Friday, November 13, 2009



After September I stopped killing the soft moths that fluttered silently through the house. They could have my sweaters, they could lay their eggs in my wool shirts, even the blue sweater John liked best. There were brown smears on the wall from moths I’d crushed on their way to the light that dazzled and drew them. I left the stains to remind myself that they had lived once like me, were hungry and fed at the light, seeking warmth.

This morning I find one dead in my cup, wings folded shut as if in prayer. I don’t know where they come from, these moths. At night as I read their soft shadows move across the sour yellow light of a dim lamp, a crooked lampshade, a pile of mail torn open and forgotten.

I remember stagnant August, a hot tent and ants. We’d camped near Timothy Meadows in the Chiwaukum Mountains under a sky heavy with rain to fall, the ponderosa pines scarcely breathing. The grass held still like grass in a painting. We pitched our tents in a hurry to beat the rain – we could smell it coming. It smelled like an old road, it felt like something was going to happen.

We finished as the first quarter-sized drops of rain fell, as the trees shuddered like dancers raising their arms. We ran to our tents and I discovered I’d pitched the tent on an ant hill. Hundreds of ants were going about their business on the orange fabric of the Eureka – big, fat black ants with red heads, following the unwritten code of their genetic memory, onward in a blind path that did not deviate for such a minor obstacle as a wedge of orange fabric in the grass but simply crossed over it in their stubborn faith they would find what they sought, what pulled them through the grass but I did not think of that as I crushed them, killing as many as I could until my hands were covered with their substance like a thick jam, until I was sickened at this mindless genocide and I stopped as violently as I started, gently brushed the rest of them into the grass and crawled inside the tent, wanting to weep for the sudden sharp grief that made my throat ache with unshed tears as I lie in the tent waiting for rain.

(From a creative writing class, early 1990s)


Stephan (A work in progress)

My whole life has been a rushing, a hurrying, a sort of careening. Friends stand by, astonished and perplexed. When I stop careening, it’s as if a bell had stopped clanging that had been ringing for a long time, the silence huge and strange.

Stephan once dreamed of me as a truck out of control without brakes on a downhill grade, careless, crashing into smaller vehicles on the way, damaging, hurting, blind, never looking back at the damage I caused.

It would seem I attach too much importance to my very existence; on the contrary I do not believe I am important at all, perhaps that is why I have floundered and flailed about the way I have done. I knew I was no one and that kind of knowledge is unbearable. I clawed at the eyes of the universe, I raged against obstacles of any kind, I begged other people to define me, to give me eyes and a name.

(Journals, early 1980s)


Stephan (A work in progress)

Our favorite journey was to the mountains, to a place called Mount Pilchuck State Park, not far from a ghost town called Monte Cristo. We tried to get to Monte Cristo more than once but the road would either be closed or the weather forbidding.

Stephan died unexpectedly in a car wreck on the West Seattle bridge and when I finally got to Monte Cristo I was driven by someone else. Twice I went to Monte Cristo with other lovers and once with a woman friend, a grizzled philosopher of a woman named Jean who drove a yellow truck and looked for precious stones.

Each time I went to Monte Cristo I tried to find Stephan again, as if he’d be there waiting in the blue shadows of the foothills, waiting for me find him for he was always ahead of me, looking back over his shoulder, waiting for me to catch up.

Once I dreamed we were climbing a trail at twilight and that I couldn’t keep up; he had to stop and wait and this he did with infinite love and patience and that was the way we were in real life, Stephan way out ahead of me, knowing everything, me gasping, scrambling and falling over loose stones.

I’m still not sure where we were trying to get to – perhaps it wasn’t any place at all but I felt we were there when we flew kites or when we drank coffee from the old blue thermos in the mountains that day he pissed my name in the snow. Back in the city, back in the cars we backtracked, we forgot what we knew and fought and hurt each other well.

