November 2006


William O’Daly: Poet, Friend of Nature and Peace

I was raised in the San Fernando Valley when the westside suburb of Northridge was surrounded by horse ranches and orange groves. My imagination protected me from engaging the accelerated transformation taking place throughout the valley. Hiking, camping, and backpacking in the Southern Sierra offered refuge.

I attended the University of California at Santa Barbara to become better acquainted with the Pacific Ocean. While there I became committed to the principles of free speech and non-violent protest, and experienced first-hand the reactionary brutality of those in law enforcement who forgot what their country and they were supposed to stand for.

I became entranced by poets such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, W.S. Merwin, Denise Levertov, and socially committed Kenneth Rexroth who became a mentor.

I began writing poems and, at Rexroth’s behest, translating to enrich and deepen my practice as a young poet. Since those days, poetry and the life of concentric communities from the local to the international, became inextricably bound together.

In 1974, after cofounding Copper Canyon Press in Denver, Colorado, I moved to San Francisco and then to Modesto. Here, I worked as an almond harvester,  animal artificial-insemination technician,  landscaping crew worker, and a production manager for Gallo Wines Research Group. Acres of grapevines, fields of corn and tomatoes, the churning of seasonal canneries, the sometimes intense heat, nearby mountains and lakes, the issues of water and of family versus corporate farming developed a sense of rootedness in me, which entered my poetry and influenced significant poetic maturation. The impact of my Modesto experiences  and the Central Valley resonate to this day in my sensibility and poetry.

During those formative years I studied with Philip Levine who, like Rexroth, maintained that developing poets benefited from translating the poetry of other languages and cultures. It was at the Stanislaus County Library that I discovered Pablo Neruda’s “Aún”. Eight years later I published a bilingual edition of Neruda’s poem (Copper Canyon Press), titled “Still Another Day,” the first of what would eventually be a series of six translations of the Chilean Nobel laureate’s late and posthumous poetry.

 I co-authored a historical novel about the origins, dynamics, and horror of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution with the eminent Chinese writer, Han-ping Chin. And, in 2006, I was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship . The new edition of “Still Another Day” was nominated for a Quill Award in Poetry.

I am completing a manuscript of poems, writing essays, and serving as a director on the board of Poets Against War. A two-part essay, “A Winter Sun: Writing Against Torture,” is included in the Poets Against War Newsletter at

Ed. Note: Last month The Today Show ‘s Mike Leonard chose O'Daly to interview  during

the Quills Award ceremonies. As a fellow nominee, Mr. Leonard was far more interested in what drives poets and writers to do what they do than he was in the awards themselves; that was the real undercurrent story of the Quills. Leonard was just happy to be nominated, feeling that was the real "win," and he does not feel that, in our celebrity-driven culture, there is sufficient understanding of the passion to make, to create, to transform without much thought of tangible reward. He chose O'Daly to represent that view.

Oregon Coast: The Wave

We are one wave
in desire’s roar,
white hair caught upon the rocks—
we die, are born up, we sing
to the grave and endure in
the gull’s cry. We curl and
tumble on through the mist,
to meet this dazzling clarity:
body of spirit, belly of day,
our supple arteries tighten
in the struggle and in love—
and beyond the mountains
and rivers, new blood foams
from lethal young soldiers
scattered among the poppies,
or buried in ribbons, in neckties,
with lilies flanking the altar—
wave of bone that surrenders
to the long fingers and lips
of the moon—mortal, salty,
we curl and fall in a whisper
that forms a common border.
And in the thundering silence
between one heartbeat and the next,
we’re delivered from torpor and reef,
from circulars, bullets, honor,
our bodies powerful and aflame
in the ancient ache to live.

Let Sappho’s song guide us
beyond the wreck of nations.
Let the gates of heaven open.

The Fire

Sunlight spins a web
among young pines,
migratory ferns, red columbine,
over Rock Creek tumbling
from a cloud hidden peak
and down this mountainside
to fill the ocean; moss hangs
from the madrone like tails
of grazing horses that’ll rear up
and step into a final gallop
should the sparrows ignite.

