“Turn on the hose,” I say.
I kneel down on my lawn
To watch the water play.
At the depression where
The tree is set, it fills,
Transvisible as the air,
To level, tentative,
Then, trembling, overbreaks.
Its boundaries always give
Where the clear instants slow.
I stand, walk toward my house.
Shade slips. Place is aflow.
a picture postcard to my own boyhood
There is containment by small
brown mountains, by the Channel
waters that run in upon
the shores and sleek and litter
the sand; the pale firm islands
shut in the swarming lights and
cross-moves of the Pacific —
as if a topographic
ordering of the desires
lay ready; in season, low
clouds will form, and, thunderless,
come in changing rapidly,
set loose their spattering rains
and sweep off, torn by short winds —
the diversity of shore,
hill, and gorge is clarified
with stands of rough, bulbous oak,
a luminous sycamore
here and there, somberly thirsting
washed yellow over the slopes —
nicely scaled for the human
eye, under a small soft sky
suggesting that, if you wished,
you might walk to what you see
anywhere here, observe it,
and make your way back during
the morning hours, through the trees.
Under the ordinary
bright gentle light of the place
I look in across a fence
at a bed of wild grasses
stippled with alyssum, with
a few native poppies — slight,
chill orange, snipped out finely.
A poppy is struggling
and the others barely shake;
one of its petals comes loose,
wavering down a kind of
creek of air. Son, you could choose
at such times to be happy,
yet free of your happiness,
knowing that its root is hap —
I’d have had you arriving
so as not to be bemused
in it; say, splashing ashore
as one of a colony
of Greeks fresh from disaster
who glance about expertly.
The sense of the real thirty years back in this clearness —
I could hold with my eyes, it seemed, the body
of the air; it was like standing at a fast stream
up in the mountains, seeing down through the water skin,
through the fine streakings of light, gripping in my vision
the whole crystalline heaviness of the water — clearness
right down to the toothed edges of the elm leaves,
almost black, stationary against the streaked colors
in the sky; cats emerged from under the granary, and taking
no notice of us, disappeared in high weeds; Seeley’s Lake
started shining through the mild darkness; lights came on
near it, an uptilted glitter; heart’s desire picked up.
About then I might stand up casually, half thinking
of those cats out in the weeds, and with hands in pockets
take a turn out on the lawn, and stop, and seem to myself
to be in the clear dark like a trout in its pool.
Later, air movement in the elm: night proper had begun.
One or two of us would rise, re-enter the house; and others
follow, I too, and meet in my turn, at the threshold,
the shock of the day’s heat held still in the house.
The birds keep to their routines.
The big cottonwood glitters.
In the approaching heat
of the middle of the day
the elm makes little movements
now and then, like a dozing horse.
And on a distant county road
the sun bangs for an instant
on a windshield, flashing
like a signal; no reply.
A big butterfly, strongly
constructed, yellow with black
ribbing and trim, works the air
between the house and trees,
disappearing from time to time
around the corner of the house
or inside one of the trees,
I come out after breakfast
every day, and sit writing
in the morning shade. Clear hours!
Butterfly’s in the foreground
frequently; tall dusty weeds
by the road; small house, trees, fields,
in the middle distance; then
the pale, vapory mountains.
If I look up from my page
the butterfly is often
the one moving thing in sight.
I watch him rise at the end
of a glide with a broken,
tottering movement, working
his way up to a high bough
then not alighting, but merely
poising in the air above it
and veering briskly off. Well,
he’s not after anything.
A kind of extract of this
place, having worked free, he stays;
his apparently hesitant
turning this way and that is
just delighted watchfulness.
Afternoons he spends mainly
resting. And nights
on a weed stem, I suppose,
stiffening with the chill,
the stem knobbly with dew when
the morning sun first strikes it.
