Saturday, November 10, 2012

If You Can Still Dance With It: Stone Belly & Cold Mountain Poems by Michael Adams

If You Can Still Dance With It: Stone Belly & Cold Mountain
Poems by Michael Adams
Kittredge, CO: Turkey Buzzard Press, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0-9450-94586
37 pages

Review by David P. Miller

Poet and musician Michael Adams presents poems in three personae. These are Stone Belly, his “nom de plume or alter ego”; Cold Mountain, Adams’ rendering of T’ang Dynasty poet Han Shan in mid-20th century Appalachia; and in his own person, following a diagnosis of multiple myeloma. This brief volume introduces me to the work of a writer of great heart and broad life experience, from the blue collar communities near Pittsburgh to his current residence in Northern Colorado. More of his work, including sample poems, publications, and an audio selection, is available at

The image of the recluse poet retains a powerful attraction. Most of us would find it difficult to survive for more than a couple of days in a simple mountaintop dwelling, entirely self-reliant for food and heat. But there’s much to be desired in this picture: solitude, the freedom to simply concentrate on one’s own work, and the requirement to distill the complexities of living to essentials. It’s intriguing that Adams presents this image in twinned voices. The Stone Belly poems begin with the longer “Stone Belly in the Mountains.” Here we seem to see the recluse we imagine:

                Wandering in the mountains,
                lost amongst pines,
                Stone Belly grows hard and lean,
                chewing on poems.

Removed from the thick of society, he’s not unaffected by it nor attached to it:

                Third day of snow, power lines
                down all over the mountain.     

                But Stone Belly gets his juice
                from other realms –
                                wood, whiskey, and fiery chili.
                Discusses eternity with the stars.
                He hasn’t been this happy all year.

He “daydreams of a girl he hasn’t seen in 20 years” and is prepared for friends to visit, with:

                Eight bottles of bourbon, four cases of beer,
                twenty pounds of rice, one change of clothes,
                what’s left of last fall’s elk,
                buried in a cooler in the snow.

This push and pull between the joyous strenuousness of a life apart and the desire for humankind’s web (in “Stone Belly in Texas” he fruitlessly hitchhikes across the Southwest to find a girl he barely knew), slowly results in self-knowledge:

                I am not very good
                at the world’s business –
                the building and trading
                of fortunes and goods.

                I know well enough
                the quarters of the winds,
                the fluid ways of waters,
                the turning of,
                and movement through,
                the seasons.

With his Cold Mountain poems, Adams directly confronts the very archetype of the poet as solitary. His versions are inspired by the translations of Red Pine, Gary Snyder, and R.P. Seaton. Not a reader of Mandarin, he presents his versions with the hope that readers will also seek the work of those translators. Poking through my bookshelves, I discovered translations by Snyder and Burton Watson, a surprise anecdotally confirming the subtle pervading of the older Chinese poet (I hadn’t intended to collect versions, but now I have three). Adams’ Cold Mountain writings often, to my ear, have the pungency of other versions, but with a clearly North American flavor:

                Pickled pig’s feet in Manhattan –
                Some people say they’re the best.
                Men who live too close to power
                love things that dogs won’t touch.

Again  here, we have the reality that this life, for all its rewards, is not to be romanticized:

                I’m sick all the time,
                but that’s my burden.
                My face looks like an old squash
                that someone forgot
                and left out all winter.
                I’m happy with the mountains
                and a warm thick blanket.

The sequence ends with lines that point straight at the crossing between wonder and annihilation, with impermanence as the solitary’s food:

                I reached the top
                of the cliff at sundown.
                An ancient snag rose at the edge
                bereft of leaves, barren
                against the blazing sky.
                It looked like it had stood
                for a thousand years.

                Now it’s just a pile of ashes
                that kept me warm
                through the long night.

The image in this final stanza is a hinge opening on “After the Ashes,” the title of both the third set of poems and the first poem in the set. This simple phrase is rich with multiple meanings. It takes us from the contemplative conclusion of the Cold Mountain poems into the reality of Adams’ diagnosis with a type of incurable cancer. Although his stated aim with these poems is to “examine what it is like to be confronted with a life-threatening disease without prematurely seeking answers, solutions, or solace,” the phrase here suggests a sense of ashes in the mouth. However, in this poem, the phrase, now punctuated, regains calm as part of a view of “the long story of our lives / along with the sounds of love, the wordless / speech of tongues groping beyond themselves in the furnace of another’s mouth”:

                ... A campfire beneath white granite
                and stars, and, after, the ashes.

This final set is filled with a great love for “The World As it Is” (the title of another in the set) and the command to prepare to say goodbye. The volume concludes with perhaps my favorite, “The Ones Who Get the World Ready.” As Adams, sleepless at 2 A.M., sits with paper and pen,

                ... the dog
                comes in, settles at your side.
                You stare at the window and your own face
                stares back, with nothing to say.
                Don’t think this is a poem about searching
                for inspiration. It’s just a man who can’t sleep
                and doesn’t want to bother his wife
                with his restlessness.

But as he sits, he remembers the men and women who rise early,

                ... the ones who make the world
                solid and familiar for the rest of us. Trash haulers and policemen,
                paper carriers, nurses, truck drivers, bakers. Resolute, even brave,
                with a dogged, determinedly unreflective bravery, they grope
                with blind hands in the dark, clutching at the anchors
                that will secure us all for one more day to our common lives.

Michael Adams tells us to remember the bravery we all need, and can all manifest, as we move through our common lives, intimately dependent on each other, and all “staring the monster right in the face” (“Send Some Angels”).


  1. Anonymous8:10 PM

    I, too, love this book ... it is courageous and full of beauty--the kind of beauty we find when we strip away whatever is on the surface. Thanks for spreading the word.

  2. one of colorado's finest -- thanks for alerting boston folks to michael's fine work...