All kinds of books get written about the Pacific Northwest with the aim to further our understanding of this place.

Even for diehard Northwesterners, our corner of the world might seem a green enigma. As February drags on, we may even find ourselves wondering why we live here. 

Rather than resort to mere description, some writers and artists incarnate the Northwest in their bones; they represent unique prisms through which to view our world.

Here’s a list of five books — it could easily be 50 — that deliver the shock of the familiar.

 

“Making Certain It Goes On, The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo,” 1991. 

As one critic has written, reading Hugo is like following footsteps in Antarctica: You know someone has been there before you.

The kid from White Center found White Center wherever he went, and the “triggering towns” and landscapes he visited have never been the same: the Duwamish (“Midwestern in this heat”), the Skagit Valley (“neo-Holland”), Montana, the Olympic Peninsula, Italy, Scotland and other, often-neglected places.

Sure, Hugo’s poems could be repetitive, but when he was on, the World War II vet who regarded himself as a “wrong thing in a right world,” made us a gift of our world.

 

“The Raven Steals the Light,” 1984. 

With drawings by Bill Reid, stories by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst and a preface by Claude Levi-Strauss, this edition draws on 10 episodes from Haida mythology. Artistry, poetry and scholarship merge to bring these tales over into the English-speaking world through the voice of the storyteller. 

 

“Paul Horiuchi: East and West,” by Barbara Johns, 2008.

Perhaps no artist embodies Northwest complexities like Horiuchi, whose childhood home in Japan looked across the waters of Lake Kawaguchi to Mount Fuji. As a successful artist in Seattle, the house the artist built in Southeast Seattle looked across Lake Washington to Mount Rainier.

The man and artist had come full circle.

Horiuchi, a Roman Catholic convert, made collages on canvas as radiant and numinous as stained glass and caught the light in the darkness of this place. The Northwest is touched by kuroshio, the Japanese current; Basho plays better here than Robert Frost — this is our trans-Pacific heritage. 

John’s book delivers a compelling narrative of Horiuchi’s life with a generous selection of his art.

 

“Poems from Ish River Country,” by Robert Sund, 2004.

Sund was a poet of calligraphic strokes that will endure, like his revered Chinese and Japanese masters. He made a life for himself up on the north fork of the Skagit River near Fishtown in the 1970s and made art from his life.

Like Hugo, Sund could render, seemingly without trying, the extra dimensions of this place. Here he remembers Seattle: “Garbage cans/spill over the sidewalk at Tai Tung,/and the fat cook limps/back through the screen door smiling./ Down on the docks/they’re unloading a boatful of black-eyed halibut. A fisherman/seeing the moon on the wet deck/remembers Norway.”

 

“Sounds of the Inner Eye: John Cage, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves,” by Wulf Herzogenrath, Ray Kass, Andreas Kreul and Wesley Wehr, 2002.

A surreal confluence of three of the Northwest’s most significant artists, influenced by Eastern philosophies, triggered this colorfully illustrated book and reminds us of the artistic connections that have allowed us to regard our surroundings in new ways.