'Long Journey' often dark, dreary

I was expecting to love "Long Journey."

This new anthology of 90 contemporary Northwest poets comes from Oregon State University Press. It was edited by David Biespiel, a respected Portland poet who champions poetry as a teacher, and also as a monthly poetry columnist for The Oregonian.

In his engaging introduction, Biespiel expresses his hope that this volume will introduce readers to poets with whom they might wish to get better acquainted -­ and he provides illuminating biographical notes on each contributor at book's end.

The poets included in "Long Journey" hail from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, western Montana, British Columbia, and Alaska. They include old timers and recent arrivals, well-known veterans in the poetry world and up-and-comers, too.

While Biespiel used geography as a way of selecting a pool of poets to showcase, he dismisses the idea of regional poetry, or of a Northwest poetic aesthetic. Instead, he argues convincingly that in this age of mobility and ease of communication, the notion of a "poetry of place" is a limiting and old-fashioned concept.

"To curate with a strict regional bias in subject matter would be reductive and would have created a terrible collection of poems," Biespiel contends.

In fact, the poems he selected for inclusion in "Long Journey" represent much more than salmon reds or rainy day blues.

In a wide range of styles, these poems tackle risk, suicide, disease and disguise. There are sonnets that reflect on sex and there's a ballad (by Colleen J. McElroy) for Seattle's Blue Moon Tavern. Trains and swans and frogs move through these poems. Fog rolls in and the moon makes several cameo appearances. There are a handful of poems about dead birds and a couple about fish,­ variously dead or alive.

But there are notably few poems invoking whimsy or joy, although Edmonds poet Joan Swift provides a transcendent poem called "Light Years" and West Seattle physician/poet Peter Pereira's anagram wordplays leave one giddy with amazement.

With 90 poets in this collection, there is a diversity of voices.

Even so, too many seem prone to burrowing like rabbits into thorny thickets of imagery ­- comfy if you're one of their crowd, perhaps, but bewildering to those of us who are not capital-P Poets. The dense verbiage and propensity for off-putting "five-dollar words" (that term courtesy of Olympia poet Lucia Perillo, after she used "Galapagosian" as an adjective in one of her poems) do not make for good poetry.

In writings elsewhere, Biespiel has argued that "audiences crave mastery over the difficult," and that readers "want a poem that's not Art of the Obvious."

True, but, taken as a whole, this collection seems exclusive, leaden and dyspeptic.

Twenty-first century technology may be obliterating the concept of "poetry of place," but after reading through this collection a few times, I can't help but wonder if the Seasonal Affective Disorder our region is known for has cast its pall over local poets -­ or at least over the editor as he selected poems for this volume.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Northwest. Contact her at