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The Soulful Traveler

[The following is Scott Edward Anderson’s Introduction to Sensational Nightingales: The Collected Poems of Walter Pavlich, just published by Lynx House Press. –Editor]

“Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance,” poet Richard Hugo wrote. Hugo’s student, Walter Pavlich, once said in an interview, “I’ve always tried to define – and celebrate – sort of hard things in life. To try to find beauty in them – or to be more patient and watch the beauty unfold.”

Like Hugo, Pavlich wrote about the western landscapes he inhabited and the people he encountered there, and like Hugo, he was a regionalist in the best sense of the word: someone who knows the place where he lives and writes from that place well-observed.

Hugo’s influence, and by extension Theodore Roethke, with whom Hugo studied, is fairly evident in Pavlich’s work, especially the early poems. Yet, as his widow and soulmate Sandra McPherson wrote to me, Walter “was incredibly rich & rare & doesn’t merely sound like Dick Hugo at all; [he] also had subjects from his engaged life.”

Pavlich’s engaged life included work as a wildfire fighter, “smoke jumper,” and poetry teacher in prisons and schools. Born in Portland, Oregon, Pavlich graduated from the University of Oregon in Eugene and earned an MFA from the University of Montana, and his fondness for the forests and coastal environments of the Pacific Northwest of the United States pervades his poetry.
Something Sandra said to me also seems pervasive in Walter’s poetry: he had “a kind of spiritual isolation or loneliness he’s not explicit about.”

I think of Walter Pavlich as a “soulful traveler”; indeed, it was one of the things I think drew us to each other at Squaw Valley, where we met in 1992.

Seven or eight years his junior, I was still very much in an apprentice stage as a poet, and perhaps Walter saw something of himself in me – a poetry outsider who preferred the outdoors to stuffy classrooms. I know he appreciated the presence of nature in my poems and we shared a love of Laurel & Hardy comedies.

There was something in Walter’s eyes; photographs don’t quite do them justice, where they appear heavy-lidded, almost sleepy. In Walter’s eyes you could see he had seen things, had seen life.

In a poem about Walter’s last days, Sandra noted, “He overflowed to feel any vacant space.” To feel any vacant space. You can sense the depth of such feeling in his poem “In the Belly of the Ewe,”

And so he told us how he had been sewn
into the belly of a ewe by his father
and a couple of uncles, because his legs
would not unfold after delivery,

as though in the womb the ligaments
had looped around bone and kinked,
heels clamped to thighs, a spiritual
cramp from God, an execration

for what they did not know.
His mother kept next to him in the barn,
pinching off sheep ticks, not sleeping
while the baby slept, helping the animal

to its side when its own legs hardened
from the standing, and kept the hooves
from kicking his exposed tottering head.
On the second Sunday of his life

they slit him free, limbs in a dangle
like severed rubberbands, and slaughtered
the beast with the same knife for that
day’s blessed supper. He told us this

in the yard of the world’s largest prison,
on the way back to his cell where
he continued to cough up little wet
moths of blood, where he was always

cold, always ashamed, as he gathered
the wool blanket up and around him.

While the early poems may be filled with what poet David Axelrod calls “spitting anger,” often focusing on the hard things in life with an equal measure of toughness and compassion, Walter’s later poetry is perhaps characterized by a deep empathy.
Thomas Aslin, Walter’s friend and fellow student of Hugo’s, wrote of him, “Walt, who could be quite emotional at times, felt things strongly.”

In a 1993 review of Pavlich’s Running Near the End of the World, I ventured that Walter’s “themes are timeless – fire, loss, the inability of words to communicate, the frail humanity of the imprisoned and the persecuted – and he treats them with a verbal grace and a spiritual discernment of the complexity of human life, warts and all.”

Walter Pavlich died far too young, a month before his 47th birthday. I always thought he died from complications related to an enlarged heart – a condition known as “cardiomegaly.” I’m not sure where I heard that or whether Walter actually had that condition, but it seemed fitting that this man of generous spirit would have a heart too big for his body, a heart that couldn’t be contained no matter how much he poured out onto the page, ever feeling that vacant space around him.

Ours is a lost world in need of such empathy. Walter’s empathy for the human condition also extended to the non-human, such as the last surviving animal in the Sarajevo zoo during the siege of 1992, which Walter immortalized in his poem, “Sarajevo Bear”:

The last animal
In the Sarajevo Zoo
A bear
Died of starvation
Because the leaves
Had fallen
From the trees
The air was
Getting colder
So the snipers
Could more easily see
The few remaining people
Who were trying to
Feed it.

Several years ago, Thomas Aslin published his notes from Richard Hugo’s classes in the Georgia Review. I don’t know whether Walter Pavlich was in class that day, Aslin could probably confirm, but there’s one quote that seems to fit Walter as a credo: “Be great on the page and modest in real life.”

Pavlich was modest in real life. In his last days, running an online antiques business and writing very little, he told an interviewer, “It’s okay to be silent and not write for a while. I don’t force it anymore. I relax with it. It might be a way of saying less ego – or less rhapsodizing.”

Walter once sent me a cassette, somewhere I still have it, filled with gospel music he loved. He was especially fond of the quartet known as the Sensational Nightingales. One of their most popular songs, “Morning Train,” sings about going home on the morning train because “that evening train may be too late.”

In his later poems, especially those in The Spirit of Blue Ink, Walter’s yearning spirit is palpable. Almost I want to say you can sense his getting ready to board that morning train. As David Axelrod put it to me in an email, “He seems to have arrived at or was approaching a brokenhearted and generous philosophical quietism.”

There is Walter Pavlich, leaning into the rhythms of the music he heard, whether in churches or among the blackbirds along a highway, filling himself with a “shivery ephemeral blush,” until, finally, as he wrote in a late poem,

It is time
to sing again, to pray
with notes, sorrow harmonized
with joy, asking for wings,

beautiful wings to the resting place.