Keeping a Fern Alive in the High Plains

I’m guessing the last thing Custer saw
wasn’t the pied pony dead,
or the infecting iron of the arrow
looping through the air,
the leather of a cartridge belt,
dropped when the man dropped,
but the colorless grass of that knoll in Montana.
It is hard somehow not to blame
the ground for the sky.

Against reason I hang Boston ferns
in the corners of the living room,
and for several weeks, over-fertilized,
still lush for nursery customers,
they pop like vegetable fireworks.

And still for weeks against reason
I take them out to the porch when they pale,
water them again, talk sweetly,
sing them songs of the Queen Charlottes
and Scapa Flow lullabies
when they go,

and think ruefully, comically,
how nothing survives the high plains —
when of course nothing survives
the channel and the undercliff.
We just die wetter on the coast.

Or wonder,
when I put another one out with the trash,
if they dreamed, still damp,
in their dark green potted plastic,
of the shortgrass prairie and the chaparral,
if they were tempted,
like the sibyl suspended in a glass cage,
or the boy in the bubble,
to exit, to open the door,
to say the hell with it,
to hell with all our circumstances
and sentences,
I’m going anyway.

Persistence Hunting

Everything I know I learned in the wild.

Find water first.
In the heat, find shade.
Wake early.
Eat late.
Take the high ground
and be quiet about it.
When attacked,
fight tooth and claw.
Wear your skin,
your beautiful skin, unknowing,
and when the sky turns
black as your eyes and the stars
arrange themselves in your image,
Leave that counterfeit behind.

but failing that
lie down, sleep,
and in your other dreams,
through the creeping shade,
chase self-pity til it falls.
They call it persistence hunting:
chase it running until it falls,
collapses, withers on the bone.

Lie down now and sleep.
The cold will take you.
These things were never meant to last.

Burrow Poem

They say the ermine will kill
even when it isn’t hungry,
slipping through dry corn
like a wisp, a flicker of light
from a passing car, and then quick
at the back of the neck.
The local mastiffs stay in the barn.

And they say the ermine makes its home
sometimes in the den of its prey,
jealous of the memory
of the poor beast’s comfort,
decorating the place
with the skin and fur
of its targets.

But it may be misunderstood.
It’s in a state of perpetual
metamorphosis, after all,
and over the years my words, too,
have changed color in the snow,
marked by cinders from railyard fires.
They’ve also rubbed their teeth sharp,
but against the strop of better writers.
So now I send them out in the dark.

When they don’t come back
I imagine them warm
in the burrows of skulls,
shuffling insomniac
to the mouth of the den,
the arctic night
dressing itself in silk,
hiding the moon for camouflage.

from Deirdre Remembers a Glen

Fruitful glen of fish-filled pools
rounded hills of lovely wheat;
the memory brings me great distress,
glen of bees and the wild horned ox.

Glen of cuckoo, thrush, and blackbird,
precious cover for every fox;
glen of garlic, green with cress,
flowering clover curly-crested.

The clear cries of the red-backed deer
under the oak-thick ridge
gentle hinds and they so timid
well hidden in the wooded glade.

Glen of the red berried rowan
fruit fit for every flock of birds,
fatted badgers slumbering
quiet in burrows with their young.

Glen of the silent blue-eyed hawk
glen of the bountiful harvest
sheltered every side by pointed peaks
glen of the wild plum and blackberry.

Glen of the sleek-brown flat-nosed otter
leaping lightly, freely fishing,
many are the stately white-winged swans,
salmon spawning in the stony brook.

Glen of the star-tangled yew
dew-touched glen of gentle kine
glen of the shining chalk-white sun
and graceful women, perfect as pearls.

(Irish, poss. 14th century; a reworking from three published versions)

English Lessons

The pebble of a word drops through
the smooth circumference of my student’s ear.
It falls, unbending
with a kind of murder in its fall
(ruthless as bulls and plumb bobs
and pigeon shot).

Between his pauses I listen for its splash,
so far below our twisted knot of speech
we almost couldn’t hear.

Minds are more like wells, I suppose,
than steel machines,
than the cowling of an F-16,
bouncing words like fractured light.
I’ve seen sixth grade girls
incinerate a thought,
sucking up the ash;
at other times ambivalent
a flower receiving a fly.

But above all, and either way,
receiving receiving.

Nothing worries like a word.
What have I done?
And why this word? Why then?

And what creeps up from that well:
the cannibal bird,
the crooked beak of heaven?

Madly, Deeply

There is only one life lesson,
and that is to grow things
with your own hands,
holding late April in her thin stalks,
wanting madly, deeply to grow,
needing madly, deeply to die,
to wither yellow.

The rest of it — the details,
the numbers and the lengths,
are like the magazines you read
in doctors’ waiting rooms,
idly taking what you find because it’s there,
idly leafing through but not subscribed,
the way we are subscribed
to the watery light of five o-clock,
the soft snow that fell overnight,
the deckle-edge daffodils already
bowing and browning,

subscribed to the stream that courses
through the deep ravine, raging and falling,
seeping, drying, gone
while we are summer sleeping,
subscribed to the heart-faced hyssop
and the houndstongue,
mouldering earth and bonemeal,
prom dances, promises, and handfasting,
in the humus, hen manure
and the worm castings,
cupping late April in her thin stalks,

saying our goodbyes
to the nursery newborns,
holding our new daughters
close to our chests like specters, weeping.