Now alone in this city Stephan’s kites fill my walls. I would be afraid to fly them now, I am afraid I would damage them. Only Stephan could repair them, know how to fix things when they were broken. Anything that can be broken can be repaired, he said once during the ravages of an argument. As we argued he quietly and efficiently repaired my broken key ring. When he handed me the key ring he handed it to me as if he were handing me peace but I couldn’t accept it. I wasn’t through destroying.

Stephan often gave me things I wasn’t ready for. He must have glimpsed a part of me that hadn’t yet emerged, that lay half-formed, undeveloped, blanketed by resentment and fear.

NOTE: This was written in the early 1980s after I had stopped drinking and found my way to the mountains.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Vesper Peak

Vesper Peak (revised September 7, 2009)

The trail to the mountains
Begins in the heart
Where wild paths tangle
And marriages

Birds we cannot see
In the shadows
Pikas run across
The rocks
Beneath a cedar
That has withstood a thousand storms

The trail gets worse each year
The crumbling bridge
Now missing planks,
Rotten around the edges

A slimy glaze of leaves
And darkness
Coats the first half mile
Weaves through
Trees and vegetation
That never see the sun

Each year
The footlog
Over the Stillaguamish
More treacherous
Than the year before

The route
Through the valley
Is cairned anew
Each year
You cannot see Headlee Pass
Until you work
Your way up the valley

Thus I was fooled by a liar’s path
Marked with a cairn
Off route
Leading to black slabs
And a lunatic path
That died in brush and ancient snow

But the mountains gave
Me back again
To meet others
On the trail

Let’s meet at the lake,
Someone says

Someone shouts below
The switchbacks
If I don’t get there
Go on without me

We climb together
And we break apart
But everyone gets there

Some of the climbers are fast
Climbing the golden slabs
Reading the alphabet of footholds
With their feet
Others are slower
But not defeated by bad knees
Or age

Though we take different
Paths we arrive
At the same place
To gather on the summit

Copper Lake
Lies like a legend below
A scrawl in the summer register
Says you were there
A year ago

We try to keep the summer
And hold it still
But it is September after all
And pikas are scurrying
Across the broken slopes
Of Sperry Peak

Does anyone see
Those fragile harebells
Clinging to the cliff

Does anyone see
The last stand of gentians
Against the fading light

But we must hurry now
To beat the dark
And cannot linger to
Taste the cold, sweet berries
Along the trail

We must follow the path
Past the dark mirror
Of the pond
That earlier clasped the sun
And cross the river
Once more
Armed against the night
With feeble flashlights
And corny jokes,
Tired but laughing
All the way back

Karen Sykes (Waring)

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Old House

The Old House

There’s not much to say about the old house where I spent many happy years of my childhood except that it looks like a crime scene. For reasons too complex to address the house has been destroyed by time, vandals and neglect. Picking through First Editions now white with mold, scattered papers on the floor that could be anything including tax returns, poems or paintings there was little to save.

Dingy fluttering curtains hang limply against windows held together seemingly by cobwebs. Blackened lumps of indefinable objects lie in a kitchen sink, the bathroom toilet a scene fit for a Stephan King novel.

Grotesque renderings of mold and mildew spatter the whole place like Jackson Pollock gone mad. A fireplace built by hand looks like it was bombed. Boxes filled with rotting books once meant for rescue are scattered throughout a living room where nothing lives but mice, spiders and viral monstrosities.

The beds upstairs where children were conceived sag and lean; burnt-out candles and filthy sleeping bags hint that indigent people found life bearable here a while. No one knows when the vandals came or when they will return. Sunlight still filters in through the spider-web clogged windows and falls in wan strips upon the ruined debris. A forgotten pair of mold-splattered white pumps sits on a warped dresser; a cracked door leads to a closet so dark we don’t venture in.

Outside, flowers still bloom in an abandoned garden, a stream still meanders into a bay now mostly filled in with silt. Next to the property a CEO has built a summerhouse fit for royalty. A fence clogged with blackberries and vegetation gone mad separates the properties. A maple split by lightning or disease threatens to fall most likely on the summerhouse. No one knows how this scenario will end.

