across the divide poems by bernita woodruff sundquist

picture of bernita sundquist
Photo by Ralph Sundquist  

The terrible beauty of the Mountain waiting to explode again is always there in the poetry of Bernita Sundquist, in which death is the constant and joy momentary, hard-earned. And yet that joy is so entirely gorgeous that we leave Across the Divide as uplifted as the mountains and western expanses that inform the life and works of this remarkable poet. About her work, Gary Fountain has written, “Bernita Sundquist makes you catch your breath. Hers are poems of restless impulses—an intense heart that moves backward and forward in time, and a shrewd eye that glances outside the frame. She pursues, then settles and focuses lucidly on ‘the straight gray lines of intent.’ What is there ‘beyond dying and the cold’? Bernita Sundquist’s answers are refined and fearless.”
  across the divide cover image
  Photograph of Mt. Ranier by Nils Sundquist.

Bernita Woodruff was born in Lewiston, Idaho, and lived in eastern Washington until moving to Yakima. She graduated from Yakima High School and Yakima Valley Junior College, then went on to receive a BA in English from Washington State University and an AM in English Literature from the University of Chicago. She also studied at Caius College, Cambridge University. She began writing poetry when the youngest of her children left home for college. In 1992 she was named Writer in Residence at the Syvenna Foundation in Linden, Texas; and she was a resident at The Frost Place, Franconia, New Hampshire in 1994. Bernita is a member of the Academy of American Poets and the Modern Poetry Association. She is also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Pi Lambda Theta honor societies. She has taught at high schools in Washington state and Pennsylvania and at Oxford, Chaffee, Loomis-Chaffee, and Ethel Walker Schools in the Hartford, Connecticut area; and in the Program for Adult Learning at the University of St. Joseph in Hartford. She also served as a docent at the Wadsworth Atheneum for eight years. After retirement Bernita offered courses in ALP, an Adult Learning Program of the University of Connecticut (a Road Scholar/Elderhostel program), several of those courses introducing poets scheduled to appear at annual presentations of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. She has been married since 1945 to the Rev. Dr. Ralph Sundquist, whom she met in high school, and they live in Bloomfield, Connecticut. They have had three children, two living sons, Eric and Nils, and a daughter, Karin, who died in an avalanche in 1995.


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ISBN 978-1-943826-09-4

Copyright © 2016 by Bernita Woodruff Sundquist

6" x 9" paperback, 84 pages



Copyright ©2016 by Bernita Woodruff Sundquist

Lafayette Woodruff

Physician, 1859-1923

High on the Anatone Flat
wind streams thin, dry, and hot.
Shimmering at sky edge,
numinous spirits dance their blue mirage
attending this advance through old, brown stubble.

Grasshoppers leap outward like spray
and I pace the boundary of a locked cemetery
whose unlikely moat is the iron cow grate
sunk just at the edge. Warning: no grazing.

                        *   *   *

The old man goes into Hells Canyon
wearing his jacket, vest, and dark hat,
stepping wide on the stones,
lifting the fishing rod over brush,
pointing always to the windless river.

And he stands there casting,
filament line fragile,
his surgeon’s hands delicate,
nervous gray eyes turned toward the river.

Into its bronze plates
he casts,
deftly willing the trout, coaxing,
and up the strike moves, a lifted arc,
silver at high noon, blinding.

                       *   *   *

The old man is buried above the canyon.
As I walk through a cemetery
which has no sprinklers,
no grass, I look down to the Snake,
blue vein in the bleached ground.
Did he ever see it this way
on maps, in his childhood dreams?
Or only close, down there in the burning sun,
in his scratchy suit,

Heart of February


We came down to Denver’s new airport,
seeing now its peaked and tented roofs,
showcase for the Rockies
pointing to real snow and real mountains farther west.
As we waited in the car rental line
dozens of skiers pleaded for temporary housing.
We heard over and over:
           The pass is closed
           No access to Aspen
           Highways are blocked
Avalanche, you know.

Yes, we knew.
Always before, our daughter
had come to greet us,
her beautiful smile.



Loveland it’s called, up there at the pass,
sounding like a Paradise
with lifts to white spray and exultant take-off down,
Loveland, its postmark a favorite on Valentine’s Day:
           From Mike to Karin, with love.


We left the memorial service,
chapel, flowers, words, organ, “Ein feste burg,”
to sleep once more on Bates Avenue
where she had filled the bird feeder,
scooped the sidewalk,
and left with joy for first heavy snow,
cross-country below Loveland.
Her valentines were in the mail.

In the morning sun, outside the front door,
a low-stemmed red tulip
flamed its petals across the snow.
The bulb she had planted in September
bloomed now, mid-February,
star of the morning, sealed and given.

Mountain Keep

The girl
runs, the sun
What moves beside the bare brown
hills? Tumbled spine-weeds, a fat oily
snake, the river pushing the bridge, the canal.
Turn on the garden hose,
spatter the face, blind the
sky, roll on the wet green lawn.
The sun backs off.

