…he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass
and with the tiniest dry twigs.
– Jack London (“To Build a Fire”)
A fair piece from the Yukon,
Jack—nothing warms cold bones
like a good fire. We, too, need
a flame to feed a woodstove
oak, the standing dead and fallen
to adversity and time,
and start with broken posts:
split coastal redwood pencil-thin
into a chimney teepee thatch
on crumpled newsprint
before the match leaps to catch
a hungry blaze, inside
shadows dance and touch,
begging brittle Manzanita’s
hard red heart that dulls a chain,
severed limbs of lichened skeletons
wait to burn hot and easily
to prepare the seed, lick the oak
with fire. And glowing early
morning coals banked in ash
start Manzanita sticks in a flash.
Where the inversion layer dissipates into crystal mist at dawn,
pixies rise in the canyon, float towards the light, or so it seems
for fleeting instants sparkling in the haze of fog lifting—
the dread of the San Joaquin cloaking lowlands, where dark-gray
silhouettes of cattails once encircled swamps now drained
with ditches to furrows, gravity flow—with just a little rain.
Come awake blinking, heart and mind flicker together
within this ascension beyond the flesh to pagan possibilities
fit for the earth-bound, praying always for something fresh.
Almighty God is too busy with too many and too much
nowadays, not to let the ancient surrogates work the wild
and open territories to tame the natives with a little magic.
Sometimes we ride high enough
to see the backs of eagles, bronze
wings tracing steep hillside oats
a glide. Even horses pause
to take notice. You can feel envy
rise beneath you, becoming one
another for a moment—prolonged
instants we crave, yet cannot hold
with minds a grip. But letting go
we float the thermals to Olympus
to bring back lightning, thunder—
with luck a poem and some rain.
The bulls are out among the cows
claiming territory high on ridges,
testing misty air with muffled bellows,
testing fences and plans on paper,
as usual—we respect their wishes,
broker treaties where we can
to get cows bred for next year.
Everybody wants the same thing:
full bellies, sex and freedom
without too much work or trouble.
Last week’s virgin bulls have slowed
to moan, learned names and calculate
grazing circles in open space to make
love richer with rhyme and assonance—
write the kind of lyrics fit for music
that brings herds closer as families
traveling together, saving energy
and time where tranquil matters more
than bragging rights or twisted politics
keeping pundits fully-employed
with slogans selling most everything.
The cleaning lady
came to sweep the dust away
finally with rain.
Too few days of rain to save for,
the special jobs on the list of extras
when too wet to get to anywhere
off the road and you choose jelly
while it pours. The pomegranate tree
I pruned too much bore fruit
with volunteers now big enough
to finish filling gallon jugs with crimson
juice pressed from a jillion seeds
and saved in the freezer, now thawed
waits for sugar and that special
pectin brought to a boil to fill these jars
of translucence sealed to give away
to family and friends for Christmas.
Who saves these things for rainy days?
Wind bangs against the mountains,
cold on warm rips and tears
cracks in air as crooked fingers
touch the ground with ‘lectric
yellow light to spark a roar
upon the metal roof in panting
pulses beneath soft gray
as if the gods were making love
in a bass drum, small canyon room
upstairs spawning muddy rivulets
towards a dry creek bed between
wet sycamores undressing
long white limbs suggestively
spilling November tans and browns
upon the green to stand naked
before an eager flow gathering
rafts of clothes upstream—
or as angry as the 60s
marching to make love
instead of war, or vice versa—
or with the best intentions
for all we’ve done today,
come to wash the dirty laundry,
our tracks and waste away.
1.81″ @ 7:30 a.m.
Goodbye to this house and all its memories
We just got too old to say we’re wrong.
– Tom Rush (“Child’s Song”)
I follow your poem
to Google all the Tom Rush songs
my unaccompanied tongue could imitate—
turned gravelly since that 60s feeling
like an LA outcast, like an Indian
forced to die in a bluecoat army.
Nothing noble in Dakota,
the booms and busts
from Deadwood to the Bakken
claptrap towns on ground
that holds the gold
and light sweet crude—
that make a man
just want to run.
I gravitate towards native poetry,
mostly half-breeds now with hybrid-vigor,
steal the epigraph you borrowed
to seal the dreams we had in the bad times,
the loves and lust we clung to knowing
they were too good to last.
after “Corrective Interlude” by Adrian Louis
I stumble out of an old dream panicked
about cattle I haven’t checked in months
on a hidden ranch I can’t place, connect
except they were not grazing vineyard rows
with no fences, not loose in town this time,
but on some hard-to-gather rolling ground
you can’t see from the pocked asphalt road
snaking through blond summer foothills.
Last time, they were OK, bull calves
too big to brand breeding sisters, but alive
on good feed and water. It may have been
the turkey dressing drenched in juices,
or the cranberries fermenting fear familiar
that I recognize more than this imagined place
to wait before saddling a horse, loading-up
asleep to tilt at impossible windmills.
I’ve been here before, rusty wire on redwood
posts askew, exploring canyons, finding old
rough-haired families too weak to be wild—
all the guilt and disappointment I need
to torture my subconscious. Too old for that,
I roll over to let my weak knees hang before
testing with a first step towards reality:
cigarette, coffee and a poem for Black Friday.
Dark morning without moon or stars
before the first winter storm, the day before
Black Friday rains deals and discounts
for Christmas, for our economy and I am
ever thankful that the bulls are out early
courting cows, meeting kids and family
before dirt roads get too slick to travel—
ever thankful for the drought that felled
two big Live Oaks on the gate and fence
we corded-up and stacked beneath the eave
before the girls drove posts and spliced
the barbed wire on a mat of green
to leave the mess looking like a park—ever
thankful for them, for you and this ground
we’re invested in together, for good horses
willing to get the cow work done—
black skies without moon or stars,
you and I alone before the storm.