Kirkus Reviews: CASCADIAN ZEN


by Paul E. Nelson & Jason M. Wirth with Adelia MacWilliam & Theresa Whitehill

Link to Kirkus Reviews of CASCADIAN ZEN

A many-layered and deeply spiritual collection celebrating the landscape of the northern Pacific coast.

Editors Nelson, Wirth, and MacWilliam present a collection of poetry and prose from the Pacific Northwest.

“Cascadia” has long been used as a poetic nickname for the Pacific Northwest, including the states of Washington and Oregon and the Canadian province of British Columbia. The designation speaks not only to the shared cultural and political affinities of the region but also to the common landscape of rainy temperate forests and lush river valleys that sit in the shadow of the Cascade Range. This anthology explores the connection of that region to a particular philosophical disposition found among some of its inhabitants—Zen Buddhism. It isn’t as random a pairing as it may initially sound, given Cascadians’ long-standing fascination with both Eastern philosophy and their own natural environment.

Poet Andrew Schelling describes the relationship in his foreword: “Ecology, conservation biology, cybernetics, rewilding; these sciences brought refinement to the longstanding Buddhist question: whether such a thing as a separate living creature even exists, apart from an ecosystem of energy exchange, geomorphic forces, weather, and food chains.”

The kinship of every organism, whether or not it is appreciated or acknowledged, is a recurrent theme in the collection, as when Daphne Marlatt writes in her piece full spectrum eye appeal:

sea cuke’s moptop licking its
tentacle chops we forget
underwater gastronomy
its delicate clarity of interception, inter-connection lost
to the dry suit beings we are.

Some pieces acknowledge the ways in which the landscape reflects back cosmological patterns like death and rebirth, as in Mushim Patricia Ikeda’s heart sūtra fragment 5:

mountains and rivers
creeks, spillways, marshes, sloughs
trickledowns and whitewaters
gravity is impersonal
we all return to ground
but tonight I think rebirth
is simply this: from these small vessels, our bodies
we naturally overturn and spill out
into vastness and return.

The anthology succeeds in collecting work representing the various traditions that inform its mission. Beat poets Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure are included here, as are poets Jane Hirshfield and Tess Gallagher (more surprising, but no less welcome, is Denise Levertov.) There are translators of Asian poetry, including Red Pine and Schelling (who also contributes a few original poems), as well as Indigenous poets such as Rena Priest and Wedlidi Speck.

In Bardo, Alicia Hokanson memorably compares flying over the landscape to the Buddhist notion:

our small plane hums
over the lightly ruffled waves
of island waters
all the grays above
and all the greens below
torn heaven
stitched earth
and we, rent creatures,
suspended in between

Interspersed among the poems are relevant essays, as well as photographs and other artwork. Most of the writers have contributed several pieces, allowing the reader to get a sense of each contributor’s spiritual and aesthetic ecosystem. The volume makes for a wonderfully fertile collection, with ideas and voices mingling seamlessly in a way that does indeed summon the natural wonders of Cascadia. A many-layered and deeply spiritual collection celebrating the landscape of the northern Pacific coast.

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Paul E Nelson 2023

Kirkus Reviews CASCADIAN ZEN, by Paul E. Nelson & Jason M. Wirth with Adelia MacWilliam & Theresa Whitehill