Out in the rain all afternoon
hands and neck chilled —
some trouble, anger
and late supper, the rain
smacking and clicking
outside the room
plenty of chablis
our sparse reflections
on the black window glass
where space comes pouring in
all the way in
from between the stars, in past the blacked-out moon —
desolately it enters the room
and streams around your shoulders
without harm — how curious —
and enters my grizzled beard
stopping when it arrives
at the skin warmth —
it must be we belong in it — at once remotely
and intimately; the way a sheepherder’s fire at night belongs
in the distance on a desert upland
All around the infrequent little towns
(a few gaunt old stores still in business,
elm-dark residential streets half-way
abandoned, a broken-hearted silence in them)
lies the shining wheat country, gold white
and open, all visible or else nothing;
hill gleams above hill to the smooth rim
of the horizon like the sight of excellence itself.
If you are still holding out here, every street
an elm tunnel opening at either end on the dazzle —
in the afternoon silence all the bright grain
standing motionless takes on a distant look;
and is again a goddess, with child,
and absorbed in that, in being nothing more.
… if time is friend
or enemy? we stand still
by going and go
along a hillside this
“An old thing to be doing” — what?
“Filing down a trail like this,”
I tell her, the pleasure of it
that we are partly roused ancestors, or
as if we were an old trellis
with a young vine in it
where now the air is moving
birds visit the grapes
the season lives
a sunny and windy freshness
so ancient — this
or nothing for us.
Is a self
so precious, Piah? I think sometimes
a self is an unnecessary growth, a kind
of wart, at best
harmless, not too unsightly — irritated
it will grow troublesome, at last maybe malignant.
Or sometimes it is
an instrument, to be rightly proud of,
that works well, is even perhaps attractive and amusing —
or even an article
of some elegance and beauty; to be
dismantled or discarded, though, if it becomes
in ‘this world of fleeting
trials and choices,’ out of place
or out of date, a piece of outsize bric-a-brac — I know selves
that should be, like some great
and now elaborately ugly Nootka woodcarving,
propped in the ethnic room of a dusty provincial museum.…
But commonly a self
is a more modest thing, something improvised
by the spirit, over a stretch of some years, for daily use —
use that’s no easier
on it than on any other implement;
scratches, corrosion, dented and mended places in time
may give it its pathos
and dignity — some old carpenter’s tool, handle
broken and taped, blade nicked but smooth and bright still.
All this says nothing of
the temporary selves made for special
occasions, and sound and true for their purposes,
or of that self of selves
which is like those marine creatures
made up of different animals, no one kind
able to survive apart,
each kind providing in its own way
for all the others — a Portuguese man-of-war of a Self!…
Autumn, an island
with a severe
profile, watches the combers with their crests
that waver, race forward
to their glistening destruction.
A love for line, and
the grapevine is stripped
of its overlapping green
and a small basket
filled with clusters
out of — good luck: sealed in them
a balancing of dreams
about things possible.
From secret high spirits
a clean style; wisdom the more definite
as it becomes the more inconspicuous, a plain
branch above the hurrying colors.
A trout stream in the high Rockies,
my wife’s laughter, a little brass whale
from Taiwan, the sight from my study window
of the two blue hills above the trees,
all kinds of cats, the high desert
of northern Nevada, all particulars
concerning the life and writings of Pope,
the time of sundown and just after,
the grammar of any language, a flawless
sea urchin shell found on Hendry’s beach
and kept around and looked at
almost daily for ten years now,
all the birds, the look of Greek on the page,
cottonwood trees in summer, glistening
above the ditches in the dry country
of the west, the words of English songs
of the period 1580 to 1620,
the smell of lumber, of the iron
in a hoe as you file it, of a horse;
bolts of fine woolen goods;
the Indian head nickel; rain,
snow, sunshine, wind, darkness,
the game of poker, discovering used bookstores
in large cities, the clear recollection
of the house and farmyard of early childhood;
driving through streets to meet someone
at the airport, at an hour, late or early,
when you are not usually out; bare trees;
the rhythms of iambic trimeter;
granite boulders; coffee; the coming
of the early darkness of December.
And I wake up,
yeh, it is dawn,
the young helper, waiting
pale and serious
outside the window.
Sometimes I look inside
and see a mountain slope
in Colorado. There
my grief comes trickling down
from the packed snow of my hate
freshly, spring after spring,
through darkness under fir trees.
