JOHN HAINES — 1924 – 2011
Last year, at the first anniversary of his death, I drove to poet John Haines’ homestead cabin. I was curious to see the specific landscape which fired his imagination and produced that first literary earthquake of a book, Winter News. It was a typical Alaskan late winter day, windy, not deeply cold. The sky was host to a few billowy, fast-moving clouds. It was the kind of day that restores hope of light after a long, dark winter.
I began by driving through the haze and fumes that make Fairbanks and North Pole some of the worst polluted air of any city in the world. I passed the long fence of Eielson Air Force Base. I sped along the forested flats dotted with mailboxes and driveways where lift-kitted, four-wheel drive pickups covered in mud pointed toward dented trailers owned by people living out their version of the Alaska dream. I passed the too frequently flooded community of Salcha. Steered my way along the road’s bends and twists at Harding Lake before dropping down and alongside the slumbering Tanana River – now a flat expanse of white, littered with brown upended roots and tangles of spruce logs.
At a pullout, I pulled my little car up close to the river’s edge. I climbed out to stretch my body and give my dry eyes relief from defrosted air. The wind-driven air cut threw my shirt and pants. I stood for a few bracing moments observing the white peaks of the Alaska Range wobbling and shimmering in the distance like a long line of pearls under shallow water.
Energized, I climbed back into the car and read a short essay of John’s, called, “Readings From An Alaskan Journal.” This quote stood out, “Like most of us, I am a descendant of European immigrants, hardly yet at home on this continent. But I have nonetheless been trying all my life to understand what I have found, what I think I know.” The power of that line seemed to come as much from my formidable surroundings as from the page. It is a definitive statement for all writers. Even though I cannot yet count myself a published author, John’s words seemed to sum up what I’d been doing with paper and pen for so many years – trying to understand ‘what I have found and think I know.’
That day next to the sleeping Tanana, a small flag of hope flew in my thoughts. John was in this country a long time before his revelatory first book of poems. This trajectory of John’s publishing life was a long, lonely apprenticeship far from the centers of the literary establishment. In that crucible of solitude, he became well acquainted with his own personal and literary limitations. His Poem Of The Forgotten begins “I came to this place,// a young man green and lonely.// Well quit of the world” and ends with him waking “in the first snow of autumn, // filled with silence.” Most important, in these long, cold, deep silences, he began to hone his craft.
I’ll have more on Haines’ poetry from time to time.