Unexpected Treasures

A collection for the ages

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

In a town known for its abundance of resident poets and writers, Port Townsend poet Finn Wilcox has long been considered a local treasure. 

For more than three decades he has been crafting clear, poignant and jewel-like poems from distinctly non-literary pursuits—riding freights and sharing rail-side camps with hobos; tree planting and working the rain-sodden Northwest woods; traveling remote districts of rural China with Buddhist bhikkhus; or simply celebrating the joys and travails of family life in the rural Northwest. 

At long last his collected works are available in a handsome volume from Empty Bowl Press. Too Late to Turn Back Now gathers all of Wilcox’s hard-to-find, out-of-print and limited-edition books and adds a generous selection of new poems and prose pieces.

Included is Wilcox’s widely praised first book, Here Among the Sacrificed, a collection of poems, stories and short prose coming from the poet’s experiences riding freight trains. It rings with the clang and gritty dust of America’s freight yards, and takes a compassionate look at the hobos who ride, heirs of a depression-era community who in a metaphoric and very real sense were “dropped off on a side-track.”

In “The Boneyards” the poet, camped by an abandoned warehouse outside Mason City, Iowa, echoes Kenneth Rexroth and offers a playful nod to West Coast nature poems.

Switching modes of transport and geography is “Nine Flower Mountain,” a suite of poems reflecting Wilcox’s travels in southern China with Buddhist scholar and translator Bill Porter and photographer Steven Johnson. Poems evoke pilgrimages to Buddhist temples, to Tu Fu’s grave, Han Shan’s cave, and the Silk Road—its moon brushing “a pearly wash/across the shimmering Gobi.” At Hangchou, poet Su T’ung-Po’s retreat on scenic West Lake, Wilcox reflects, “This charmed and gentle town/could tame a hobo’s rangy heart…But the next day he’ll watch it vanish from the back of a bus/in a rooster-tail of dust.”

Wilcox is refreshingly modest in his approach, and his language carries the tempo and vernacular of common speech. At one point he refers to his own poems as “A lucky pull/of the rabbit/ from a hat.”  But it’s not luck that crafts insightful love poems such as “Close Enough,” “Women,” or “The Walk Home,” a poem that explores Alzheimer’s, quiet dignity and “love as simple courage.” 

The poems and prose pieces in the final section, “Not Letting Go,” are previously uncollected, and new readers as well as longtime fans of Wilcox will find unexpected treasures here. The title piece recounts Wilcox and his wife’s time with poet Robert Sund during the elder poet’s final hours.  Tender and celebratory, it captures the essence of a decades-long friendship—and utters a fierce rejection of the forced resignation death thrusts upon us. 

This section also contains warm and whimsical poems of friendship that celebrate the uniqueness (quirkiness?) of the artists, poets and comrades he has grown to love. “We flipped a coin/for bottom bunk/that time in county jail,” he writes in “Trouble & Beauty.”

Love, travel, friendship, adventure, misadventure and loss. Wilcox strikes universal chords in a fresh and accessible way. His poems and stories come comfortably dressed for any season, neatly packed and ready for the journey. I won’t suggest you carry them the next time you hop a freight to Spokane. Just settle in at home and let Wilcox take you along on his lyric forays to familiar outskirts of the human heart.

Wilcox reads from his collection Sat., Dec. 9 at Village Books. Tim McNulty is a poet and nature writer living on the Olympic Peninsula. His most recent book of poems is Ascendance from Pleasure Boat Studio.

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