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A Visit to the Ranch & other poems by Klipscutz
reviewed by Jessica McDermott

A Visit to the Ranch & other poems
Last Word Press


A Visit to the Ranch & other poems gives a gritty glimpse of what travel, even today, can feel and look like, while also paying tribute to a mentor. The places Klipschutz (pen name of Kurt Lipschutz) visits, the mode of travel, and travel itself become characters. One of the book’s best features is the way it gives voice to day to day on the road moments. Whether it’s a dog sitting beside a freeway, taking a moment to stand on a mountain, eating oatmeal and sunflower seeds, or playing a board game in bed, nothing is off limits or unworthy of entering a poem.

The towns and cities of the book are all in the Pacific Northwest. Without restraint or regret, the poems note both the beauty and the fraught history of these overlooked areas and do not shy away from criticism or sarcasm. Contemporary poetry too often abandons these characteristics and replaces them with indecipherable forms and a lack of opinion. For this reason, it is refreshing to see someone speak directly and risk both sentimentality and simplicity.

“The Ballad of the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center” describes the Whitman Massacre, which took place near what is now Walla Walla in southeastern Washington (where the ranch in the title is located). The quotes and dates in the poem recount the tragedy of the Cayuse who died of measles, and the violent death of the Whitmans who brought the disease with them. Framed around these descriptions of death and “resettlement” is an eight-line rhymed stanza that bookends the poem. These lines reveal an unflinching straightforwardness, ending with: “History is full of heathen souls that went unsaved/God’s Love lies like a rug tossed in a ditch.” The tone in these lines contrasts with the more historical account found in the body of the poem, but together both parts reveal an observant and critical precision.

Along with his ability to discuss a wide variety of subjects, Klipschutz also reveals his appreciation for both well- and lesser-known writers. Multitudes of writers and translators are directly addressed throughout the book. From Ezra Pound to Ernest Hemingway to Kenneth Rexroth to Sharon Doubiago and William Carlos Williams, traces of many influences can be found in his diction, epigraphs, and subject matter. Even a major Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty makes an appearance, in “Free Translation of Du Fu From Memory.” Although the title sounds like a joke, the content is of a more serious nature, ending with: “travels in forgotten dreams, grateful to be gone. /A spore with no religion drifts, cloud matter breaks in two.” These final lines harken back to the beginning of the poem where a blanket, cicadas, and sunlight all resemble the traveller. Similar to the winds, clouds, and light mentioned in Du Fu’s own poetry, the heavy rain and drifting clouds that split remind us that being human often means to leave places and selves behind to embark on the new. The traveller who is the voice of the poems becomes more aware of his mortality because he is in constant motion, and with motion comes continual change.

Another example of tribute to predecessors appears in “Saturday Night on Paradise Ridge.” This prose poem recalls American poets from the 1970s—John Haines, Robert Bly, James Wright, and Bert Meyers—while the narrator is standing on a mountain. Even when startled by a deer and water running downhill, the narrator is never quite alone because he carries the words and ideas of those who came before him.

The writer most central to the book is counterculture poet and publisher Charles Potts. In addition to hosting seven infamous Poetry Parties over fifteen years, Potts also created presses, ran a bookstore, and published over forty books. Klipschutz’s attention to nature and the vast complexity of the West, his interest in Asian writers, and his bluntness all resemble Potts. Klipschutz’s four visits to Potts’s Blue Creek Ranch, over twelve years, are the moments where he finds simplicity and insight. These visits symbolize a sort of pilgrimage and rejuvenation. In the introduction, Klipschutz tells how Potts made a place for him, “an urban Californian,” to experience poetry and ranch life.

Like Klipschutz, Potts is a true poet in the sense that he takes time to pause, reflect, and bear witness to the subtleties in life. The poem “Pieces of a Poet, Horseman at Seventy” describes Potts’s quiet life on his ranch while still paying tribute to his past accomplishments and trials. The Masonic Temple (now partly a taqueria) in the poem once housed Potts’s quarterly multilingual publication The Temple, and a bookstore of the same name. His daughters, Berkeley, and his Appaloosas all make appearances, as does his wealth of knowledge undiminished by age. In the poem, Potts dreams of “an equine IQ test” and compares the formation of horse feet with those of “rhinos and with tapirs.” These refences and images affirm the slow-paced life Potts found on his ranch and its surrounding sea of wheat and legume fields in the larger Palouse region. In many ways, the life Potts returned to in his later years resembles his upbringing in rural Mackay, Idaho. In this way, the book solidifies the cyclical patterns found in travel, friendship, and in life.

In the book’s final and title poem, we are again reminded of the astute fortitude Potts embodies. Here, the seventy-year-old poet-rancher has suffered a heart attack and eats pumpkin seeds and oatmeal for breakfast with freshly squeezed grape juice. An outing to scout additional grazing land for his horses finds Potts studying the ridgeline and wondering how early the property will get dark on winter afternoons, after which he challenges Klipschutz to “talk to me about sunlight.” This seemingly simple request defines Potts both as a writer and person. Even in his seventies, Potts continually hosts travellers with whom he candidly shares his respect and attention towards living and writing. This sort of attention and honesty can rarely be found and for that reason, Klipschutz celebrates it. In the end, A Visit to the Ranch’s enduring quality is its subtle indication that travel, like aging and history, leaves traces formed from direct experience, and even the smallest of them holds meaning.

Jessica McDermott is a poet and a non-fiction writer from Southeastern Idaho. Her most recent publication will appear in the Manifest West series, Women of the West, this fall.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 22.