George Ellison, naturalist, re-emerges as poet
by Rob Neufeld
George Ellison, Bryson City naturalist and journalist, has created an outlet for song in his new book, “Permanent Camp: Poems, Narratives and Renderings from the Great Smokies.”
His wife and lifelong collaborator, illustrator Elizabeth Ellison, bursts out in color on many pages. Her contribution is also a treasure trove.
Ellison has returned to poetry, after a forty-year excursion in prose, because, he says, “I needed the immersion that writing verse requires. And I needed the elbow room—a medium that would allow me to intergrade verse with narrative and…create rhythms that say as much or more than words.”
The Ellisons present their new book at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, Friday.
In style, Ellison follows the lead of modernist poets, who found ways to shift from one form of expression to another, depending on the reflection.
“‘And so,’ I say,” Ellison begins his book, quoting himself and Elizabeth at the founding of their “permanent camp” on the edge of the Smokies in 1976. “Maybe this is what it’s come down to.” He waves toward Noland Ridge, balancing a “tin cup of Beam” in his other hand.
The Ellisons’ “pretty dream” was that one day they’ll disappear further into nature.
The following poem, “By My Window,” moves the reader from the window to a creek to the creek’s source, and then into observations that fill a very long line that requires meditational breathing.
“The creek that arises far upstream within what/ is now park land from a hubcap-sized swatch of pebbly/ dark-stained seepage tucked in just below that dense grove/ of shortleaf pine and boulders where you can sit back out/ of the wind that so often blows and consider the rhythmic/ repetition of nearby clearly defined ridges…”
Some poems talk to themselves.
In “Composition Song,” Ellison scans his habitat; describes his writing book; interjects bird-song; thinks about an unnamed spirit-friend; and celebrates new beginnings, for instance, “the soft glow of just one pendant lily.”
The heart of Ellison’s work is contemplation as mystical as William Blake’s—“to see a World in a Grain of Sand…Eternity in an Hour.”
“Gravity,” Ellison notes in his poem, “Gravity Flow,” “flows slowly through all things.”
“At the tail of the basin,” he observes about his cove, “cupping ridges flex and/ constrict like pelvic bones.”
“And if the moon or stars or both/ are sufficient,” he croons, “the sweet arc glints…/a sibilant string of upward yearning/ light that always turns and/ becomes downward/ bearing.” (Ellipsis is Ellison’s.)
At other times, Ellison—literary child of Horace Kephart as well as Thoreau—engages in yawp.
“‘What Do You Do?’ She Asked” is the title of one poem, the first line of which responds, “Besides drinking?”
The speaker tells about listening to sports talk and “Outlaw Ray-dee-o,” and Billy Joe Shaver singing “When I Get My Wings.” And he figures if Billy Joe could fly away singing “into Heaven like the great speckled bird,” then “there’s hope for almost anybody.”
It all comes together
With Ellison’s return to poetry, he creates an integrated persona for himself that allows him to include many voices and compose a philosophy.
At the start of Ellison’s career, he and Elizabeth had worked for about 20 years with the Cherokee, organizing youth activities, participating in ceremonies, locating and documenting sacred sites, and researching James Mooney’s “History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees.”
Some of the “renderings” in his new book are translations of Cherokee formulas, rendered from others’ translations.
The introductory poem to this section, “Masters of Enchantment,” is close to prose, explaining how “the Cherokee wizards” had worked. The following sacred poems address a spirit, “Listen!”—and “Now!/ Look at me…talk with me…no apartness.”
They are followed by prose notes: “The numbers four and seven are preeminent in Cherokee numerology. Accordingly, the sacred formulas were usually composed in stanzas of either four or seven lines.”
The idea of poetry as ritual practice is an ancient one.
With his tenth book, Ellison has established an important place for himself in our literature by seeking exactly what he wanted—a romantic existence in nature, with a Cherokee sense of balance and a Buddhist’s simplicity-seeking stillness.
Permanent Camp: Poems, Narratives and Renderings from the Great Smokies by George Ellison with artwork by Elizabeth Ellison (History Press trade paper, 2012, 160 pages, $21.99).
Elizabeth and George Ellison launch their book, “Permanent Camp,” at City Lights Bookstore, 3 E. Jackson St., Sylva, 6:30 p.m., Friday (586-9499).
They also present their book at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 7 p.m., July 13 (254-6734).