You’ve seen such places, maybe.
There breed the little wild trout,
the brooky and the cutthroat
in their icy brilliant colors,
there, under branches sagging
or broken from the snows,
the thin song of mosquitoes
criss-crosses the chill air,
there, tiny colored stars
on the dark of the wet moss,
a few mountain flowers tremble,
fine roots washed in snow water,
the colors clear and cold
— almost too small to notice
should you stray under there,
certainly too small to pick.
However it may be with me
Lying wakeful in the old bed
This night is cool, fresh, quiet,
Moon-blanched, a few late season crickets
Trill under the oaks across the road,
Some of the moonlight, coming through
The pine tree by the window,
Burns like lumps of phosphorus, on the bedclothes.
Oh, we will get out of here
Where everything’s impure, not clear,
Where, as they say, it’s all shades of gray,
Won’t we, old self (though time I fear
Is getting on …) — like the magpie
We saw springing up today
Lightly from his putrid meal
On the pavement, his feathers
Such a fresh black and white.
Bad omen in the morning and once more
Late in the day, encountering face to face
Two sons of bitches, each at a time and place
I’d never seen either one of them before.
And the day, picketed by this polluting pair,
Went wrong; running in the dusk I now retrace
The slight brain-lurches that put me off my pace …
The slippages of heed that are my despair!
So I run along full of my latest blunder —
And everything’s still, but a distant simmering
From the sea, the light rakes low, the tide is neap,
In the strange peace I nearly halt in wonder
At water in thin clear layers wavering
On the flat sand — a kind of shining sleep.
Homesick, building a fly rod on the patio
All the fresh sunny breezy morning; a calm blue
Sky and green leaves close me in. Low tide’s at two,
And I’ll run then. — The dusty parade and rodeo
Took place in town, all right, forty-five years ago,
A thousand miles away; fireworks afterwards, too,
And then the ride home on the dirt road, winding through
The cool fields in darkness, hearing the water flow
Over the weirs; and then our dogs, at the driveway turn.
— And winter’s the time for Hendry’s Beach; therefore I’ll write
This one, to do for my few summer runs down here:
Beach flat, trampled, sea flat, slack and warm and clear;
People little black figures against the big silver light;
Close up, it’s beer can, frisbee, radio, sunburn.
Lying in the long dark, insomniac,
I see it clearly: sea and beach and air
And a red winter sun, down low, for fire,
For the fourth element made out by the Greek
On Sicily’s coast two dozen centuries back —
Fire that’ll turn me into atmosphere
After I’m dead, and ashes tossed out where
Maybe they’ll wash ashore. I hear gulls creak,
And put my being in with the elements
We share with the whole show, rather than
With the odd creature in it that is man
Or with my self, still odder … till the tense
Weavings of wakefulness begin to fray
Loosen and come apart and float away —
Venus in the darkness of early October
flashes away above the black tip
of the hill behind Lion Camp.
No one else here, so cold.
Taking my old GI blanket I step into the open
and stand wrapped in my own warmth, like a Bedouin
or an Arapaho. Not a sound. No insect,
nighthawk, or owl, the stream so low
it runs without noise
among the dry boulders. I hear my breathing.
What a good garment a blanket was in the old days
for speculative thought, and personal dignity,
arms not free for work, or love, or fighting.
But I’ve come away with too much
on my mind, and like none of it,
and can only hold it
like a man standing carefully with an armload
so unstable he can’t put it down.
Where the canyon walls
Close in, and the air cools,
And the little green trout flick and hover
In the clear green pools
Between the falls
Where that sturdy solitary, the slate-gray dipper, year round, sings
Till the steep stone rings
Is where I’ll go, still unforgiving
Of others’ and my own poor past
(How keep my mind clear and not curse
Doings that make life worse?)
And be, Matilija, your lover
When I am dead, and at long last
Won’t have to make a living.
As for the agony
Clenching in me:
My own and others’ imperfection,
Killing delight …
On those clear pools my own reflection
Is broken light.
