Robert Isaacson’s poetry comes out of the lineage of William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, William Stafford, Robert Hass, and Ted Kooser. Like them, he is a poet engaged in the wonders of this world-its land, plants, animals, and people. Like them, his talk is mostly plain talk. His poems sound the way we speak. His stories engage. Isaacson’s voice is emphatic, but not sentimental-a hard balance to keep. You read the poems and you want to know the man, to take a ride with him on his ranch, have a drink with him in a bar, share jokes.
Isaacson-grandson, son, father, husband, rancher, teacher, and writer-knows we are of the Earth, and his poems are deeply rooted in the American West. In his poem about his beloved step-grandmother, “Mother Bennie on a Horse, Hot Springs Ranch, Arizona, 1919,” he describes her on a piebald horse with her long riding skirt in a land of rock and cactus where vaqueros speak soft words:
I know as you know.
Be deep rooted,
even in shallow soil-
Roots will find.
You have given me to know
as you know
what will now suffice. Be nourished.
For Isaacson, the past is never past. His book, The Muleshoe Cattle Company, is an anthology of life on an Arizona cattle ranch owned by his grandparents. One-hundred years later, he and his wife, Sally, still use the quarter circle mule shoe to brand the new spring calves on their ranch, El Chorro, in the San Julian Valley, and Muleshoe is the name of his press.
The poet knows his landscape firsthand-he knows about birth and death, drought and flush times on a ranch. Up at 2 a.m. helping a heifer give birth, he whines into the dark, “I am too old for this shit.” Running in circles, knee-deep in mud, he and his wife finally pull the calf.
Arm in arm,
we walk home, laughing loudly
into the blackness,
the moonless night. Above us
a billion winter stars.
Frost is forming.
A weary heifer
licks her curled calf dry.
He writes of the grassland and backcountry of the San Julian-its manzanita and sage, its creeks, sycamores, and dark canyons, its wild pigs and cow trails, tanbarks, and mountain lions. He knows its hawks and turkey vultures, those “rot-gatherers.” He knows the myths and characters of the El Jaro hills: Jim Rios, the old, bearded Mayordomo, and Vincente Guevara who can ride and break and tame anything, even the Honda Canyon Bull. Isaacson knows the world of round-ups and brandings, of rawhide, tooled saddles, chaps, and reatas.
He knows Point Pedernales, where the Chumash lived for thousands of years:
A grey-white watercolor fog sweeps
the low mound of Point Conception,
the long hills and mesas summer dry,
bright, weirdly yellow,
framing the dark sea
whale path and whitecap,
cliff-tearing, deep indigo.
On the village terraces
wild oats, rip cut brome,
milk thistle, datura
conceal the paths, between huts, meeting places,
fire pit and grinding stone.
In “Wild Cow,” he almost becomes this clever beast with her Durham blood who refuses to be caught:
Each year in August
when the flats were fed down
to clover burrs
and the hollow mustard stalks
went to seed
she would hear
the voices of the scattered riders
the roads and ridges
through the fog toward her
and she, with two or three others,
would quietly snake up
her little-known trails
into the back county
below the La Vina ridge,
to a thousand acres of brush.”
Isaacson’s titles tell a lot about his sense of humor: “On Proctoring a Multiple Choice Exam on Human Sexuality,” “California Weatherperson.” In “Brigitte Bardot,” he finds a pinup magazine on Highway 1 with pictures of the French bombshell. He remembers only one. She is long-legged, barefoot, a white sailor cap pushed back on her long blonde hair.
Long I hid her
before I knew girls,
in some deep crevasse
of my startled mind,
like the lingering goddess
of lost theology.
He hid her for years in a bottom drawer with his comic books and broken soldiers in a place where even his mother in fit of mad spring cleaning would not go.
He leaves the ranch to write beautifully of Achill Island, Ireland.
We stand on the low dunes, outside history,
on undated, unconsecrated ground-
Sand, sheep-dung, sparse grass cropped short.
The sheep glance at our trespass silent,
Wide-eyed, crouched in the sea-gale.
He writes a moving tribute to Emily Dickinson in her stark, Puritan museum room behind her white door. He wants to see
the dust motes,
in to and out of
the slanting light
of that squared space.
Above all, he knows his nature, red in tooth and claw. In his writing he is generous and talented. His careful observations are tough and true. One of my favorite poems is “Common Crow,” which begins
Here’s to you
lowly, cacophonous crow,
haunter of hedges,
bully of backyard fences
: and ends
Brash old forager,
you are not a god.
You knew that much. But on the bough
of that flowering
on the bough
of that strange flowering
outside the hospital,
you did speak to me: There is yet a seat
at the great feast,
and you will be there. There will be a feast.
You will be there.
What the poet Tony Hoagland writes of modern poetry can be said of Isaacson: “Modern consciousness may indeed be splintered, but it is one function of poetry in our time to fasten it back together-which does not mean to deny its complexity. : I was already part of the world, I know-but the unifying, clarifying impact of the poem delivers me to a deeper, and more conscious state of being in the world. Deeper and better than before, when I was only lost in it.” And so we are back to Mother Bennie.
I think Isaacson would agree with the great Polish poet CzesÅ aw MiÅ osz, who wrote,
II think that I am here, on this Earth,
to present a report on it, but to whom I don’t know.
As if I were here so that whatever takes place
has meaning because it changes into memory.
In his writings Isaacson has given his experiences and memories meaning. As Paul Valery understood, “It was never an idle pastime to extract a little grace, a little clarity, a little permanence from the mobility of the things of the mind, or to change what passes into what endures.