excerpts from

Three Years
on the
Nowhere Road

Hanshan, the mad hermit poet

Somewhere along the line my cousin Mitch, the ex-Marine sergeant, gave me some poems that he had copied out by hand and had been carrying around in his pocket for some time, but had now decided to pass along. They were translations by Gary Snyder of the eighth-century Chinese poet Hanshan, a mad old hermit who lived in a cave above the Yellow River on a place known as Cold Mountain, which was both an actual place and a state of mind. Later, in a Port Angeles bookshop, I found a little hardcover copy of Burton Watson's translations of one hundred of Hanshan's poems, along with a summary of his life and his significance.

My encounter with these short handwritten poems by a Chinese hermit living in a cave in the wilderness thirteen centuries ago, while I was living alone in the wilderness myself, marked a fundamental fork in the road of my life. From that point onward, for better or worse, I became a poet, and have never looked back.

Besides the similarity in our living situations, a number of Hanshan’s poems spoke directly to my frame of mind at the time, his poems of self-pity and sadness: short unapologetic complaints describing his physical misery, loneliness and poverty in a remote wilderness, that fit my then-current circumstances to a T.

I was drawn as well to the architecture of the poems--- like snowflakes or leaves on a single tree--- all following one basic pattern but no two identical, mirroring the organizing principal of Nature herself.

As I delved more deeply into poetry, I began to wonder about its origins, but I lacked access to a serious library. I built a stone circle overlooking the river and contemplated the origins of poetry in the crumbling embers of a pinewood fire--- origins so ancient as to be lost in obscurity--- the poetry of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers whose verses were sung rather than written--- the very earliest poetry indistinguishable from the howling of wolves or the sighing of wind through pines.

I conceived of poetry as I conceived of dreams, as something emerging straight out of Nature, straight from the Cosmos. It wasn't an idea I was prepared to defend rationally. It was simply how I saw it in my mind, as a child might, or as someone might who has spent too many weeks alone in a winter forest, watching sparks from a fire mingling with the stars.

It wasn’t long before I was trying my hand at such poems myself--- though of course what I was imitating wasn’t Hanshan’s actual poems, but translations written in Snyder’s and Watson's contemporary colloquial diction. My initial efforts were far from promising, but I would revise and polish them in the weeks and months to come, and for the rest of my year on the Peninsula. The final result was a series of fourteen 8-line poems, based on personal circumstance, distilled and partly fictionalized. I was learning to describe and incorporate metaphors from the natural world, and to fashion a rudimentary persona that would give me a voice of my own.

What I failed to do in the process of writing these poems--- if I even conceived of it, which I doubt--- was to uncover a central unifying symbol, like Hanshan's esoteric 'Cold Mountain' or Melville's demonic white whale, or Twain's all-encompassing river, that would infuse the sequence, contextualize its particulars, and at least hint at an underlying cosmology. But that would be the work of a lifetime, and not just one winter.

That these were slight poems employing rhetorical clichés is unsurprising, but not really the point. The poems were a tangible beginning. I had discovered a path and was taking my first steps upon it.

A full seven miles is what I must hike
to make it each day by dawn to the mill.
It is heavy monotonous work and more
precarious than I ever let on
to my wife a thousand miles away---
my wife who awaits the pay I send
at the end of each week--- my loving wife
whose letters I look for in vain.

In no time at all it has come to this:
penniless, homeless--- my jacket is worn
and both of my boots are like leaky boats.
A letter just yesterday from my wife
says another man now sleeps in my bed.
Last week a storm and a flood: my hut
was swept away. Now I peer from under
a hemlock bough. Will this rain never end?

With nothing remaining, I struggle to build
another shelter on higher ground,
a heap of leaves and ferns for a bed
and a smoky fire to dry me out.
Yet everything leaks and I cough all night
and wish I had something strong to drink.
I heat up an old can of pork & beans,
but it's only beans---no pork at all!

There is no good way to approach this place---
a tortuous trail up a rocky gorge,
a crumbling ledge along a sheer cliff---
you must cling to root and sapling to keep
from tumbling into the river below---
so far below that the sound it makes,
rising through foliage-clouds and mist,
is faint as the breath of a sleeping girl.