And in that steep stone cleft
What will be left
Of me is not the middling lover
Here, of a wife
With whom he gladly would live over
A second life —
Nor that one who’d begun
A better son,
Friend, father in his own thinking,
Than he became —
So maimed in the doing (heart here sinking)
And yet the same.
Say all these disappear
Into the sheer
Fire of that anger — what’s remaining?
Stranger, the sight,
Say, of the tall slim pale wild oats leaning,
In the late light,
Beautiful, on a stony rise
Before your eyes,
While you stand making out a crossing
Down where the stream
Slips roaring through boulders, and the spray’s tossing,
And the alders gleam:
At such a moment, here
I’ll stand, tho’ not appear
But be coincident with your seeing
The shining scene
And in that moment have my being,
Unhuman, and serene.
Now the wild trout comes in, tired out — in from the roar
and splintering light at the falls past the bend
Just upstream — in through the glass-smooth stretch here
that travels dark green, clear, noiseless, over a great slab
Of sandstone — in toward the black shadow and the dank, sweating
stone fragments tumbled to the water’s edge
Under the cliff.
He looks transparent as he nears
my hand, the green ridge of his back
Being exactly the green of the water. Fine and icy,
hard to the touch, he waits quietly, gills working,
After a last strong slippery lunge, the mist-bow colors
intimated nicely in the polished steel of his flank.
And my Royal Wulff makes a striking rosette
in military scarlet, green of peacock, white, cinnamon,
Against the dark shine of his jowl.
he drifts sideways a bit, hesitant, hovering under
The opened fingers, next to the fast current. Then bolts,
himself a green smudge above the distinct
Shadow shot downstream, skimming the white bottom sand
in the sunlight then suddenly accelerating
Toward the scant shade of a young alder standing straight
on the far bank, thin-branched, its leaves just opening,
A lyrical green light in them; and, back here now,
on the hands, clean chill scent of trout.
The little lizard waits — slender
And long thin whip of a tail
straight as a ruled line.
Resting quietly on John’s palm,
having been caught
With a looped fiber from a stem
of grass, he tilts his head now
To hold both John and me in his calm
direct gaze: entirely
In the moment. Things Florentine goldsmiths
hammered, enchased, smoothed,
He resembles in elegance; likewise
the Samurai weapons — stirring and
Practical. By day he hunts and suns, by night
His blanket, his roof, his local government
the starry universe.
This big capsule
I plucked green
along the stalk
late this spring,
and week by week
let it brown,
and wither, and crack.
Pick it up
and shake it now —
Cha cha it
in my study
dry, and shy
sound of the promise
of Yucca whipplei,
out of its fierce
rosette of blades,
that stout stem
in dry gulches,
in strong sun
on stony slopes,
its white blossoms,
a great cone of them,
curled and tumbled,
where, in the quivering
heat the light
comes in and is creamy,
cool and still; where
the mind can go
when it wants to.
… and a low wind in the alder grove —
or is it the little waterfall? —
mutters from ancient Isaiah thus:
Thou hast multiplied the nation
and not increased the joy.
Well, it’s an old affair —
Stronger than ever, though,
This twenty-seventh year
That I’ve been coming here.
The memory stays clear
How other places, too,
Brought transient happiness;
I was just passing through
And therefore could avoid
Seeing them destroyed.
But much the same is so
Matilija, with you
As from the first I knew:
I have been passing through —
The difference being, here
Your ruin, though delayed
A bit will be, I guess,
The one I’ll stay and bear.
At the ranch headquarters, which
you have to walk through
to get up here, an old
yellow Lab with flabby,
drawn-down dugs and, this past
year or so, a bad shoulder,
stands waiting to greet me, in
her usual quiet good humor.
I am an old admirer.
Last year she’d still join us,
lame as she was then,
to fetch the sticks she’d have
one or another of us fling
again and again into
the icy currents.
She can just bear
the pain it costs her now
to take a step. As I push on,
she stands there a bit, before
making her way back to the porch.
Her eyes half close with the pleasure
from our meeting, her tail wagging
just a little, reminiscently.
