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Every morning, as I go out,
I catch sight of my Nikon
on the hallway dresser
where I have deliberately left it,
charged with promise,
the magic lantern of schoolkids’ stories —
knowing that if I don’t take it
I’m sure to see something astonishing
and only have these dubious words.
I am always right:
the cones of the blue spruce
in the late winter light
drape on the top branches
like streetseller wares, plumbed fruit
hanging from his shoulders.
Or along the base
of our eastern slope,
where stubborn white pelts of snow
depress the prairie grass,
the veins of deer tracks
trickle out and finger.
I take the camera, then,
convinced that I have made
the whole world suddenly dull.
And I am always right:
what I saw in the spruce
I couldn’t tell you,
the tired interminable drupe of the bough /
not at all like vulture wings,
or the ratcatcher swinging
from a shoulder yoke, by their tails,
this late winter catch of cone.
How the deer are gone again,
and left us the mundane definition
of their feet, more loss
Camping one night in the national forest
I got up to pee again
against a bristlecone pine.
You come around often, the pine said.
I’m an old man, I shrugged.
Same here, said the tree.
New married, they lived one summer
by an apple tree,
and watched the fruit
turn green, then oxblood red.
And watched the sun
and watched the shingled sea.
untended in the long grass.
At picking time
he found a bright pot
and shook the apples down,
his hands around the branches.
He was awkward in his wedding ring:
the smallest finger rubbed it,
like a tongue with a new tooth,
where it blazed against
the thick gray boughs.
Where apples fell,
they stewed in pockets
of unclipped grass,
in earthen cider smells,
in a garden quick
with snakes and sowbugs.
He stood among them
in a fine independence,
satisfied to not be
mad with growing,
while Sara watched him
from the kitchen.
She must have seen him as he was:
not simple and apart,
but a kind of metamorphosis,
some mythic thing —
legs, wrapped and rooted
to the earth by snakes,
his arms in apples,
and all his skyward fingers, leaves.
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.
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
I’m going anyway.
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.
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.
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.
We were reading stories
and the neighbors’ kids came round.
They sat, solemn, in the living room,
while Jean recited her cat book
and I served pink lemonade.
There were brownies.
Two boys leaped up, finally,
when the sitting was over
and ran along the driveway
to the ponderosa on the south.
I would have done the same once,
far too shy for small talk and small rooms:
a better fit
for a harbor of branches,
of pine straw and damp earth.
They were already hanging,
suspended like sloths,
when their mom called out:
“Guys! Be careful there!”
We don’t have kids.
No boys had ever swung
in the giant tree before,
and for me it lived
respectfully apart, an elder,
with a twin on the north side,
keeping the house between them
as a kind of indulgence.
When we turned to look
I noticed one limb
had torn from the trunk,
some way up —
a narrow elliptical scar
the color of country cream,
the scales of the arm less bright,
no longer that rich orange-gray
An old injury. Who knows how long?
Apparently you can take an injury
like that through the seasons,
through one summer after another
until it is almost hidden
by new, reluctant growth,
by the furrows
and the plates of age.
Got up, put on my jeans and winter boots
black coffee in hand, a toasted bagel,
chose an old plaid shirt, left the Irish suit
to visit the gray men on the western hill
sitting side to side, knee high, tip to root
from the weathered overlook above the well;
couldn’t tell if they were dead or fast asleep
— they said, it’s just the company we keep.
Who keeps you warm on February nights?
Who dresses you, they said, when you turn in
because Adeline came by, by candlelight
asking for something comfortable to spin;
she took our branches (she was so polite!),
stripped bark, soaked them in the stream and cut them thin,
sat on the banks among the cottonwood leaves
handmade a mantle with an airtight weave,
filled gaps with green moss from your steep ravine
where it’s growing in the death camas and quartz,
the wild onion, the mountain columbine;
— you know, you strike us as a sensible sort
as smart as any human that we’ve seen
but you forget us and your heart distorts
what’s true: you’ll sleep through soft winds and our storms
but it’s Adeline’s coat that keeps you warm.
It’s Adeline’s coat that comforts you they said
and Adeline who whispers in your ear
for all the baseboard heaters by your bed
your walls and windows, how the drapes appear;
it’s not really that she loves you but instead
she loves the wilderness, the salmon weir
she needs near everything that lives and breathes:
you asleep, our seedlings in their quiet sleeves.
And who feeds you on February nights?
You’ll say groceries from the local store,
you’ll say the deli or the buffet, right?
We’ll say the hawk, the mule deer, and what’s more
the lonely kestrel in her sober flight,
old ways, old rock, old pathways you’ll explore;
trust me — they’re never hungry in these hills, but
in exchange the deer, the deer, are eating us.
I left them where I was sitting on the ridge,
picked up my cup and started down the slope
across a narrow stream along the bridge,
climbed the rise, sure-footed as an antelope
glanced back at the shrubs, a long gray carriage:
a train of gray men tethered on a rope
one, green hands turned up, like a woodland friar
in ancient prayer beside a woodland fire.