—
I’d have seen you once at least in your earthquake freedoms
with the sun jumping all over heaven for you
and the hill rolled back at your feet.


At winter dusk the bare oak branches
leaf out in black—
the crows caucus.
All day long they flap and scan
this meateating town
and now drop down
to jostle, preen, and tell each other
the worst. All night they gloat
over the dead day.

Beneath them in the oaks
I feel again the great rough joy.
My faceflesh beaks, my shoulders
are hunching into wings.
Two strokes up as the crow flies
and I’d be home.


near Madras, Oregon

Over a trail glinting with flakes
of half-worked arrowheads, jasper, obsidian, flint,
I follow an Indian entirely to stone.
His cave clenches itself around me,
I am the eye of the cliff come back to its socket
to spy on this hillside of animals breeding and dying
and boulders losing their balance. In the cave of my mind
words form white like crystals,
What remains to be seen?
I twist to the light, but glare seals me in.

What remains? Indian, the dark at the back
of your cave stays where you left it, and cold rock walls
still bruise flesh upon bone: always we live
in between. I lie where you lay. Overhead
on the spalling sky, murky with soot,
arm’s length away the elk you painted
runs on head down the color of my own blood.
You made the gory sun to shine above,
and over the sun strides a kind of man with a bow.
I lie and think of that hunt: man, elk, and sun,
tracing it over and over until your paint
seems to ooze down my fingers and wrist, and clot.
Indian, flat on your back in this cave you
made what I would, a prayer to your gods:
a sign to your people you were here
but left. I follow you into stone.

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