Ken Waldman,
To Live on This Earth
(West End, 2003)

Ken Waldman, fiddler and poet, has lived in Alaska for the last 16 years. His poems bring life in the rural wilds sharply and beautifully into focus, and for those of us who live in warm lands and enjoy all the comforts and conveniences of modern life, the contrasts between our surroundings and Ken's are vividly painted by his words.

He not only writes of Alaska, but of relationships, musicians, politics, ecology and world events. Like a melody, the natural beauty of the land, the harshness of the deep cold, the places he has lived and visited swirl through the poems, underscoring here, providing a high note there. Particularly in his political poems, the iniquity of the decisions made by politicians -- and Ken's opinion of them and the effect their actions have on the land and the people and the sea around Alaska -- provides some deeply cutting low notes, too.

He presents 75 poems, in six sections, and not a section passed but I found at least one poem standing out, some words dancing out in front of me to be remembered. "Moonshine" is about a "blond/ mandolin player, too pretty/ to be true ... playing dead/drunk ... lips and eyes/in that lovemaking grin beyond/knowing." The people in "Dance Hall, Fairbanks" are "Rough spirits gliding./The music making them fly."

The difference of viewpoint described in "Fairbanks Cabin," between Ken and his father, is a "lifelong Philadelphian/visiting Alaska ... travelled five thousand miles and missed my being/saddens me. I only journey further./What once had been is elsewhere." Ken's words in "Abstract of a Salmon Fisherman" are "Exposed to the wet wind's/ chill, I often question/the meaning of fishing. ...You tell me salmon fishermen act/as naturally as salmon. I take your hands/and pretend we're swimming slowly/upstream to our creekbed. You catch me/by letting me be."

Clever in another way, in the political section, among some vituperative and hard-hitting poetry, is "We Are All One" -- "I told a poet friend:/By aiming my venom/at our congressman/and senators -- at least/I'd hit the culprits./But wait, he said ... -- the world's a family of cells/spinning as bodies/... Then we suffer stomach/and lung cancer,/I said, eyes on/my friend's belly,/then throat, then eyes/that avoided mine."

He imparts a clear picture of the landscape in "Ah, Barrow" -- "Let the seven April shades/of white -- fog, blizzard,/ice, horizon, cloud,/wide windswept tundra, sun --/ determine spring...."

I particularly enjoyed "Mother Parabola" -- "How this earth moves/in its plainly strange way,/allowing us paper, pen,/the bent to laugh and jest/with language, then to/get serious, use short serious/words like cancer, big serious/words like contraception./Fortunate pilgrims. We have/stock to slaughter, desert/to wander, oasis to sate, straight line to harp on,/long slow curve to live."

As he says in the final poem in his book: "Then he slept,/his head on worn paper cover,/through which spoke the poems." These poems speak; Ken's book of poems is both a celebration and realisation of life, and I am glad he has chosen to share his thoughts with a wider audience.

- Rambles
written by Jenny Ivor
published 19 June 2004

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