• Skylar Hamilton Burris

The Poetry of Paul J. Willis


"I’m told I am a nature writer," Paul J Willis says. "but what else is there to write about, really?" He's also told that he's "spiritual," but, he asks, "Aren’t we all?" He likes to consider "John Muir and John the Apostle" as "friends of mine—or warm acquaintances, anyway." A native of the Oregon Cascades, Paul holds a graduate degree in English from Washington State University and serves as a professor of British Renaissance Literature and Creative Writing at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He now has three full-length poetry collections to his name (Visiting Home, Rosing from the Dead, and Say This Prayer into the Past), but I was first introduced to his poetry when I published "Pear Lake Ski Hut" in Ancient Paths and when I received a chapbook called The Deep and Secret Color of Ice for review.

The Deep and Secret Color of Ice (Small Poetry Press, © 2003, ISBN 10891298-20-8) is a tastefully designed chapbook complete with color cover. The title (which the poet draws from the last line of his “Sierra Juniper”) was arresting, leading me to look forward to reading the 24 poems within. The unrhymed poems are rhythmic and melodic. The imagery does not generally seem affected (as it unfortunately does in much modern poetry), nor is it used as a substitute for substance. My favorite poems in this collection are “Silliman Creek,” “Apocalypse,” and “The Leper.”

I had the privilege of publishing two of Paul's poems in Issue 11 (Fall 2013) of Ancient Paths: "Emeritus" and "Pear Lake Ski Hut." I'd like to share the second of these poems with you below:

Pear Lake Ski Hut by Paul J. Willis

I had a vision one March day. It happened where we lay Asleep in the Sierra in a hut. The door was shut, But sunshine through the windows made a way.

It was new morning after storm; The sky was not yet warm. Six feet of snow lay sparkling under eaves, Where nothing grieves; A freshness and a farness found each form.

Outside the hut our ski tracks ran A brief and curving span Around a knoll and disappeared from sight— A snowy height— Then wandered back to where our trail began.

And though the door was closed, we stood Upon the threshold good And welcomed the bright morning on the knoll. The gray birds stole Among the needles of our little wood.

Behind us rose a matterhorn, A slope to gently warn The possibility of avalanche, But tree nor branch Gave clue nor sign of danger to be borne.

Far otherwise. For round the knoll On quick skis came the soul And body of a friend from out the grave. God may us save As she was saved that morning free and whole.

I saw her plucky smile, her eyes, As if the grisly guise Of death had melted like a glaze of ice. What could suffice More than her grace in coming in this wise?

But then behind her came another; It was my older brother In full possession of his hands and feet. With joy we greet Him too to make our few, both one and other.

Then came a friend who was estranged; Now glad and wholly changed, He skied up laughing to our fellowship, Not in the grip Of lust and lies in which he darkly ranged.

Then came another pair and more Of old friends to our door, All young and fresh, and free of tears and hurt— Not our desert, But what we had been granted, what in store.

And though this hut slept only ten, There was still room again For each who came; and there was room for all In that great hall, Those lovely living women and those men.

This was my vision. You can say It was not so, or lay Your wager on the odds it will not be. But as for me And for my stony hut, we wait that day.

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