Bright Darkness by Ken Letko



Bright Darkness by Ken Letko [Flowstone Press, 2017] $18


This culmination of a life’s work places Ken Letko squarely in the tradition of Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder. A master of enjambment, Letko chisels precise crystals of images that cascade down the page in a practical yet very wise exploration that gleans hope from loss. With good-natured humor, he confronts the setbacks in life and nature, to winnow from his experiences an underlying joy and winsome presence. His poetry comes from the great transcendental tradition of Thoreau and Whitman, that challenges conventional expectations to achieve a more humane vision. Consider this poem:




The thin tight

wall of a balloon

is attacked by air


pressure. There is

resistance but with

time air is always


allowed to sleep

through. Can you

picture the idea?


Maybe like roots’

growth filtering

through earth. Maybe


like time passing

through us instead of us

passing through time.


These enjambments break apart the relentless passage of time by splitting it with the breath of the poet: “air/pressure” and “time air” build to the metaphor of “roots’ / growth” that connects trees and humans through a “filtering,” so that by the closure, there is an enduring steadfastness to life in nature. I wish I had Ken Letko’s buoyant optimism, because it arises not from ignoring unpleasant truths, but by capturing, line by line, breath by breath, a thought process that liberates from despair, and thereby puts these poems in a tradition of healing wisdom.


The book also collects poems from his experiences in China.




Down from the Gobi

a yellow wind brings

dust in spring,


making people

cover their eyes

with their hands.


Mouths shut tight

people angle from

shelter to shelter.


After some rain

a morning fog

soothes the valley.


Sunbeams pull

corn and wheat

taller, acres


at a time

like April

in Ohio.


This struggle with the loess that fertilizes Chinese crops is dramatized through the effect upon the farmers themselves, creating a people who “cover their eyes” and keep “Mouths shut tight.” Once crops begin to rise, Ken Letko links China to Ohio, suggesting the struggle for food is as universal as the need for shelter. Indeed, many of the poems in this collection are concerned with how to obtain shelter that lasts, given the fires and devastation that now surround us. Those concerns come from Ken Letko’s own experiences abroad, and as a lookout on Red Mountain in the Siskiyou Range. There is a reassuring authenticity to these insights, earned from and reflecting on the essence of life.




the ocean is

flat at dawn


after curving around

the earth all night


they walk on white

sand and remain


rational enough to

keep from falling


in love they want

their hearts


to quiet down

for a while


phosphorous quits

glowing at daybreak


plankton float

and drift on


the horizon

is so far


they would be fools

to stop walking


In this broken stream of fused gasps, “in love they want” not to be irrational, not to lose “their hearts,” especially in a landscape whose “phosphorus quits/glowing at daybreak.” For Ken Letko, human survival is determined by an ability to adapt to the land itself, that becomes both threat and source of new life — ”plankton float/and drift on.” To transcend the horizon is a challenge for all nomads who “walk on white/ sand” and try to “keep from falling.” And yet, even though it is always an unattainable horizon, that is the condition of all wanderers like Ken Letko – “they would be foolish/to stop walking.”

Indeed. I wish him well on his continued journey, now that he has left us with so fine a collection of poems. It is truly a breathtaking culmination of work honestly lived and passed on – a true heritage that deserves a wide readership.


Dr. Mike

[November 23, 2017]