Where can she run?
Under the hills
into the tumble brush,
past the old black snake
flickering his tongue,
down to the cold bridge
and swiftly across.

Wind whirl rushing
shadows splashing
mountains folding
holding the bright.

In the mountain keep the girl rests.

Delivering the Gift

Like sticky gobs of red jam
with the flies lighting down and buzzing
off, the stains remained
for days, and every day until the rains
I would go to look.

He died there, R.E.,
swift blond boy on his swift Schwinn bike,
where the downhill alley met Rotunda Way
between the President’s house and college dormitories.

He streaked like lightning,
shining son of the President,
to the big brick house I had never entered,
where our cat had kittens in the basement
and we stood at the back door to bring her home.

R.E., dead at 12, smashed at the rear of a delivery truck.
I looked at the bloody drops stuck on the asphalt
over and over, day after day.
This is what death looks like?
This could have been me
cracked up on my new balloon tires.

Miss Lang in her dusty-chalk room
said, “Here, these are his last papers.
Take them to his family.
Neighbors of yours, aren’t they?”
I went like something dumb in a puppet show,
down the alley, stepping over the bloody smear, on to
that brick house and its front door.

“These are R.E.’s papers.
His teacher thought you’d like to have them.”

His mother, pale, thin, and dusty, like Miss Lang,
only nodded, receiving the little folder.

“Do you know, ma’am, I live over there across the street
and I go every day to look at where it happened.”


Santa Maria degli Angeli
For Karin, 1949-1995

I wandered homesick-lonely through that pilgrim throng
where a high carillon wrapped its song
dimly from Santa Maria’s dome to the earth floor,
to a quavering grey nun by the door and to me.

In thick heat I entered the portal,
in darkness close as air, breathing double for my soul’s sake,
beyond incense, seeing beyond the painted statues of babies
toward that rude shelter at the far end:
Francis’s own, and its only sound a whisper without music,
the humming of continuous mass
from souls seeking peace, the people of il poverello.

I did not enter churches with you, my daughter,
after you were grown: only for your grandparents’ funerals
in pseudo-gothic Presbyterian naves
and the cathedral of pines near Spokane
where we stood through a service without music.

You and I had no official holy exchange like
The Lord be with you, or Kyrie Eleison.
Instead we shared the peace in Mozart quartets,
in climbing Alpine meadows.

I hear this carillon in Assisi and remember:
bells from the Riverside church tower,
you in a crib at Union Seminary, floors below,
sleeping through the grand resonance
ringing its changes every quarter hour.

How could you sleep?
What did you learn of the turning of day and night?
Do you still hear continuous humming in the spheres?

I turn aside, listening for descent of the bells.
In the Chapel of the Nativity, before painted stiff statues
to which neither you nor I bowed down,
I light a candle, for you, its light ascending a small way
to music in the dome.


Last week a Connecticut climber died on Rainier,
caught in the fierce slush of fast-melting snow,
an avalanche he could not have predicted overnight
in his dark tent at Camp Muir.
Newspaper stories describe Rainier as the country’s
most dangerous mountain.

I remember having been to Rainier in all kinds of weather,
except in deep winter when Chinook Pass is closed.
In July Lake Tipsoo is ringed with skimpy patches of snow.
We climbed Goat Peak with Mexican orchard workers,
brought to the mountain for holiday.
They’d never seen snow, laughed like children,
threw snowballs, grinned crazily,
passing Spanish words to one another.
They had to push me from behind, pull from above,
this 19-year-old in short shorts, trying to climb the bare rock.

In September three years later,
I sat at the edge of Tipsoo in softly falling snow,
wondering about being newly married.
A grey day, no hard rock, the mountain itself fogged over.
In this silence, only the camera clicking.
We were leaving this familiar place for eastern cities.

In Enumclaw, where we once lived,
at sunset Rainier looks like a pink ice cream cone.
Seen close up from the chair lift at Crystal Mountain,
it is a hugely commanding dome,
imperturbable, staying in place behind wisps of clouds.

Once I flew over the mountain
to see the scooped out hollow of its volcanic crater.
Scientists predict Rainier will blow again,
in thirty minutes sending thirty feet of mud over Enumclaw.

In a later time we have returned,
walking the sandy trail road below Emmons Glacier,
seeing the ascent our daughter climbed when she was fourteen.
We rejoiced in the spring lupine,
blue beacons in meadow grass.
We have come to scatter our child’s ashes among the flowers.

We continue to go to the mountain,
wondering about snow, flowers, rock,
the mountain’s creating its own weather,
while we stand there between heaven and earth
in the holy tension of our fragile lives.

Seeing Slant in August

Nullas horas nisi aureas

To catch the light as it comes and goes
in the deep V of the forest clearing
first we sit in the middle of the contained yard
then we keep pushing our chairs east
to hold the fleeing warmth.
Finally we’re up against the base of the house
flicking the occasional dragonfly or yellow jacket.

Through the long summer
I have not thought to grasp at plenitude
and here in this retreat of light
I lift my open hand
into these hours late and golden
past and promised.