Ryler Dustin’s latest book of poetry, “Trailer Park Psalms,” is a slender volume of poems that speaks to readers with a quiet voice.
Dustin developed his skill as a poet and spoken word performer at the long-running Poetry Night open mic at Stuart’s Coffeehouse on the corner of Bellingham’s Bay and Holly streets, and went on to represent Seattle in the Individual World Poetry Slam. His voice is uniquely his own but calls to mind some of the great American and Pacific Northwest poets of previous generations.
These poems are restless and searching. Searching for the holy. Searching for meaning. (Image courtesy of Ryler Dustin)
“Bless our uncooked Northwest skins / ghost white, except for Ian’s,” he writes.
The book begins with a benediction, a blessing for the storyteller’s humble beginnings in Whatcom County — the corrugated tin and duct tape of the trailer park, the neighborhood kids with their quirks and secrets, the blackberries, nettles and Douglas fir that many PNW folks recognize as touchstones of their own childhood.
From there, the tome traces a spiritual and geographical search for respite or maybe release.
Locals will recognize the Bellingham landmarks mentioned in the poems: Northshore Road, Agate Bay, Whatcom Creek. That last one was the scene of a tragic accident that is recounted in the second poem. Certainly, it's the most powerful moment in the book. It evokes a sadness that shapes our interpretation of the rest of the poems.
Dustin writes: “If a boy’s palm cups to catch the whisper
Of flame, if he stands passing a butane lighter
Back and forth with his friend
It is to learn how beauty burns the fingers
How the forbidden holds inside it the holy.”
These poems are restless and searching. Searching for the holy. Searching for meaning. The speaker travels far from home, recounting to us his thoughts and experiences with a wistful voice.
Some poems take place in London, England and Bergen, Norway; others closer to home in Washington and Oregon towns, outside Henderson Books and “in the empty lot across from K-Mart.” The distant poems provide contrast to the local ones.
When I read “The night we met was pink gin, your grin / limbs lifting in fake fog,” I felt like I knew which bar in Bellingham that was. But the scene might well have taken place in a drinking establishment in London or Bergen instead.
There is a lexicon that is familiar to those of us who attended church as children. It’s a language of faith that is second nature, and feels comfortable on the tongue or in the pen. In Dustin’s poems, you can sense his awareness of the presence — and sometimes of the absence — of God.
“It is dangerous, on nights like this / to look for the Lord in his works,” he writes.
Dustin is a poet on a dangerous journey, searching for “the Lord,” or the truth, or a sign or a connection as he makes his way home. He currently resides in Bellingham and for that, we are grateful.
“Trailer Park Psalms” is available at Bellingham and Whatcom County libraries and independent bookstores. Ryler Dustin will be reading his poetry at 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17 at Village Books. Register in advance at villagebooks.com.
Neil McKay is the online experience coordinator for Whatcom County Library System, wcls.org.