Chris Dombrowski has traveled many of the most elegant, hidden, rugged waterways of Montana. He’s a husband, father, poet and fishing guide, and he’s one of the most generous men I know. If you have the grace of spending time with him, your mind and heart will be renewed, you’ll laugh a great deal, and every once in a while you’ll shake your head surprised at the joy he embodies. Some poets have a sense of brooding, some a sense of crazed interiority more like a grizzly sow on the move, others carry themselves with what I call elitist introversion… an aura that says, get out of my way I’ve got some important poems to write. Chris is none of these. Instead, he moves more like what he loves. He moves like water. His books of poems (By Cold Water and Earth Again) are miracles of wilderness, precision, and the essence of humane feeling. People tend to feel strong in his presence. He exudes gladness, and the will to walk with others into a transcendent unknown.
Body of Water is Chris Dombrowski’s new book, a nonfiction ode to beauty brimming with discovery, stunningly imagined and steeped in the profound. Traveling from the sharp waterways of Montana to the serene expanse of Bahamian waters, the book takes us on a journey into the depths of the human crucible: What are we? Who are we? What might we become? We are introduced to the wild wisdom and integral life of David Pinder, legend of bonefishing, a man whose influence extends from the narrative into the heart of the writer, and by extension finds its home in the heart of the reader. Below the surface of this real life story of quest and challenge, tenderness and purpose, Chris Dombrowski reaches the most ultimate, uncommon and elusive understandings of the inner life and life with others. Chris and I recently had a conversation about Body of Water, presented here for all who love water, poetry, and narratives that rise from that shared wilderness of our lives.
Shann Ray (SR): Here at the start, let’s cut right to the quick of it: water, fluidity, vulnerability, change… How does water influence your fatherhood, your life with beloved others, your poems?
Chris Dombrowski (CD): Water’s influence has been seminal. I’ve gravitated toward it since my early teens for “medicinal purposes”–and even now an evening dip in the cold creek that runs near our house can erase a frustrating day at the desk or on the oars. In that sense I suspect contact with water makes me tolerable. Many of our family rituals are centered around water, too–we can’t get near a new body of water for instance without looking for a place to swim or at least dunk, our daughter Molly often leading the charge no matter the temperature on the Coast. Of course I’ve also earned much of my living on the water for the better part of two decades, so there’s that complicating factor. Poetically speaking, rivers insist on movement, flux, change–as a beloved poet said, “you can’t step into the same river even once”–and trusting a poem’s inherent energy and musculature, the way I would trust the current to urge the boat downstream, is something I strive for.
SR: When you journeyed into unknown, largely unfamiliar water in the Bahamas what did you take with you from Montana’s waterways (spiritually or emotionally or in the heart), and what did you leave behind?
CD: Generally the Bahamian saltwater flats are a “soft place” when compared to the hard-charging rivers of western Montana, and give off a distinctly different energy. Whereas I might finish a float down the Blackfoot invigorated by the rapids and plunge pools, I often leave the flats utterly calmed, post-bonefish adrenaline notwithstanding. While navigating a mountain river, so many things (emergent mayflies, feeding swallows, rising trout) call out for our attention, while the flats (even though teeming with life) provide a quieter, more focalizing canvas in comparison. The ability to look at “nothing” for expanses of time, to embrace what the great Tom McGuane has called “the longest silence,” is paramount. As I mentioned earlier, too, I associate many Montana rivers with “work,” and to leave that role at the dock was enlightening and revivifying. In many ways I left behind a lot of ego and expectations, which can be quite burdensome, can they not?
SR: Nothing like shedding ego to keep us grounded. What mark has David Pinder left on your life?
