Moon, mountains and forest at night

Waymaking by Moonlight: New and Selected Poems by Bill Yake

Review by Mary Ellen Talley

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Empty Bowl Press | 187 pages | 2020

Waymaking by Moonlight: New and Selected Poems by Bill YakeBill Yake has spent years immersed in nature as a poet, traveler, essayist, photographer, and environmental scientist. In Yake’s seventh book, Waymaking by Moonlight: New and Selected Poems, his free verse maps a journey to contemplate and honor the natural world and the people he has known along the way.

Yake begins with two front-piece poems that set the tone of his collection. The first poem, “Waymaking by Moonlight,” traverses the physical world. “We work our worn way along shorelines.” Creatures emerge from the “flat dark” where “Voles, pack rats, / and wolves in concert—all leave their prints / in the pale dust.”

The second poem, “Tending Trail,” explores the “phrenology / of the land.” We are “curious and wanderers” and in our efforts to repair trails for future generations, we will be “leaving branch handles / intact to grasp.” This allusion to repair and future generations foreshadows ecopoetic concerns that are addressed throughout the book.

After Yake’s first two introductory poems, the collection is divided into nine sections that mix time and travels. Flecks, Hints, and Intuitions contains short poems, aphorisms, and haiku. The poem “inside out” claims “trees are our lungs turned inside out.” “Aphorisms” offers intellectual observations, such as “Poetry: salvation from the mundane.” Regarding science, “All is honored, nothing worshiped.”

Yake presents poems full of place, nature, and people in narrative free verse with Cohorts. “Son Out of a Long Absence” offers one of Yake’s commentaries about time: “I hooked my fist into the belly of each year.” Other pieces tell of family and colleagues as well as of a father who ages following a stroke.

Reverent and Irreverent Prayers takes us into biology, fungi, Haida tribal dances, racist atrocities, taxidermy, ravens, and wolves. A particularly lovely poem, “Praising the Fish,” honors rainbow trout, ending with the lines, “you are a towering splash of hunger, // our flourishing, transient shout.” Nearby poems often speak to one another. In “Saying Grace,” Yake closely observes how an eagle “squared her wings / to tread on rain” while eyeing fish prey in the water below. These poems stem from close observation and make the dangerous beauty of both predator and prey come alive.

Toward the end of the same section, the poem “Boundary of the Worlds (Xaayda Gwaay Yaay)” inspires with descriptive Haida story imagery that resounds aurally:

At the fringe of this world, at the lip of the tide
raise your eyes from sea to starfish
from sea asparagus to black lichen—then
higher yet—into the forest woven with cloud.
On this thin blade, an intertidal wave-whetted gap,
the Raven strutted and flew alternately, coming at last
to the horizon where he squeezed his mind through, then
pulled himself after. Think drumhead, sea sheen, skin
of the world plucked, thumped, and flexed.

World travel and landscapes become topical in Desert and Steppe Poems, offering lines that engage our eyes and ears. Yake uses parts of the linguistic universe as well as elements of the natural world in his poetry. “Into the Desert,” for example, acknowledges, “I have not yet learned the patience of stones. / Vowels endless as drought; consonants fundamental.”

Yake’s lines flow smooth as a meandering creek to the ear. Aural images of water and wind abound. Movement and dance also weave throughout his poems. For example, “Musicians draw out loud whirling notes. / Flutes tempt the desert bones to tremble, tremble, drum, and rise” in the poem “Bou Jeloud. Father of Skins.”

In Forest, Mountain, and Water Poems, Yake traverses the Pacific Northwest, his home. Philosophical observations about the animal and human world arise in the poem “Half the Forest is Night,” which speaks of predispositions to violence. Other lines offer opportunities to contemplate human behaviors:

Each life
a risk. The owl’s beak breaks into large, dark
minds. Squirrels’ incisors break into

the thrush’s equal eggs. Under the long
rains moss and lichen swell. Half
the forest is now water.

Yake observes closely in the section In Praise of Birds. There are herons of Australia, woodpeckers in the Sierras, a merlin in the Stillaguamish flats, frigatebirds over Mazatlán, and cassowary of New Guinea. Description intersects with crisp lyricism. In “Magpie,” she “holds tight to carrion / before licking her black talons / clean with a shrewd tongue.”

The Urban Mask poems move into contemplation of city landscapes, followed by the final sections Brambles and ThornsEcopolitical Poems and Mortality. So many of Yake’s prior poems convey knowledge of and respect for the natural world that these later poems that editorialize are persuasive. This harkens back to the second front-piece poem in the collection, “Tending Trail,” which alludes to repair of the natural world.

In the longer poem, “Letter to America—A Version in Which a Mirror Shatters,” originally published in’s Letter to America series, Yake uses extended lines and lists to depict and juxtapose aspects of a conflicted nation. Within the poem, we encounter crabapples and cousins, Motown and moonshots, highs and homelessness, Carnies and Kerouac, wildfires and wars. The poem offers nostalgia, concern, anger, and reflection. “But America, you were my everything: metaphor and fact.” A directive brings closure to the poem, “I who am you, beg you who am I—pull yourself, America, together.”

The poems in Waymaking by Moonlight resonate lyrically with hard truths that remind us of what we value. Bill Yake is a naturalist explorer poet who uses ecopoetics to merge his knowledge and experience with skilled appreciation for the music of words. This collection invites us to honor the natural world while delving widely into the works of a gifted poet.

Read poetry by Bill Yake appearing in one poem, three poems, three video poems, and Letter to America poem.



Mary Ellen TalleyMary Ellen Talley is a longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest and considers the ten essentials to be metaphorical de rigueur for getting along in life. Her book reviews appear online and in print journals such as Compulsive Reader, Asheville Poetry Review, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, and Empty Mirror. Her poems have appeared in many publications including, Raven Chronicles, Gyroscope, Literary Mama, and Banshee, as well as in multiple anthologies. Her chapbook, Postcards from the Lilac City, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2020.

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