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John Haines, 1924-2011

By Harriet Staff

Alaskan poet John Haines died last week in Fairbanks. Among his many admirers was the late Hayden Carruth, who labeled John Haines “one of our best nature poets, or for that matter one of the best nature writers of any kind.”

From this weekend’s New York Times:

Mr. Haines may have been drawn to the far North in the manner of Robert Service or Jack London, but unlike them he came to stay and carve out a long life. He cleared forest, built cabins, planted gardens, chopped wood, cut trails, traveled by snowshoe and dogsled, trapped lynx and marten, weaved nets for salmon fishing, and had encounters with grizzlies.

He was often alone and sometimes with one of five wives or a girlfriend, most of whom quickly tired of the wilderness — or his famously cantankerous personality.

Mr. Haines used his north-country images to take readers on a profoundly introspective spiritual journey, what Edward Hirsch in The New York Times called “a primitive pantheism that prays outward to the snowy owl and the gods of winter.”

Mr. Kooistra, a former college philosophy professor and commercial fisherman, contended that London and Service “were essentially tourists” compared with Mr. Haines. “This is poetry of a different level,” he said.

Mr. Haines wrote a dozen books of poetry, essays and autobiography; was a writer in residence at a half-dozen colleges; and earned two Guggenheim Fellowships and a $10,000 Lenore Marshall/The Nation Award, among other prizes. In Alaska, he was a source of pride as one of the first truly acclaimed writers the 49th state produced.

Here is his poem, “The Girl Who Buried Snakes in a Jar,” reprinted from The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer his collected poems from Graywolf Press:

She came to see the bones
whiten in a summer,
and one year later a narrow
mummy with a dusty skin
and flaking scales
would break apart in her hand.

She wanted to see if sunlight
still glinted in those eyes,
to know what it lighted
from a window on the mallow roots,
leaf mold and fallen casques.

And to ask if a single tongue,
one forked flicker in the dark,
had found any heat in death:
in the closed space and chill
of that burial, what speech,
what sign would there be.

She who walked in the canyon early,
parted the grass and halted
upon the living snake, coiled
and mottled by a bitter pool,

unearthed her jar in another spring,
to find the snake spirit gone,
only a little green water standing,
some dust, or a smell.

(1974)


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, March 7th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.