icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon (Lithic Press, 2015), edited by Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa

Going Down Grand, the first full-length anthology of Grand Canyon poetry, gathers the voices of cowboys, explorers, river-runners, hikers, artists, geologists, rangers, and others whose words bear witness to this complex and magnificent place. For readers on the river, the trails, the rim, or beyond, the poems on these pages will make fine canyon company. Edited by Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa, Going Down Grand was nominated for a Colorado Book Award in 2016.

Here are several reviews:

Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon
Edited by Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa
Reviewed by Don Lago in Boatman’s Quarterly

The saying goes: People seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time declare it to be indescribable, and then they expend hundreds of words trying to describe it. Often not very well. Sometimes our best tribute to the canyon would be to be struck dumb by it. Poets are supposed to be best artists of words, but most Grand Canyon poetry has been either superficial or overblown or both at once. Most poets have viewed the canyon as tourists, viewed it as a distant visual spectacle, never gone down the trails or the river, never transmuted the scenery through breath and muscle, never been engulfed by the silence or the roar, the beauty and the heartache, never heard the canyon speaking with its own voices, but merely forced upon it lots of old purple literary habits.

Yet for decades now the canyon has been generating quite a bit of good poetry, generating it through the eyes and hearts, the rock-sore feet and wave-stressed arms of people who have gotten to know the canyon from the inside. This poetry has been published in widely scattered outlets, hard to find. At last, it’s been brought together into an anthology, and a very attractively designed one. This may be the first book of poetry in world history to be dimensioned to fit into an ammo can. It’s been brought together by two editors who have devoted decades to hiking and rafting the Grand and other canyons, who can spot from a mile away the difference between a condor and turkey vulture, a wave and a hole, an honest or bac canyon poem.

The editors ruled out Victorian-era poets whose style—O thy rhetoric—would seem archaic today, and offer mostly contemporary voices. There’s a few famous poets: Carl Sandburg, whose words are engraved on the walls of the park’s Visitor Center auditorium; and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Soviet dissident poet who filled stadiums in the 1960s. There’s well regarded southwestern voices: Mary Austin, Maynard Dixon, Michael Kabotie, Bruce Berger, Reg Saner, Margaret Randall. There’s members of the Grand Canyon community past and present: William W. Bass, Vaughan Short, Rebecca Lawton, Amil Quayle, Ann Weiler Walka, Jean Rukkila, Seth Muller. There’s a whole section on running the river, poems about Lava Falls, Crystal, Georgie, Powell, Glen and Bessie Hyde, Bass Camp, Blacktail, much more. There’s poems that bring out the spirit of hiking, geology, side canyons, the night, wildlife, sunsets, Native Americans, personal connections and disconnections, the magic of it all.

Going Down Grand: Poems From The Canyon
Edited by Peter Anderson & Rick Kempa
Reviewed By Jeff Donlan, Mountain Mail, Salida, CO

Recommending a book of poetry widely is a dicey thing. There will be many false hits. It’s like telling people to read the Bible: “If only you would see what I see …” But, if you’re not called, you’re not called. However, I’ve read a new book of poetry twice now, and it might be one of the more universally appealing collections I’ve seen.

The book is titled “Going Down Grand: poems from the canyon.” Note that I said a “new book of poetry” rather than a “book of new poetry.” Much of the poetry is from the last thirty years, but some is older, such as Mary Austin’s from 1926 and William Wallace Bass’s from 1909.

When the book arrived, I did a quick bit of rhapsodomancy, flipping randomly to pages, reading passages here and there. I said, “Oh,” wrinkling my nose; but I began at the beginning and oh was I wrong. Lesson learned. If you love the Grand Canyon as a hiker or a boater, you might really love this book. I peeked in the canyon once from the rim and so know it only from the experiences of others, and yet I was intrigued and moved by the collective effect of this book.

Poem after poem, these people—“cowboys, explorers, river-runners, hikers, artists, geologists, rangers, and others”—attempt to express the immensity and grandeur of the canyon, its unique beauty, and the overwhelming sense of how small and brief is the human experience on Earth. Each poem brings a different view and style to what are fundamentally the same experiences. Reading them is like slowly walking around a sculpture. Some approach the canyon from the scale of it, the depth, the silence, the colors; others from analogies to other experiences, from reflections prompted by the feeling of insignificance, from camaraderie and the connection with others over time. Just when I tired of the idea of the canyon as a wound or gash and was thinking maybe it’s more a revealing, in the manner of Michelangelo’s chisel, here comes a poem with that reflection.

One favorite is “Eating fruit at the Grand Canyon—a song to make death easy” by Diana Hume George. It takes several of these perspectives, beginning “Since this great hole in the earth is beyond / my comprehension and I am hungry, / I sit on the rim and eat fruit / the colors of the stone I see, / strawberries of iron cliffs, sagebrush melons …”
And we end at “a place so deep and bright / it has no needs, and we wonder / what we’re doing here on this fragment / of galactic dust, spinning, cradled, / awestruck, momentarily alive.”

