In her newest volume of poetry, “Rain Violent,” revered local poet Ann Spiers presents 61 four-line poems, each named for an international weather symbol — a kind of calligraphy used by weather watchers at meteorological centers and on ships and airplanes worldwide.
Each poem is accompanied pictorially by one of these international symbols, evocatively illustrated by Bolinas Frank, an accomplished visual artist who grew up on Vashon and now lives in Seoul, South Korea.
Together, Spiers’ verse and Frank’s art provide an emotional, memory-laden map to navigate today’s climate crisis — an accelerating reality that was not theoretical at all as I opened the book to read it, on the 50th day of no rain and rising heat on Vashon.
Now, as I write this review, a thick yellow haze hangs in the air — smoke from not-so-distant, raging fires. I have retreated to my air-conditioned Nissan Leaf to type these words. It’s silly to remember now that when I bought this car, only a few years ago, I thought I was doing something good for the planet. Of course, it has turned out to be good only for me — how nice to have a small, battery-powered breathing capsule now.
In this chilled and recycled air, I find it striking how much a poet like Spiers is able to say, with such spare words. Just look at the time it took me to tell you about my car.
The life and work of Spiers, who was Vashon’s inaugural poet laureate, has always been inspired by the landscapes and moody climate of her beloved Pacific Northwest home.
Her poetry teems with wildlife and offers vistas of volcanoes, beaches, muddy trails, brush, and tall trees. It also shows us ourselves: frail and reckless beings, gasping as we glimpse the fading grandeur that surrounds us, realizing we are the ones who wrecked it.
With “Rain Violent,” Spiers chronicles both the beauty and terror of our sensory experiences of climate change — how we watch as “the strange grass accepts the wind’s push,” how we hear “small movements in a dark house” after the power has gone out.
Then the book opens up to show us the sensory experiences of others much less privileged than ourselves.
One of the short poems in the book illuminates, like a crack of lightning in the night, the sight of refugees arriving on a beach, drenched by storms.
Spiers also conjures what the pandemic has wrought, in a poem about a blind woman who brings home small stones from the beach, only to realize her sense of smell is gone.
The poems in “Rain Violent ” summon up the grief of a “garden’s last cut,” and the rush of wings as birds fly away from calamity. They capture the lawlessness of coyotes as they advance into a city, shrouded by fog.
Spiers’ poems can be as tender as a raindrop falling on wet pavement, but some, like “Snowflakes Continuous,” encapsulate the very notion of an apocalypse.
“We melted snow. Yes, we drank ice worms, red threads in our camp cups. Yes, our breath formed small clouds; yes, glaciers opened for us, crevasses moaning.”
With “Rain Violent,” Spiers has written a beautiful elegy for our times.
The book is only her latest gift to Vashon.
Spiers stewards Vashon Village Green’s Poetry Post and co-authored “Walks, Trails, and Parks on Vashon Island.” In several positions through the years, she has supported the Vashon Land Trust.
Her published poetry includes a chapbook focused on Vashon’s “Bunker Trail,” and her time spent living in a Vashon walk-in beach cabin. She edited and published “Mondays at Three: Portage,” an anthology from the island’s haiku group that has met for 23 years.
She has published poems widely, including recent poems about the pandemic and climate crisis in “Civilization in Crisis” (FootHills) and the “Madrona Project: Keep a Green Bough: Voices from the Heart of Cascadia” (Empty Bowl).
This year, in addition to “Rain Violent”(Empty Bowl), Spiers has two other major poetry publications: “Back Cut” (Black Heron), and “Harpoon,” (Ravenna, Triple Series).
Her books are available through Vashon Bookshop. More about her life and work can be found at annspiers.com.