September, Clearing Brush

I take a bag and the machete
down into the ravine
where, when the snow melts,
our intermittent stream slips unnoticed
under the plantain and the nettle,
among the wild rose and the big cottonwood.

But the end of summer
belongs to the bull thistle,
a legion of it tall as linemen,
packed so dense between the sloping sides
you can barely raise an arm
without one stalk or another stinging.

I shuffle skeletal,
a string of white stones
covered with flesh and leaf,
the centrifugal swing of the blade,
the smell of vanilla from the dead stalks,
cotton seed flying in the air,
the smell of paper paste and lavender,
my sweat under the pommel, slick as blood.

And perhaps it’s the narrow defile,
the thick wood behind,
but I think of the Queen of the Iceni
advancing against the Romans,
driving her raped daughters ahead,
so sure of winning, the tribal women
watched in wagons
from the flanks of that great lost mass.

Did it ever smell like lavender
in the butcher’s work of the afternoon?
Did any legionnaire swinging the short sword
in the crush of green stems
stop for the incongruous vanilla
and the bright birds singing
in the thistledown?

Did he, like me,
knowing I’d just brought eighty thousand
thistle seeds closer to the ground,
ground into the earth by my boots,
see spring translating into spring,
life passed in a winter whisper,
and think revenge, even freedom,
is a small flag to raise on futility,
when given the choice we could
lead with love,
with hopeless love.


Taking a stump for his lectern
he arranges a page turned out of his pocket:
a yellow ball,
a ball resembling clay,
which he rolls with a thick hand
into the flat of the cedar.

Once there were words,
the page was new, veined
with blue ink like a suckling,
but the forest took them first.
It rained.
A drizzle fell from the lodgepole pine,
a fine mantilla fell on his fingers
where they worried with paper
and the running ink.

Once there were whorls
milled in the paper,
ridges like those of his thumb,
enjoying their feel, dryly enjoying,
he had left for the forest
but the forest took them.

It rained.
A syllable fell from the sycamore,
a veil more gentle than thinking,
on his fingers, where
they evened the smooth, pale page.

He didn’t speak then.
The ferns breathed out instead,
mosses sweat into pools,
chickadees jibed and jigged
in the chokecherry bushes.

Two hundred mornings pass in the same way.

Approaching the stump, he removes
from his pocket an earth-colored pea
soft as hashish
which he crumbles with thick fingers
into the flat of the cedar.
He presses the grains of his words
into the lichen and the old sawcut,
into the salt and the weeping damp,
and reads, by heart,
the ring in the wood.

Copyright © 2019 Lilibug Publishing.

Document the Decline

If they bend your knees just right,
with one leg beneath the other,
you will fit,
although the plot is short and shallow.

Pothunters will wonder why
you are buried under the Russian olive
and not on the hill, in the old mausoleum,
and why the sudden stopping,
the decline, the fall,
the years of neglect —
the center of commerce shifted perhaps:
a terrible epidemic,
a brutal war.

They have sunk all the ships already
and the oil has slipped away.
The bread and the books are spoiled,
the enormous library burned in the night —
not by armies — by the old postman.

You watched it light
that cheerless June, when the evenings
smelled like sage and sherry.
But there are no more good men to poison,
no more pamphlets,
just circus posters on shop shutters.
Even the topsoil doesn’t hold.

Some helpful soul
will have broken your arm to save space,
placed your viscera in a jar
painted with bluebells,
lovingly wrapped.
They will wonder why the stalks of lavender
and the hawthorn berries spilling from your right hand,
a pen with a metal nib,
and who lent the fateful blow,
the one that counted.

They will wonder why you didn’t fight.

A grad student, a coed,
will love your expressionless bones,
fill them with meaning,
construct a digital face and make its lips move.

She will imagine you
like a paper wasp
who came back to the nest
to find it gone — just a ring
like plaster on the wood,
the queen gone too, a few bodies,
and you later on the sill,
slowly, slowly,
slow with cold, in circles.

After Trout Fishing

She hung them on a yellow stringer:
a handful of Kamloops, a couple of Kokanee,
wet with lake water,
three hours old.

The breeze that snaked up
smoke from her cigarette
turned the trout in slow pirouettes
against the long unbroken lake.

Her smoke twisted up into the rain,
flattened out, dissolved,
and the lake drank in the downpour:
sheets of stone and steel
and backlit green,
virile green, unbending.

They had lain awake the night before
listening to the owls
and the loon on the water.
He was sure she was
expecting them to fuck,
but they were his sounds —
the cool air was his, the creaking of pines
all betrayed now, was his.

And today only the mouths
of the fish were warm.
Indian red, rose madder,
pale pink gaping half-moons
that still sucked at the hooks
in the unbending green.