Seven days of hiking
across switchback passes
that connect a chain of glacial lakes,
weary in our muscles and thought,
we step down rock
after granite rock,
into the body of summer
and a buzzing like memory
among Grass of Parnassus.
Water splashes below us, aluminum
cups jangle against the packs,
climbing in the descent, climbing
down, our breathing deepens—
trails fork or wash out,
scrabbling over scree
and fallen pine
to rejoin the creek.

And becoming dizzy, we stop
to drink from an eddy of light
sounding under the willows.
Dipping our cups, we enter
the calm just long enough
to catch a whisper,
we are breath,
exhalations who live
our full moment
and later as pigment, a layer
of red clay in the mountain.
Days ago, our names began
to read like trails
that never arrive—
a night wind seeped
through the tent walls
and collected in our mouths,
tasting of yarrow and smoke.

Our prayer is the sweat souring
creases of elbows and clothes,
these trembling limbs,
and later the silence
only questions sustain.

Higher up, stopping to cool
our blistered feet in the creek,
we both for no reason recalled
how in the fifth grade, when
the whole class had been bad,
the science teacher explained
that in the unlikely event
of an official accident
at an inland reactor, or
because we live in a state
of strategic importance,
our hormones could be
separated from matter.
Our bones, like skeletons
of horses or of history,
torn from our souls
and released as vapor.

The excesses of light recede,
and shadows grow
across the creek. In your hand,
the knife joins
dried fish and bread, bread and wild onion,
our laughter to the grain
of the ocean’s secret: you whisper
‘we are born again
when a seed splits inside us,’
in the conch where blood
sounds its salty praise
for what we make possible tonight.

A breeze freshens—we wake
to snowmelt and salt lingering
on the tongue, to the eyes of a deer
shining among the hemlock,
and a mile farther down, a nighthawk diving
at the edge of alder trees.

The trail levels and widens
under the highway, then evaporates
in cool sand. Gulls squabble
over a last scrap of rotten clam,
and we trudge past shallow pools,
slipping the packs from our backs
to kiss the ebbing sea.

Driftwood flares up, consumes
the borders of our bodies
in a widening circle of light,
where elbow to elbow we sit
with inner ears tuned to the cry
of burning cities, two losses held hostage
on the stem. Could clasped hands
preserve the common world,
this blue rose with petals
collapsed in prayer,
we might break the charge
of that final death, tumbling in
from the black sea. We listen
to the wind—horses freeze
midstride in the mind;
a black seed sleeps
in the unborn child’s name.

It’s happening at home, and on the northern peninsula—
neighbors who live on clearcut bluffs
turn out the lamps every night
in a wave. We have no country
to escape to, no way to reach
a neutral border: they say when we enter
the violet gates of heaven,
the body flames
in a marriage of spirit and action
so close to pure purpose
every word blossoms erotic.

Dark rocks glint in the moon’s tide,
an image of us burns
through my eyes, over the treetops
in the spine of a northerly.
You and I are lost in darkness,
lying under separate stars,
at the edge of firelight.

Hug Point

Tonight, in this little cabin
above a last gasp of creek
and the hereafter of ocean—
the day lives, a choreography
of gulls and light, ever changing,
the wave roaring upon dark wave,
continual and necessary. There,
here, I want to be for you a rock
anchored in sand, twisted wood,
the current you can never completely chart.
I want to be a part of the mystery you untie
in your tidal heart, in the awkward silence
with your sweet tongue, which speaks to me
in the dialect of unknowable birds,
surrounding me with their song,
a song I go on learning.
Teach me the spirit world.
Teach me
the language of love.

Wave on wave tumbles to the cliff—
the sea returns, creating itself
in the secret beating of the heart
against silence. The cliffs are abandon,
the waves, a kind of time, a whisper
we hear too clearly, without rest.
The rumbling is hunger, buried
intimacy, and silence my mute
want of you. Here, together at dusk,
peering from this insignificant cabin
outward, beyond the range of waves,
we watch pass like a migrating whale
who we are together, our blue love
rising in its song and descending
in light we’ve come to know only
in our passing, we who unravel
so easily and are so difficult
to decipher when we pray,
passing hand in hand
into immensity.