There are some beautiful evocations of the silence. I can’t find the lines but the image and feeling remain of tourists leaning in towards the canyon by day but reflexively pulling back as dusk falls and the black silence of the dark canyon rises before them. One poem begins with a quote from John Muir: “The prudent keep silent.” But I’m glad these poets did not.

Quickly: The book is beautifully made by Lithic Press of Fruita, Colorado, and cleverly designed like a guidebook so that you could carry this on your next canyon trip. It is edited by Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa, a work of love, for sure. The poems sweep through beauty, history, geology, wildlife, people, personal experiences, and spiritual insights. Even the clever ones are self-effacing, as if no one can make this trip without humility.

Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon
Edited by Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa
Reviewed by John Yohe in Entropy Magazine

Going Down Grand is a beautiful-looking book, designed with a purpose: long and thin, not that thick, therefore not weighing much: perfect for slipping into a backpack pouch or a waterproof rafting canister. It contains poems about, and from, the Grand Canyon, to be enjoyed in the Canyon, though of course they can be enjoyed away from it too.

Most of the poems in Going Down Grand are contemporary, though some older ones are included, including a couple by ‘name’ writers like Carl Sandburg and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. One co-editor, Peter Anderson, is a southwest writer, and former river guide. He edited the great literary magazine Pilgrimage, perhaps not known on the coasts, but it should be. And full disclosure: I know the other co-editor, Rick Kempa. He was kind enough to include my essay “Holy Water” in his anthology of essays about the Grand Canyon, ON FOOT from Vishnu Temple Press.

Perhaps a warning: The poetry in Going Down Grand is very…sincere. You will not find any irony here. Nor any east coast academic stuff: No LANGUAGE poems, nor John Ashbury-esque sentences that lead nowhere. The desire of these poets is not just to play with language (though there is some of that) but to explore the lessons the Grand Canyon has to offer. In doing so, they trace their lineage from the Romantics, the individual in Nature (or, part of Nature?) on up through Emily Dickinson to Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver.

Speaking as someone who has experienced the Grand Canyon from the top and waaaay down in the bottom, what it inspires is, at the most, a feeling of oneness with Nature but, more generally, feelings of inadequacy. That is, awe. Which is what many of these poems try to capture. That can take many forms, from awe at the wildlife that surrounds one, to awe at the sense of Time (gotta be with a capital T here). The Canyon was around way before us hominids, and will be around long after we’ve killed ourselves off.

Still, me being me, I can’t help but wish for just a wee bit o’ irony, or at least some good old coyote-trickster irreverence, which is why my favorite of the four sections is “From The Water,” where the river rats weigh in. Here there are touches of humor, perhaps because you can carry more alcohol on a raft. So, for example, even the title of Terry Martin’s poem: “What You Think About Rafting Through The Grand Canyon On The Eighth Day Of Rain” kind of says it all. Though too, the humor can be in his details:

Carrying little, pockets empty, you think about
the world behind and its comforts—
hot water, clean clothes, dry beds—
of mornings slept through, food eaten without tasting,
the sleepwalking trance of inattention
that domesticity allows

Not all the poems are about the Romantic ‘I’ in Nature. Andrea Ross’ poem “Bessie’s Honeymoon” takes the point of view of Bessie Hyde, who spent her honeymoon with husband Glen rafting down the Colorado. They never came out, and their bodies were never found. Despite that somber note, there is a touch of humor here too:

Crystal Rapid exploded between boulders,
washing us through the river’s middle,
pebbles popping against the floor.
Glen pulled hard on the sweeps while I pushed:
this was more than the marriage-night—
shooting a rapid is an act of love.

That last line is both funny, and true, and serves as a good contrast to the danger, and to my eyes/ears/mind, the poems with these contrasts, are the more interesting, because that’s what an adventure in the Grand Canyon contains: contrasts, highs and lows, humor and grumpiness, joy and (like on the climb out) despair.

There are also native voices included, which could only be fitting—one a Hopi creation myth involving the Canyon ‘told’ by Albert Yava, to Harold Courlander. Though for yet another type of contrast, Navaho Laura Tohe tells the story of her mother coming to the Canyon not as a tourist, but as a worker. A good reminder that the Grand Canyon isn’t just an adventure-destination for white folks, but a home, which has been appropriated:

The bus stops in front of the big hotel
where she later stripped and tightened the bed covers
after the tourists left.
And outside the Canyon stretched wide her arms
the way her dreams must have felt
back then,
wide and open,
so much space to be filled.

The editors and publisher make clear on the back-cover blurb that they consider this a book to be taken with one on a trip into (or down) the Canyon. If you’re one of those people who would choose to take a helicopter ride of the Canyon rather than get dirty or wet, this book isn’t for you (but then, you probably don’t read poetry anyways). Even folks that venture down below the Rims aren’t always poetry fans. In fact, readership of this book involves about three or four subsets of already small groups: hikers/rafters, readers in general, and readers of poetry. Make a Venn diagram out of them and the people who share all three interests will have found a good companion for their next trip. And, who knows, Going Down Grand may make some converts, convincing people to leave the scenic overlooks and explore, the Canyon, and thereby themselves.