I can tell you now, the future will take
a shape you won’t recognize—and you may,
as well, become someone caught in the current
far from here. These things are what they are,
but the ground is real, these hills and trees,
these fractured rocks in piles that haven’t
moved much, some with more speckled red
and yellow lichen laughing fire at the sun,
canyons running water when it rains, tree frogs
in spring. It is another world when you turn
uphill, turn your back on the dramas playing
to every face in town, plots distorted still.
At the mouth of every canyon, a Redtail
will glide quietly over you, feathers upturned,
land in an oak to read who you are. Ground
squirrels will still be chasing one another
in the grass—so many stems and flowers.
Buckeyes and sycamores, never giving-up,
old oaks like moss clinging to the north
slopes—acorns claiming space to survive
apart from it all, a ring at a time until
they become hollow homes for bugs and birds.
You will need to be familiar with what’s real
to find who you are when you go there.
No smoke, no bright Hudson Bay
colored stripes, stirring flames,
we look outside to gray silhouettes
of ridges hazed away, still dry
and waiting for any kind of rain.
Oak leaves and twigs in the dark,
split cordwood aflame, you kept
the coals alive for a week, ready
for warm words anytime of day.
You are forever exposed there
in the camera of our minds—
huddled together stirring flames.
for Jess & Bodhi
I fall asleep assembling lines
I can’t remember, nod off content,
refusing to memorize the moment
ever-changing in the distance.
We began our thank yous
with apologies, with petals open
to brighten a cold day when ashes
had cooled on the mountain, branding
irons put away. And it could have been
warm food and whiskey infiltrating
our hard cores and callused truths,
blaze to blaze on trees, we see the light
on the edge of the forest and the fleeting
silhouettes of our wild gods giggling
with their latest game of circumstance—
and purpose—thank God for that!
for Clarence and Frances
Link to a pleasing, parallel poem from my daughter that independently touches the same moment:
“Traveling the Seam”
Restless after family come together for the holidays,
I can see the top wire stretched and sagging near
the gate we hung, still green and shiny in the Blue Oaks
between Sulphur and the Top—look into this morning’s
black, eager to repair. Or the down gate, Live Oak post
slipping its loop between the Top and Buckeye—
the balancing of bulls, renegotiating reasons for
a breeding plan, mixing and stirring cows and calves.
Or the stretch of down wire below Railroad, leaking
cattle last time gathered, and the leafless Live Oak
grown naked in the fence at the Turtle Pond—all
need my attention, chain saw, hay and a little luck
packed into the Kubota—off to get something done
before the Doctor reads the results of last week’s tests.
My best work in the dark, my face can’t take the sun.
Lots of young men wanted to be cowboys, ride
with legends, dance down ridges, wear spurs and hat,
loiter at the local watering hole come sundown,
like on TV to paw and fight, get a foot hung over
some young heifer on the other side of the barbed wire—
a tangled and exciting life.
Branding a little bunch of calves in even a smaller pen
tucked in the Blue Oaks up the East Fork,
Homer picked one of them to bully in abstentia, one who
needed two hours to dress himself and his horse in the morning—
rode him hard, by God, preaching to a quiet choir
bent to calves we worked one at a time when I finally
interrupted lamely, thinking kindly, feeling guilty,
‘but his heart’s in the right place.’
Knife in hand, Homer stammered, his eyes flashing up at me,
‘You know, John, in this business there ain’t much call for heart.’
He said it all: boiled life down to a phrase—
made the distinction between enthusiasm
and try, make-believe and perseverance.
Age brings hard burdens,
But at worst cools hot blood and sets men free
From the sexual compulsions that madden youth.
– Robinson Jeffers (“Oysters”)
In those days, it was important to be included—
all the Kaweah’s loud cowboy sons of pioneers
shaking hardened hands, raising glasses before plastic
deadened the rattle of ice and whiskey, before
two divorces and twenty years of my crazed youth—
one more young one pacing the barbed wire.
Homer’s summer nut feed after the calves were marked,
he on the third or fourth of eight wives wed, gold
teeth winking, right-up to his last breath bragging
how he horned the young bulls off—our legend
and proof of the power of oysters to intensify,
to get high and go clear blind on testosterone.
It doesn’t matter now that he is gone, damn-near all
of them grazing other dimensions to yet hear the hollers
up and down this old watershed without the biscuits,
without the gravy, without the frittered golden brown
warm and melting on the tongue. Pass the salt and pepper.
A pagan feast of cowmen come to beat their drums.
for Forrest Homer
I reach for a cold river to feel its urgency—
my esoteric metaphor for the force within
life off the flat ground, believing Newton
surrendered to numbers to quantify
the forces that drive us, the elastic thread
that tugs and stretches, floods and trickles
ever off the mountain where trees reach
desperately from the depths of well-worn
canyons, pine and cedar, smooth boulders
under the guttural roar of waterfalls, deep
pools, riffles of fish with water ouzels
skipping upstream—to feel rejuvenated.
“Now Ed: listen here: I haven’t an ounce of poetry
in all my body. It’s cows we’re after.”
– Robinson Jeffers (“The Wind-Struck Music”)
A bone or two to pluck like harp strings
beneath the petals of tiger-lily skies at sunrise
over sharp ridgelines, men still ride in awe—
words float and poetry rolls off their tongues.
And they dare not whine, dare not succumb
to freezing rain, or none at all, until the work
is done—calving after calving, brandings,
yearlings gathered on the hoof to ship
in circles ‘round the sun to somewhere,
out there. ‘It’s cows we’re after’ savored:
moments stolen with herds in rhythm:
a cow, horse and the hearts of horsemen
pause that acknowledges the wild gods—
all pleased to have arrived in harmony
beyond the corrals and loading chutes
waiting at the end of roads in these hills.
Some things need to be saved, but not poetry’s
shuffle of words to fit an illusive moment
like shackles and chains bound in a book,
not the euphoric epiphanies we stumbled onto
out on the trail alone, or running the dark roads
between settlements of distant light, not those
rambling soliloquies when the radio fades
to poor company. It’s a solitary game
on the other side of numbers, pat answers
and scientific proof—primal sounds to mark
a trek beyond the veil of certainty shuffled
with the landscape and its latest inhabitants.
There are two vast cottonwoods near a creek
when I walk between them I shiver.
– Jim Harrison (“Doors”)
Our buckeye portal, a perfect pair to pass through.
Killion and Snyder’s yellow pines, side by side—
this partnership of trees for years near the top
of Sulphur, garnets, quartz and crystal, shafts
of granite thrust out of the earth as weathered
phallic totems among blue oak vast skies.
What words, what power lingers in the leaves,
whose dark eyes see more than mine, I wonder
with each welcome here—these gray limbs
dressed alike, or not at all, buckeyes arched
in season. Passing through either way
along this cow track refines the senses.