CD: An immeasurable one, to be sure. You know, this fall I’ve been rereading one of my favorite books, Fool’s Crow, with our twelve-year-old son Luca. I love the book for many reasons–for starters, Welch was a giant of the human spirit, simply one of the best novelists we’ve had, and perhaps more trivially, he wrote the book about three blocks from where we live. But I’ve been thinking about the protagonist’s path, about how the selfless, purposed life is a rare subject in contemporary literature. Collum McCann’s Corrigan strikes me as a recent exception, and I’m sure half a dozen others will come to mind after I hit “send”–but what does David say in Harrison’s True North? “Modern man at the crossroads mostly just stayed at the crossroads.” That seems about par for my course, anyway. As I came to know David Pinder, though, I experienced a man of great humility whose life was inextricably linked to the landscape he loved and lived on. Since I aspired to but had largely failed to establish such a connection, he became a teacher, perhaps unwittingly. What do the best teachers do but hold a mirror up to their students? I took a good look, I guess, and wasn’t real happy with what I saw.
SR: Reminds me of the largely obscured but painfully true dictum, “You can’t write what lies beyond your own wisdom.” I think of Emily Dickinson‘s hard-won discernment, Whitman‘s, Tolstoy‘s, Elliott’s Middlemarch. How did you craft Body of Water into such a complex and elegant work of art? The book is a radiant creative nonfiction sculpture, a deep poem, a body to be embraced, a narrative of transcendent power–give us some of your process in arriving, as a poet, as an artist, at a place of such gravity.
CD: Thanks, Shann. I’m humbled to hear you say that. It’s fun to look at the tall stack of drafts in the closet, but the word “craft” seems too forgiving. I worked on the book for several years, taking summers off to guide, and saw the narrative through both expansive and contractive modes. The expansive–the research, which took me often to the Bahamas, the gathering of old narratives, following the connective tissue–was probably the more exciting of the two. (I’m sure you experienced the sensation when writing American Copper, that period of “magical thinking” where everything seems to bristle with connection.) As a poet, though, I built the early drafts very associatively, and it took some heavy editorial lifting from friends and the fine folks at Milkweed to get the overall story moving in the proper direction. At the core of the book, of course, is David Pinder’s rarified existence–his tale is the jewel, if you will; the work came in giving his story context, ample surroundings, then getting out of the way.
SR: So true, the way deep attention holds us to the vessel of craft until a certain beauty and depth begin to be revealed. I’ve been thinking of your life that is so often surrounded by mountains, embedded in water. How silence, and togetherness, are interwoven in your life and work. What are three tips from your trove of secrets on fishing Montana’s great wilderness: 1 practical, 1 for the body, and 1 for the soul.
CD: 1) The farther one can walk off the beaten path, the better. After two decades of discovery, I’m still finding new watery cathedrals in Montana’s wilds, and they’re never noted in any guidebook, on any fly-shop’s report. What’s the Melville line? “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” Solvitur ambulando, to be sure.
2) Once exhausted and famished, don’t let the catch-and-release-police ruin all of the fun; a fresh brook trout fried in butter, shallots, and sage, finished with lemon, cracked pepper, and salt, is a rite of summer each body deserves to relish.
3) As the poet Melissa Kwasny taught me, “not what, but who is the Earth?” The angler’s line is one of connection, both practical and metaphorical, the latter linking us occasionally with with this aforementioned “who”? What a gift, these waters! What small emblems of my gratitude, these gaudy flies I cast!
SR: Thanks, Chris! Finally, I’m inspired by your relationship to independent bookstores and booksellers throughout the Northwest to Montana and beyond. You hold them in such high regard, and with real gratitude. Tell us about your connection to independent bookstores and the champions of books, independent booksellers.
CD: Where would we be without them?! I can think of only two members of our community who are remotely as vital to our health: our wine shop stewards and our butcher. Here in Missoula we’re blessed with two great independent bookstores in Fact and Fiction (Barbara Theroux will probably run successfully for mayor when she retires) and Shakespeare and Co. I recall during my early twenties reading–at a Bozeman’s Country Bookshelf if I recall correctly–Jean Rhys’ notion that “all of writing is a huge lake…All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters.” The wonderful indies across the Northwest generously house that lake for us, and we owe them our deep gratitude and patronage.