Regardless of how I upbraid myself,
I can do nothing but think of her,
of how I might possibly turn her heart---
letters or prayers or potions, what use?
Nothing will kindle cold ashes again.
Last night I lay on the frozen ground
and stared between hemlock boughs at the stars
and prayed that my heart might turn to ice.

After days and weeks on the sodden slopes,
cutting cords of cedar blocks or working
deck at the mill or setting choker
for some gyppo outfit along the Hoh,
I make up my mind to just pack it in.
I collect my pay, hike back to my hut
and, hanging my boots beside the fire,
consign myself to a winter alone.

A raven perched on a withered branch
appraises my paltry circumstance
with a tilt of its head. Begone old bird!
I pick up a stone and hurtle it hard
at the raven’s head. It squawks and flies.
Now all my sense of purpose is spent.
I toss another stone in the river
and bitterly laugh as it sinks from sight.

No wallet, no cards, no postal address,
no licenses or a telephone---
nothing at all to pin me down
or prove I exist--- except for a mouse
who, every night as I sleep, yanks hair
from my head to re-upholster its nest.
I pass my days and my nights alone.
Most mornings I talk to the river.

I have had no news of the outside world
in over a month, but the world goes on
with or without me. What do I care?
I have news of my own: only last week
a section of hollow log tumbled down
from somewhere upriver and wedged itself
between two rocks, creating a little
waterfall that dances and sings!

I can see no reason to rise from my bed
on such a sodden morning as this.
I tend the fire from where I lie
with a pile of cedar bark and twigs
and I count every little drop that falls
from the slender tip of a nearby leaf---
over seven hundred and fifty so far,
as regular as the pulse in my wrist.

An hour past dawn--- a vertical shaft
of sunlight skewers my leaky roof,
transfiguring all of these spiderwebs
into glistening nets of tiny stars.
Relax, old spiders, be at your ease—
I must bow and scrape to a wife no more.
I sweep no corners clean. You can spin
your pretty webs to your hearts' content.

Stooping and picking through scattered slash
on a clear-cut slope not far from this place,
I bundle up broken shafts and shards
of cedar and haul them back to my hut.
No other wood so brilliantly burns
or so poorly cradles a bed of coals,
and no other wood so brightly flares
or with such ambrosia soothes the soul.

From atop a boulder I peer straight down
into an icy crystalline pool
encircled in moss where a steelhead trout
lurks in the shadows, an ancient fish
as long as my leg and old as the hills.
How is it, Grandfather, you have survived
while generations of fishermen
have come and gone? What do you know?

Each poem I write is a leaf released
from the dying oak of my discontent
to falter away on the fitful winds
of circumstance, to alight somewhere
among dewy mosses and rotted leaves
and crooked old roots where crickets chew
my mordant measures until their chirps
turn sour from indigestion.

More excerpts from
Three Years on the Nowhere Road
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Off to the wilderness

A bus from the Twilight Zone

I am picked up, then dumped

On a dark, deserted highway,
the kindness of a stranger

My first ride in a logging truck

Forks, logging capitol of the world

To a camp on the Calawah

Job Interview

Up before dawn, a logger’s breakfast

My first day at the mill

A dip in the river

Working deck at the mill,
and almost losing a hand

To a new camp, further downriver

Robert Lee:
the old logger who lived in a box

The Dickey River People

When a barrel stove becomes a cannon

Alone at last

At the outfitters

On Christmas Day, I am flooded out

At the mill, I am promoted to splitter

Encounter with a sasquatch?

A scene out of Dr. Zhivago

I settle in for a solitary winter

Hanshan, the mad hermit poet

Hiking the coastline with a tomcat

A night on a seastack

I join an encampment of friends
on a tributary of the Hoh

Calling at the country estate
of Robert Lee, Esq.

Visiting around the Peninsula
in Robert Lee's 2-gear sedan

A visit to a Makah family on Neah Bay

These opening chapters represent
about 20% of the entire book,
which I hope to release
later this winter.

BJ Omanson
Nov 2021