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1250 Denny Way
Seattle, WA 98109
United States

Sierra Nelson

Sierra Nelson, "WHAT WAS HERE IS HERE," commissioned by ALL RISE

In March of 2014, ALL RISE invited Arne Pihl to create a poem for the project’s inauguration. His work, "Here" was displayed on panels surrounding the site. At the same time, we asked Sierra Nelson to begin work on a poem to close our project. Nelson's "WHAT WAS HERE IS HERE," a both personal and public reflection on memory and language, is installed as a sound piece in six sections at the perimeter of ALL RISE. The work was recorded with the assistance of Nat Evans, and includes Sierra's own voice as well as generous speakers of Russian, Greek, Swedish, Norwegian and Lushootseed.

Sierra Nelson is a Seattle-based poet, performer, installation artist, and teacher. Her books include chapbook In Case of Loss (Toadlily Press) and lyrical choose-your-own-adventure I Take Back the Sponge Cake (Rose Metal Press) made with visual artist Loren Erdrich and winner of NYU’s Washington Square Review Collaboration Award selected by Anne Carson. Her poems have appeared inside Seattle Metro buses and at the Seattle Aquarium, with Nordic runes on lava stones in Reykjavik, Iceland (debuting at SIM Gallery, remounted at The Project Room), checked out with keys from the lobby of the Bridge Motel (Motel Project), on the historic Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour, and in journals and anthologies such as Alive at the Center, Pink Thunder, Crazyhorse, Tin House, Pleiades, and Poetry Northwest. A MacDowell Colony Fellow and recipient of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture’s CityArtist Grant and the Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prize, Nelson is also co-founder of literary performance groups The Typing Explosion and Vis-a-Vis Society. For more info:


What Was Here is Here

by Sierra Nelson


I. [Greyhound Maintenance Station]

I said goodbye to her in 1998.

I’d shaved my head and she’d dyed her hair blonde the night before.

Wasn’t far from the Hurricane where we never ate a 12-egg omelet

but we thought about it, the circumstances under which we would.

She smoked then, wore a navy peacoat, hated the West Coast.

I was staying.

She was getting on a Greyhound bus to Providence, Rhode Island.

Was there any reason to be nostalgic about a bus terminal?

She would send me postcards from the road that would arrive weeks later.

Say she started to call me Boris on that long drive.

Rest stops, semis, the changing sameness of moving landscapes.

But that hadn’t happened yet.

We went to the place with the running greyhound mural

we’d driven past a million times on Denny.

Cinematic foreshadowing, only it was the wrong place:

some kind of warehouse for repair.

They told us where the station was. Not far. I half hoped

she’d miss her bus. More than half.

I’ve written this poem before and now I’m writing it again.

We’d stayed up all night.

It was early morning, scratched and gritty gray.

I didn’t even know yet my name was Boris.

A little girl in a red jacket

waved her whole body to someone else.

Where is our person through the tinted glass?

The bus is pulling away.


II. [Denny Regrade]

There was a mountain here.

By steam shovel and powerful sluicing, a mountain removed.

I hate saying goodbye.

If you resist the goodbye, the hill will be dug out around you.

Your home, precarious, on a steep sliver of mud,

100 feet up in the air.

Conveyor belts on a wooden galley remove the past around you,

dump it by dirt-loads into the bay.

When the task is complete, remove the conveyor too.

We’ve removed the view, but our mouths are wide open.

A mountain, like love, may be inconvenient.

Afterwards, leveled. Or some say, diminished.

It is easier to reach me now, blown open,

all the way down to the ocean.


III. [Discovery]

To be alive is to say goodbye.


IV. [Language]


čad kʷi dsyaʔyaʔ

[Tulalip Lushootseed: Where is my friend?]

Lushootseed, or Puget Sound Salish, is the Coast Salish language that is

traditionally spoken in the Seattle area. Several tribes call the Seattle area home,

including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie, Tulalip, and

Puyallup Nations—in addition to a diverse group of Native people from

throughout Washington, Alaska and the rest of North America.

People asked, what's your name? The frog answered wáq’waq’, and that was its name.

The crow became k’aʔk’aʔ, the seagull kiyúuqʷs.

t’áqa, salal; stəgʷád, salmonberry.

sčətxʷəd, black bear; stəbtabəl̕, grizzly.

Lushootseed has no simple goodbye.

tixˇixˇdubut, dəč’uʔ kʷi adxˇəč.

Take care of yourself, make yourself single-minded to avoid confusion.

* * *


The Cascade District was settled largely by Russians, Swedes, Norwegians, and


Это долгий путь от Аляски  

[Russian: It's a long way from Alaska]

Η εύρεση καλή τύχη. Σας περιμένει στο Αγίου Σπυρίδωνα.  

[Greek: Finding good fortune. See you at Saint Spiridon.]

Detta ljus är bekant, de långa sommardagarna, men ingen midnattssolen.

[Swedish: This light is familiar, the long days of summer, though no midnight sun.]

En svale gjør ingen sommer.

D'er inkje greidt aa gripa Aalen um Sporden.  

[Norwegian proverbs: One swallow does not make summer.  

You might as well try to hold an eel by the tail.]

* * *


English: To Settle

Are you an inhabitant or a settler?

A bird, startled, settled on a bough.

The place like a language settles in our heads.

Carry belongings, build nests, settle affairs.

Settle up: when you can't pay, you barter.

When you can't barter, you settle.

For less. For love. For generations.

Humans settle down to the task.

Clear trees, clear mountains,

carve the lake out for ships.

A language is unsettling.


V. [Andy the Wrestling Bear]

May 20, 1933. A humongous bear is spotted eating kippered herring from a fridge on a back



It all began with Mervin Barackman, middleweight wrestler, trying to make a name for himself

on the Pacific Northwest circuit in the 1920’s. 150-pound Barackman found a way to stand out:

brought a 300-pound bear on tour with him as his training partner—staging matches between

himself and the bruin, or challenging locals to take on either one of them.


His first wrestling bear was Billy; his second was Andy, raised from a cub. Andy toured the

nation with Barackman; he was a favorite mention in The Seattle Times sports section.


Then May 20, 1933, Andy freed his chain from its stake in Barackman’s yard. He wandered the

Cascade Neighborhood. What did he admire? The texture of the grasses across the yards. Fruit

trees? The freedom to look, to amble. To stand fully upright on hind legs. To lift one’s head to

full height. To meander, hungry. To move towards traffic, towards humans, or away.  

A woman screamed and called the police: Bear. On her porch. Eating kippered herring. Two

officers arrived on the scene. Officer Taylor saw Andy’s chain and pulled gently; Andy made a

swipe, just missing. Commotion. With luck, Barackman found them before things escalated

further. Took Andy home. The story made the paper. ("2 Policemen Bag Bear... ")


Andy grew even larger, a 360-pounder, and continued his wrestling career for a few more years.

May, 1933, his only escape.


VI. [Extractive Economy / Goodbye Laundry]

I have to say goodbye to her. Historic laundry district.  

Overall Laundry is gone. Supply Laundry remains in name.

We’ll never quite come clean, an endless supply of goodbye.

Scratched and gritty. Can she even see me?

City planners have slated us best for industrial use.

An extractive economy, our resources give out.

Mining, fishing, fur. She’s leaving for better prospects.

We work hard, but we are a light industry,

say the ghost trees from the forest that was here.

The mills that moved them ghosts now too.

And the geodesic domes of the homeless

that afforded a rest here once.

Surely we can rest in a park by the lake?

The laundry of old newspapers is hung up to dry.