Let’s face it: Writers have to write what they know, but what they know doesn’t always jibe with people’s expectations. For a lot of readers, the West is still a literary abstraction peopled with noble savages, erudite philosopher-ranchers, strong silent cowboys and goddamned horse whisperers. It is not what Pocatello, Idaho poet Bruce Embree wrote about in self-published books like Scum and A Feeling I Go Blind Trying to Keep. It is not drunk Indians sleeping it off behind the bar, not $2.36 bottles of mad dog, not pot busts or burning trash or this, from “Brains”:
My poor old ma had to help her girl friend
clean brains off the kitchen floor
after her mother shot herself
Embree never wrote poems about the West that a lot of people want to believe in because that wasn’t the West he knew. Even people who are vaguely aware of the dirt-poor and desperate West—if only because they think they glimpsed it once while driving past—might be surprised by the startling force and purity of the flinty poetry Embree wrote from the early ’70s onward. Scott Preston, a friend and former editor who sought Embree out after coming across his poetry in an otherwise staid Idaho literary journal, remembers a loner who knew only one way but struggled just the same to reconcile his writing with what he thought people wanted to read.
“The Slackwater Review was kind of Idaho’s version of [UM literary journal] CutBank,” Preston recalls, “full of poets heavily influenced by William Stafford and Richard Hugo. They did an ‘Idaho Renaissance’ issue in 1983, and Bruce had a poem in it. It was like this junkyard dog beauty show. There was nothing else even remotely close to what he was doing, and I was just like, God, who is this guy?”
Embree did most of his writing on a manual typewriter in a cabin behind his maternal grandmother’s house, periodically collecting his poems in a series of self-published typescripts photocopied and bound in paper folders with hand-lettered covers. Embree’s careful curatorship of his own work—which was published outside of Idaho exactly twice in his lifetime—is another of the things Preston remembers, and something that proved useful to him as unofficial literary executor of Embree’s estate. A new anthology, All Mine: New and Selected Poems by Bruce Embree, includes some 200 of his poems grouped chronologically by the self-published book each one originally appeared in, as well as several fine essays and reminisces by friends and family.
“I take great encouragement,” writes editor Harald Wyndham, whose Pocatello-based Blue Scarab Press published the volume, “from the writing of Bruce Embree, poet-in-spite-of-the-world. The fact that he would write and publish his books of poems, and would stand and deliver them to an audience of varied literary and academic practitioners, is constant testimony to me...of the human spirit that will not be destroyed by luck or circumstance. As far as literary heroes go, or anti-heroes if you prefer, Bruce Embree was as real as they come.”
In fact, it was more than luck or circumstance that eventually destroyed Embree. He survived innumerable lows—including the 1986 pot bust he refers to in several of the poems collected in All Mine—as well as highs that included a successful marriage and the birth of an adoring daughter, Hannah, in 1985. Embree struggled with clinical depression for most of his adult life, finally putting a shotgun into his mouth in October 1996. Although he tried a number of soul-annihilating medications, says Preston, it was probably only writing that kept him alive toward the end.
“I don’t know if he gave up on the world,” reflects Preston, “so much as he just couldn’t fight it anymore. His stepfather referred to him as a great warrior at his funeral. The family expected him to commit suicide a long time before he did. I think we all did. That’s part of what was so amazing about watching him as a writer when he hit his hot streak.”
Embree once wrote that there were no winners anywhere near Pocatello, the town he affectionately referred to as “Poky.” Toward the end, says Preston, it was obvious that Embree, who seemed to want so badly to win just once, was losing, too.
“The last time I saw Bruce was when we gave a reading together in Boise,” he recalls. “This would have been about May of the year he killed himself. He was trying to get help and trying to figure out what was wrong, but the medications they had him on....he almost couldn’t function. The reading was really painful. He had almost an aggravated lithium tremor-thing going on, and he could barely talk.”
Exactly why Embree turned to writing, Preston says, must remain a mystery forever. But while he wrote, when he hit that hot streak, he accomplished something that few writers have before or since: a fragile equilibrium between two versions of the wide-open West.
“He was driven to produce,” says Preston. “And he produced really consistently, and, I think, truthfully. The West is this forbidding, frightening vastness that you’re trying to stand up in, but it’s also a haven. Thomas McGuane senses this in some of his characters, but you never really believe that Thomas McGuane has ever faced that kind of existential angst of really having the wide-open spaces show you down. It’s just a hobby in that sense, not a livelihood.
“Bruce had no other choice,” Preston concludes. “The writing that came along with his life was a record of that realization, of that wolf just outside the perimeter of the campfire. People don’t want to know that it’s there. They ignore it or try to transform it in their own writing, or if they do want to write about it, they’re doing it from a distance. Bruce lived those poems every day.”
Scott Preston will read from All Mine: New and Selected Poems by Bruce Embree Friday, May 30, 7 p.m., at Shakespeare & Co.