Things that are true about Dexter Roberts: He taught English and philosophy at the University of Montana for four decades. He is a founder of UM's Wilderness Studies Program. He is tall and lanky. He lived for 30 years in a little cabin up Grant Creek, where he enjoyed the company of deer and bears and jays. He is a lifelong apprentice to Buddhist practice. In his college years, he played basketball for Colgate. Friend of Gary Snyder. Owner of cats. World traveler. Advocate, activist. Father and grandfather. Wonderer. Poet.
He is, too, now an old man, and one who would prefer that his first published book of poems arrive in the world without a lot of fuss. "He doesn't want to be out front, like something special," says Mark Gibbons, a Missoula poet and a friend of Roberts. "He just wants the world to be full of poetry, and he wants to be a part of it." So it is with only a small amount of fuss that I insist everyone read this small, beautiful, quiet book.
Imagine a World was published in late 2011 as part of the Montana Poets Series from FootHills Publishing. Roberts had been writing his whole life, and his hand-written poems lived in spiral notebooks and on scraps of paper, tucked away in drawers and baskets throughout his cabin. He had begun to gather the makings of a chapbook, but never moved toward publication. Finally, friends and fellow poetsRoger Dunsmore, Mark Gibbons, Tom Burch, Marylor Wilson, Karen Rice and Craig Czury, editor at FootHillsgathered to sort through the stacks of paper and, with Roberts's blessing and oversight, create a book.
The poetry world is better for their efforts. Roberts's poems are straightforward and insistent, observant and measured, the sort of poems that are refreshing in their directness. While many of these poems read simply, it's a simplicity that carries weight: Rather than playing with glitzy language, Roberts pares ideas or images down to their crux and invites the reader to see them for what they truly are. Clearly influenced by deep nature poets like Robinson Jeffers (to whom a section of the book is dedicated), Roberts calls for engagement with the natural world, wholly and believingly. These poems are riddled with nudges and gestures: He tells the reader "don't," tells the reader "forget," urges the reader to "look." Most importantly, Roberts wants the reader to sit up and take notice.
"Dexter is an American Buddhist poet," says Gibbons, "and he's also an 80-year-old man, which says a lot right there. Things have changed dramatically around him in the past 80 years. But he's also been at the forefront of understanding that the world needs to evolve in a direction other than this old capitalist machine." It's this vision for the possibility of a more holistic, just world that is the driving force throughout Roberts's work.
The book can be read as a series of instructions on how to live observantly and with compassion; yet instead of sounding didactic, as they could, these poems sound humble, everyday, even humorous. The piece titled "December 6, 2006" offers a perfect example:
at the noisy old cat
not removing her
from a plastic bottle
(she deserves this
as much as plants do)
or a nudge
under her feet
with a foot.
Stillness then, too.
Roberts isn't only interested in the daily lessons to be found in and around his cabin, however. He's equally passionate about issues the world over: injustice, environmental degradation, human rights. Rather than simply railing at the problems of the world, he grounds them in the recognizable; in a poem that references Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and America, he juxtaposes the carnage of bombed-out villages with the vision of a road-killed deer, allying the unfamiliar with the familiar and bringing humanity to both.
Like many poets, Roberts draws deeply on memory for inspiration. It's in these poems that a more personal side appears. In "Good News from the Long Past," he speaks to his son in Beijing:
I called him because I thought
of three big rainbow he landed
from a side channel
of the Bitterroot
when he was a small boy.
(I walked there, very slowly/yesterday.)
The poem is aware of its own restraint. It's about a father's memories of time spent with his son, about aging and about the passage of years. And while other poets may have felt compelled to expound on these themes, Roberts lets them rest lightly in the reader's mind; the act of remembering and time's inexorable pace become worthy subjects for meditation and reflection, all on their own.
There are moments of ringing clarity in these poems, during which the whole man, the whole wilderness-advocate-Buddhist-teacher-angry-yet-awestruck man, is visible:
No need to kneel.
But do that too
If you'd like,
To honor somebody
Then you'll notice
What is growing underfoot.
We would all do well to heed this advice, the words of a man who has made a life of observing and reflecting, getting angry, falling in love, catching fish, reading, teaching and meditating. "Imagine a world," he tells us, "in which all goes well... Imagine the works / to be done, / to move in that direction, / ourselves and generations to come." With Roberts's poems in print, in hand, it becomes a bit easier to envision.