Barely out as far as the length of an oar
a dwarf fir floats on its grey rock,
ridged and worried by the weather.
A plaque set into the granite tells us this:
that Qu’as the Transformer turned Skalsh into a rock
for his unselfishness.
I don’t know much about the first people,
and what I know about the sea I know
because it stung my eyes.
My feet know stone a lot better than me.
But selfishness I know.
We think of the names of places:
places boiled in black tar,
cracked and splintered well before Christ,
smoothed by the pleasant green, pine green,
pale grass, pale as Peace River honey.
Names laid on the topsoil,
laid on the cracked and splintered rock,
worried, rubbed away in places like bone.
A fish hawk hung his head next to mine
in a dream, and the mouldering chinook
of his breath whispered the names of places.
They begin where the discontinuous
polar front begins — in the west,
in the setting day, past Malaspina Strait,
Powell River, past the shores of Alert Bay,
where they took some blankets
from the Kwakwaka’wakw there.
What will you give me?
say the black winds of Moresby,
slapped against that livid rock,
cracking splinters of red cedar,
howling the sweet, salt
three minute death by water.
What will you give me?
say the winds of Port Alberni,
slapping the sides of the residential school,
so it shakes with memory,
shaking the abusing priests,
the abusing kindness.
I think of the names of places:
Peerless Lake, where the kids
drank methyl hydrate, The Pas, Manitoba,
Davis Inlet’s freezing shack,
and the sibyl hanging in a bottle at Cumae.
The ravens on the seawall sort their shells /
the walk is littered with mussels
broken by their beaks.
They shuttle back from the base of Siwash Rock,
and the wheeling gulls, cawing, calling
what rock for me?
I place the yellow warbler on the big rock
at the head of the path
where it hugs the hillside down into the gulch.
She had hit the south window,
and unlike the thrush last summer
which righted itself, sat up, and later flew off,
she had died.
Holding a wild bird,
warm as an oat cake in your hands,
ties you to the living wild,
but the odd sweet smell of death,
of these small deaths,
comes from somewhere else.
And so, obeying an ancient voice,
I place her on the big rock
knowing she will be gone in the morning —
like the bones of the wood rat
that lay on the path for weeks
until I put them on the rock.
even the sun will eat the earth in time,
but what does a rock eat
if not quiet, unmoving things?
Is it the coyotes and the cats
and the scavenger birds at night,
the interns and understudies of decay?
while we’re sleeping,
the great mass of the earth itself
tidying up, absorbing itself,
too old for teeth.
Ten years ago, approaching my 50th birthday, I was in a rut. Not suffering from writer’s block, just too long moored. I’d written poetry for almost as long as could remember, in whichever country and under whatever circumstances. Writing on a computer if I had one, on scraps of paper if I didn’t, composing lyrics in my head walking to class if there was no napkin or envelope. I called the walking variety “street poems”, and I recommend them: they improve memory, and your words learn their rhythm from your feet, uniquely yours, always idiosyncratic and metrical. But ten years ago I had reached a little backwater of self-image, feeling as though each new piece, instead of stretching my own mythology a little farther into Middle Earth — new landscapes — barely extended beyond pale middle age. Too lacking in energy to touch even the last boundary.
And so I did something I had never done before, on impulse. I decided to write under a pen name. There was no forethought. I didn’t wake one morning thinking I had to call myself Zebeedee Galileo Starwinger now, and that Zebeedee was the product of a brief union between interstellar Comic-Con attendees, gender indeterminate. Instead, I turned in the chair and caught a glimpse of Lili, our Russian Blue, stretched out on the back of the sofa. Cat and couch. And so it was Kat Couch — although I’ve tended to pronounce the last name like Cooch, as in Hoochie Coochie — but less Muddy Waters and more Arthur Quiller-Couch, the Cornish novelist and editor of The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1250–1918). Like my parents, Sir Arthur was a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth Kernow, and devoted to the county.
The pseudonym had an effect, although I can’t say it had any predictable effect. Who was Kat? Was they a she? Twenty? Thirty? Older? Two principal things happened. I stopped writing first person confessional poetry and began to tell stories. In one, a girl in Las Vegas stares at a reproduction of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, once attributed to Bruegel the Elder, and the subject of poems by W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams. She’s bored; she texts a friend. In other poems, a woman tidies the kitchen after her husband leaves on a sales trip; in another, a homicidal country girl takes revenge for social media bullying; parents taking a walk with their young son Dylan lose sight of him when he wanders off in search of a bear. A perplexed mule deer observes a man living on the property come and go from a great “unnecessary” house. And so on. Subjects ranged wide and wildly. And that was good.
Gradually, Kat began to come home again, absorbing the middle-aged male, and accepting him well enough as long as he continued to write about the three-leaf sumac and the black-billed magpies of these foothills. I still defer to her: she has no tolerance for self-indulgence; she wants to spin a good yarn. And if she shows a preoccupation with animal death and, for lack of a better word, “bioempathy,” she at least doesn’t require room and board. And she never eats the last ginger snaps.
Over the past six months or so I’ve posted one hundred and twenty of Kat’s poems. They fall into three sets of forty, and one day soon I’ll publish them in print, in a slipcase edition. Fewer than ten were written this year; some date from that 50th birthday. I’m not inclined to move on from Kat. She may be it for me now. But I do know that the poems here amount to a distinct body of work, and everything from this date will be something else.
I’ve been making videos lately — for introductions and job interviews, and I marvel at my favorite ASMR folk, how generous and expert they seem in their digital skin, in their public personas. In my brief clips I am a slow-witted neanderthal who rarely smiles. I bite the ends off words like cheap cigars; pauses reproduce, begetting ums and ahs. That public persona is as strange now as Kat’s was in 2010, but I plan to get to know it a little better. So I am going back over these poems — I hope near-weekly, if not daily — and recording a video reading of each one, to be posted. Expect an occasional disembodied head, a pair of hands, an Apache pepper plant on the sill, words tumbling from curtains and cactus. Lili, still with us, may show up, demanding an appearance fee, salted crackers, royalties, naming rights.
The little straw hair boy climbs on,
grabs an earful pink and blue,
pats her neckful clotted cream,
shiny even in the darkish,
shiny even in his dream.
No dad! (Come, we’re going home).
He knows it isn’t real a pony,
knows in ways the opposite of horse,
planted by the sand
on three-inch pipe and
only bobby, bobbing only,
idea of moving painted like a horse.
(Of course we must go to Gran’s — hold while I put your shoes on. Justin, hold!)
Him in bowl shape sweaters turned,
mittens tethered to his wrist,
but all he thinks,
and all his thinks of flying
painted like a horse.