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(Lynx House Press)
Among the epigraphs Bill Tremblay has chosen to welcome readers into Walks Along the Ditch is this from Chinese philosopher Mencius: “When your mind becomes quiet/you can think in front of the tiger’s smile.” In this, his eighth collection of poems, Tremblay not only faces the tiger, he learns to embrace it.
Having completed a distinguished and fruitful career teaching poetry at Colorado State University, the poet turns his attention inward. “You hand in your keys, and it’s over. /Thirty-three years and a gold watch.” The title of the poem, "The Larimer-Weld Ditch", names an irrigation ditch near the poet's home where, on his daily walks, he wonders:
...if there’s time to clear your
soul of debris before the ditch rider lowers
That ditch rider, death, is the tiger—the tiger who smiles just before he pounces.
The speaker in these poems is not, however, sentenced to facing the questions of life’s later days without assistance. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. In this collection, revered teacher becomes student—a student of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. In the poem “Five Principles”:
... . Teacher says,
“Relax, but be alert,” the first of many paradoxes
that make me smile.
To the fiercely engaged student, this is a new stance.
... . It’s not the world
but that we take it so hard. Can we learn to stop
resisting the charging bull and deflect its power
The poems in Walks Along the Ditch are infused with the energy and language of T’ai Chi. Yet, while practitioners will appreciate terms like diagonal flying, bubbling well, and beautiful lady, readers do not need to know the forms of T’ai Chi to understand the power of its centering influence on the speaker, and on themselves. From the rooted, quiet place achieved in these poems comes both defense in the face of life’s challenges and poetry itself. In “The Page” the poet applies the power of the centering practice to the writing of poems.
And for the magic blue ink you must brave
the shroud’s touch, the everything the nothing is.
The subjects in these poems cover the gamut as the speaker confronts the range of failings from personal regrets to cultural and historical destruction. In “The War” the poet describes an all too familiar scene where police in riot gear press a protesting crowd.
Where have I seen this before?
More than fifty years ago I was a leaf on that tree.
Can the crowd turn its other cheek,
Where does the witness stand as between
the many and the few who each have a claim?
In another poem, “Letter to Miguel Hernandez,” the speaker asks:
... How could they love
their guns so much? When did the preciousness of
life die in them?
For sustenance—for there can be no answer—the speaker turns again to the Chinese martial art of T’ai Chi:
... I keep doing my upward,
my downward, until my feet take root
in the earth and I breathe, embryonic,
toward the place I was before I was born.
Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing, one of the great masters of T’ai Chi, was also known for having mastered Chinese medicine, painting, calligraphy, and poetry. With Walks Along the Ditch, Bill Tremblay steps into the path of the master with at least two of these excellences: T’ai Chi and poetry. For at this time when it so often feels that all hope is lost and all that’s left to our imagination is destruction and endings, Tremblay puts his faith in these two practices. In “Imagining California”, after the dose of “daily toast and outrage,” the poet nevertheless persists because the practice is ultimately our only defense against demise.
Poetry is when you keep imagining California despite everything.
We can do anything in poetry, so why not anywhere?
I will die reaching for a pen.
- Morgan Grayce Willow