What is there to say? Whether it is outrage or grief no words can describe the grotesque shape of the ruined piano where my hands first stuttered across a keyboard fit for a Beethoven once upon a time, no words can bring back the courage of those who once lived here in health. A family who long ago survived the first sweep of swine flu at the turn of a century, who produced a family of misfits, alcoholics and artists, who lived on the land when it was still wild, long before rich people arrived and circled a quiet bay where Indian canoes once graced the quiet, pure waters of Hood Canal.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Monte Cristo Musings

Monte Cristo Memory (written years ago)

A small item in the local newspaper had major significance some months ago. The Lodge at Monte Cristo had burnt to the ground. Undoubtedly arson. Or carelessness. Ten sentences reduced Monte Cristo to rubble and somewhere out in the world, some pallid, feverish man with faded eyes was sitting in the back booth of a bar playing with matches, feeling at last that he has achieved significance. At least, I am almost certain it was such a man or perhaps a group of clammy-palmed boys high on booze or drugs or perhaps it was even the group of sinister men I saw rolling down an old dirt road in a car the color of blood stains.

News of the fire kept me away for a while. I couldn’t bear the thought of walking to the end of the road and seeing the place leveled. I had known happiness at Monte Cristo and shared that happiness with others. I still have the green T-shirt I bought there on my first visit as a tourist that says “Monte Cristo” in yellow letters. The only other shirt I have with words on it is one a friend gave me when I stopped drinking that reads, “Blue Moon Tavern.” That, of course, is another story and here, not relevant.

What comes to mind when I remember Monte Cristo is the way the Lodge looked at night. One night in particular, I couldn’t sleep and stood outside the cabin we had rented, looking up toward the stars as if the stars had a message for me. I believed in messages in those days. I thought if I looked long enough I would find the words that could change my life.

The night was very dark and the stars were very bright. The Lodge was lit up from within and JR, caretaker of the Lodge, was silhouetted against a warm, yellow window writing in his journal. It was the only light in the world. If I were high on acid, I could easily see JR as God, sitting in the light at the center of the world, keeping the darkness at bay. Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness, they say. JR did it with kerosene lanterns. JR made light in a dark world. JR also kept the water running, the generator working, made sure there were cracked but usable plates in the rented cabins. He’d turned one of the buildings into a free school and at one time had a few pupils.

The Lodge was overrun with children, animals and tourists rattling maps and asking the same questions over and over “How far is Sunday Falls?” “Is there really gold here?” but JR kept a revolver in his desk drawer. There’d been trouble in the past and probably would be again. Drunks from Granite Falls would come in sometimes late at night looking for trouble. This was before the road washed out, of course. After the road was closed to vehicles most of the drunks stayed in Granite Falls.

This particular night I stood outside the Lodge and felt the warm peace within and JR’s gentle head outlined against the light. How had he achieved it? What tools had he used to find such peace? What did he have to leave behind to stay in Monte Cristo? How high the price he had to pay? What was I doing wrong that I had to keep leaving the mountains and returning to the city?

That night the Lodge looked like a perfect little world, running flawlessly through the senseless machinery of Time. I wanted in but JR was the guardian of that world and he wouldn’t just let anyone in. He knew the password but wasn’t talking. I stood outside the Lodge until I got cold enough to return to the cabin. The light was still burning in the Lodge. It still burns in my mind.


A more recent poem


So what if

We dreamed of high, green hills

With a view

And Tibetan flags

Floating on the sea

Does it matter

If we could not see

The face of the man

At the top of the hill

Who cares if the trails

Were muddy and steep

You said it was the greenest grass

You ever saw

Don’t you wonder

How we managed to climb

So high when we were so broken

Like children

Struck by cars

While at play

Karen Waring today

Well, maybe not quite today. Two years ago. Add 5 pounds and gray hair.

Karen Waring in the late 1960s

Well, I've changed. Older, of course. Back in those days I wore nothing but high heels, smoked 2-3 packs of cigarettes a day and drank a lot. I also wrote a lot of poetry.

