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The Better Sex Magic of “Seal Rock”‘s Gray

What is the official color of the Pacific Northwest Coast? Let a poet define it:

[I]t happens when I begin my little ritual of naming the colors. That's grey, I say. That is not grey, I say. But more than grey, a white grey, green grey, blue grey, rose grey — my little ritual — and then, and then it overtakes me.

Now that's sexy, and you don't even have to count to 50.

The poet's name is John Haislip, the poem is "On the Beach Late before Sunset," and it concludes Seal Rock, the finest book of poetry I've ever read about the Oregon Coast and the people who inhabit its landscape. Seal Rock nails the magical, primitive, punishing, damp, gray, reclusive nature of surviving on the soggy monochrome coast with the same vigorous accuracy as Ken Kesey did in Sometimes a Great Notion. And I make that claim because I've lived at the Oregon Coast for 15 years and have had a lot of wet, gray time to read a lot of poetry about the Pacific Northwest.

I only know of Seal Rock's existence because of an offhanded remark in a Newport dive bar by my friend Tim Sproul. We were drinking cheap Pacific Northwest lagers and talking poetry when Sproul told me I had to read the book. He also said he studied under Haislip in the University of Oregon's MFA program in creative writing in the late 1980s and had great admiration for him as a teacher and mentor. Haislip, who was a professor emeritus at the university, passed away in March 2011 at the age of 85.

In 2010, Poetry Northwest and the Oregon State Library named Seal Rock as one of its 150 Books for 150 Years of (Oregon) Statehood. That's a fitting tribute indeed but meaningless if hardly anyone can read it.

In all my literary sleuthing on behalf of lost Oregon books, I have never encountered a book more tragically lost than Seal Rock.In all my literary sleuthing on behalf of lost Oregon books, I have never encountered a book more tragically lost than Seal Rock. I found a disintegrating copy at the Driftwood Library in Lincoln City, one of only seven Oregon and two Washington public libraries that have the book listed in their collections. There were only a few for sale in the rare-book digital universe, and prices ran close to $100 a copy. Nothing to download on Google Books or Amazon. Barnwood Press of Indiana published the book and has it listed on their web site, but none of my inquiries to the company were answered.

After reading this slim 52-page volume that won the Oregon Book Award for poetry in 1987, I read it again, photocopied it, annotated it, then drove five miles from my home to the village of Seal Rock at the 150 milepost marker on the Oregon Coast and explored the beaches. There, I walked into John Hailslip's poetry, his gray.

Seal Rock overtook me in a way no book of poetry has before. It helped me transcend a great personal loss. I placed it at the forefront of a novel I just completed. I memorized line after line. I sense I have a mission to herald how incredible these poems are. Read them and learn. The lessons are tough.

My favorite poem in Seal Rock is "Counting the Gulls." The last stanza reads:

As now it's coming on
From who knows how much
Multitudinous grey
Out there all week—
Or through the next?

Or how about the next six months? Haislip writes about gray better than anyone I've ever read and one can sense from these poems that he regularly communed with gulls and rain. He also uses the word carcass as a verb, as in, "carcass off in the poisoned air," and I'll never get that image out of my head, which is what great poetry is supposed to do, not make you feel confused or unintelligent.

÷ ÷ ÷

Postscript: After a version of this essay appeared in the Oregonian several months ago, I received an email. In part, it read:

I am John Haislip's widow [Karen Locke] who read with poignant delight your column. I believe I can speak for John in this instance: he would have been pleased to have read your kind and astute analysis of Seal Rock. You are absolutely right to call it a "tragically lost" book.

Well, not so lost anymore. By the time you read this, I will have sat down with Haislip's wife in Seal Rock (where else?) and discussed ways to resurrect this classic of Oregon literature. It has to happen because, well, for one reason, we can't abandon the color gray exclusively to the likes of E. L. James. I know 50 times more than James does about how sexy gray can be, and I will reveal all in the next installment of this blog. I can only imagine how much John Haislip knows about the shades. He knew the gray better than anyone who has ever written poetry.

÷ ÷ ÷

Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Sometimes a Great Notion
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  2. Sometimes a Great Movie: Paul...
    New Trade Paper $30.00
  3. Of Walking in Rain
    Used Trade Paper $10.95

Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain

2 Responses to "The Better Sex Magic of “Seal Rock”‘s Gray"

    Lancine’ R.White August 9th, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Dear Mr. Love: I have long been a fan of Mr. Haislip’s work. Over the years, I have enjoyed reading Seal Rock many times. I’m a native Oregonian and have lived near the coast much of my life. I consider myself a lifelong poetry enthusiast. I’ve studied poetic critique with several very learned and accomplished teachers and writers, including Mr. Haislip.
    I feel I can say, with confidence, you are reading Mr. Haislip’s poem “The Conjurer’s Nightmare” incorrectly. While I encourage readers of poetry to bring their own experiences and creativity to the art of interpreting poetry, I think you’re misinterpreting a particular stanza, you quote in your article, and you’re not doing the writer justice.
    I am certain Mr. Haislip would not use “carcass” as a verb. Please re-read the stanza. Let your mind and voice give the appropriate break and pause at the end of the lines in the stanzas, as if there were punctuation after the word “carcass.” I feel it is the darkly beautiful vision of the gulls, and the crows, and the carcass (in the beaks of the birds) which the author is having the reader envision, all together, flying “off in the poisoned air.”
    Reading a stanza as you have lends one to believe that in the previous stanza of the same poem, the writer meant to say a dead rabbit’s dried carcass is actually, literally, capable of swinging a skull and legs about in the air.
    I appreciate that you were impressed by this poem and came away from it moved. But I hope you will examine more carefully the words, the stanzas, the theme, the imagery, and the writer’s other poems so you may see more clearly what Mr. Haislip might have intended.
    I am not trying to speak for Mr. Haislip, and never would attempt it, but I feel if you read the poem again, with the tips I provided, you’ll gain an even stronger appreciation for this poem.
    In closing, Mr. Love, I find no analogy between Mr. Haislip’s use of grey and the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. I can’t even imagine what you mean. I can only conclude you have read something into the poems of Seal Rock that I, nor anyone else I know, have ever seen.
    Lancine’ R.W.

    H. Caden August 20th, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    I thoroughly enjoy reading Powell's wonderful blogs. They are usually so interesting, and I'm often given great advice for my future reading material.

    I rarely write commments, but having taught critical reading and creative writing for years, I have to agree with the above comment, made by L.R. White. When it comes to interpreting poetry, I hesitate to be too critical. I don't want to come off as overly authoratative, perhaps detering the reader.

    Poetry is, above all, in my opinion, meant to be enjoyed. If the poem is effectual it will hopefully take the reader on a journey of imagery, sparking one's imagination and interpretive skills.

    That said, I was surprised Mr. Love, with his writnig credentials, read this poem in such a way. In this instance, I feel certain "carcass" is not being used as a verb. Of course I can not speak for the author, but I can tell you that if one of my students asserted this, I would most definitely correct them.

    While reading poetry can be quite subjective, there are some rules that should be adhered to. With confidence, I can refer to R.L. White's instruction. I would not take the time to write this comment, if I didn't feel this sort of lesson important.

    I'm not currently employed, but I will always be a teacher. Just as I hope to a be a life long learner. Read on, Mr. Love! Poetry awaits. H. Caden, Teacher.

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