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. 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
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.
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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.