Now the poetry is harder to get at - it's still festering but hard to reach. I believe it will come back though the focus has changed. Taverns have been replaced by mountains for one thing. There have been marriages and there have been deaths. I never thought I'd live to be this old. I hope I can still say that 20 years from now.

In the meantime, I wait for the poetry to return.

Two poems

A poem for For J.H.

What is left
The building you
Lived in
About to be torn down
Where once I sat on the edge
Of your bed and you
Carried in a platter of fruit
As if you meant to stay,

I watched your backpack grow,
Bulging with
Orchards where you’d pick
Fruit in the spring,
Groaning with the weight
Of long highways that lead to
The mountains and back down
To some house you are
Building in the valley, some
Horse you are earnestly riding
Toward some gathering storm,
Some woman waiting
In an all-night café.

I want to be free, you said,
And you are. You are as free
As what you carry. Those mountains
Will be crossed, the pack adjusted
To your shoulders I used to
Touch those mornings when summer’s
Shadows lay on your face
Like leaves before they fall.

Karen Waring

Duwamish Between Seasons

We travel away from the world. Summer
Storms have turned the river brown. Only
The river moves through the valley; the
Barns die, the people have gone to the city.

We move at different speeds. Jean ambles,
Looks for mushrooms, can’t remember where she
Parked the truck. We stop at the bridge to tell
What we saw.

There’s a man down there who doesn’t know
How to fish, Jean says, the water’s wrong.

Summer rises from the hot grass like a girl
In an old dress. The shadow of death slips over
The hills like wine spilled across a table.

Death is very, very quiet; a rattle of crickets
In the hot grass, it’s going to rain any moment.

We move down the valley ahead of the shadow
And eat our lunch slow. We travel all day in a
Yellow truck, followed by thunder.

Karen Waring

Wednesday, May 6, 2009



It is little consolation
That dinosaurs brushed by them
In ancient starlight

There is no way to kill them,
Devils guts, they are called

Nothing halts their advance;
Not even poison

At night I hear them
Breathing under the house
In the morning the spiders come
Sewing the weeds together
With dew

Yet I cannot help but envy
Their fierce determination to live
Even when not wanted,
Not like us
That can sicken from love

They will survive us all
After cities fall
And the sun is broken

They will survive
In feeble light or
Broken asphalt or
Beside silver streams

No use to say
This is not the garden I wanted:
That I wanted poppies to
Dance in the yard like gypsies
Or that I wanted to run to you
Like I did that day in the cold mountains
When you wrapped me in your warm
Shirt and said “forever”.

Karen (Waring) Sykes

Karen Waring Lives - Poetry Then and Now

I used to be Karen Waring. I am, of course, still Karen Waring though my name has legally changed from Waring to Sykes.

When I was in school (1960) our creative writing teacher (a beatnik!) brought in a portable phonograph (that's what they were called then) said we were to "listen". She put a record onto the turntable. We sat still, never knowing what to expect from her.

The voice of Dylan Thomas filled the room. I don't know about the other students in the class but I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck and chills ran up and down my spine. The words and the tone Thomas used to present his words stirred a hunger and a yearning within me that nothing has ever been able to satisfy. The closest I came to being able to "feed" this yearning was to become a poet myself.

And so I did.

As Karen Waring I fed the hunger through reading, writing, publishing and giving readings at various bookstores in Seattle, Washington. Thanks to Charles Potts (Litmus Press) and Douglas Blazek (Open Skull Press) my poems found their way to the page in the late 1960s through the 1970s. From the 1960s until 1979 I lived the life of a poet and you can take that any way you want to.

I changed, my writing changed. I spent the 1960s/70s in bars. Today I spend my time in the mountains.

But the hunger to read and write remains. I am still hungry for words. The words of other poets and finding my own words again. I still get chills up and down my spine when I read poetry. If you don't get chills up and down your spine you're probably not a poet.

What now? Time will tell but in the meantime I'll share my poems, old and new.

Karen Waring/Karen Sykes