Still the enthusiast; while
in her whole manner you see
her unreluctant recognition of
the scope left to her now, including
the clear if receding view
of how, with her, things used to be.
Over and over the gods
Fail what they came to guard;
Yours too, poor little stream,
With your lower crossings all
Dry stones, bulldozer-scarred;
Slammed through by mountain bikes
I wonder what god likes,
That’s now having his day
(Sees ’em come slashing down
At top speed on their way
To get trucked back to town),
All your bright-bodied trout,
In your shrunk pools, jerked out
By jerks with spinning rods …
Well well, let me be fair,
The herons took their share.
The upper gorge: rest stop,
Midday; and half asleep
I hear your waterfall,
Maybe six inches tall,
Through alder and foothill ash
Gurgle hiss glug and splash
Between your banks and steep
Clean sandstone, that goes up,
Up to the yucca, small
With distance, along the top.
A coolness on my face
Breathes from the whole place —
Your remnant song, that seems
Reflective, now, subdued,
Sounding entirely good.
With such things on my chest,
And with my Thermarest
Between me and the stones
And sticks, to spare old bones
That have no flesh to spare —
Outstretched, with eyes covered
Beside this upper reach,
With your much dwindled stream
Still making itself heard
I went down into sleep
Through the leaf-shady air.
In my sleep came a dream,
And in the dream (I swear)
A vision, then a speech,
Abrupt as a sonic boom,
That broke into the hush
I faced in a long room
In which I used to teach —
Broke, then went on in a rush,
In which the vision hovered.
Here it is, word for word:
Our little earth’s a goner —
As anyone can see
With or without a book,
You only need to look —
The whole revolting disaster
Being inflicted on her
North south east and west
Coming straight at us faster
Than anybody guessed.
Once and for all, right here,
Come drop with me, a tear
For her, as dwelling-place
For us, the one earth-race
That hasn’t belonged here
From the outset: the ones
Whose hearts have been elsewhere,
In this or that Elphame
I won’t take time to name;
Neither would I seek
To parcel out the blame:
By nature, so to speak,
We are space aliens.
The space, between our ears.
How lately we have known
That we are on our own.
And after we are gone?
(Be sure that we’ll be gone.)
If anyone should care,
So goes one prophecy
Fitting in its grandeur,
And true, for all of me —
A various multitude
Of the bacteria
Will rule the biosphere,
Their center everywhere,
Guarding the true and good;
And all we’ve understood
Of all that has most mattered,
And, understood, have spoken
In music, paint, words, stone,
In number, and the rest
Till it all stood complete
As nearly as could be —
And perishable, though
After each overthrow
Learned all over again
And more still — all this broken
In ultimate defeat,
The litter of it scattered
On earth that spinning sleeps
On her soft axle, while
She paces even, and bears
Thee soft with the smooth air
Along (that’s as she crossed
Our gaze in Paradise Lost).…
For us, though, let’s not grieve —
Nor turn in treachery
On our own kind, at heart
Finding life hard to leave,
Finding it sweet to be
Even if in prospect
Only, for the most part,
As certain sages claim,
And likely to be wrecked.
And deeply as fear goes,
Having in view a good
That, clearly understood,
Comes always at great cost
And always incomplete
And sooner or later lost;
Even so, to repeat,
Our being remains sweet
Under the deepest fears,
In human hardihood.
The vision paused, then said,
Last night I heard a song
Coming through leafy air —
Though fading before long
It sings on in my head:
The earth that once made us
Being the same earth that made
The dragonfly, the deer,
Lizard and mastodon,
Worm, leaf, stone, bright green blade,
Hill, river, and so on —
When we, in what we do
Ravage it all — this, too,
Is a natural result
For us, the boldest one
Of all her experiments;
In which to fail, long since
We’ve learned is not a fault.
Experiments mostly fail.
Ours had a good long run.
“Many the wonders,” so
Sophocles long ago
Remarked, “and of them none
To match us.”
Let that be
Worked in by history)
Of all that we can see
Of what, now, we have done,
The thing to reflect on.
Just so the voice-vision spoke,
And cold and stiff I woke.
Whether the dream was so
I’m not the one to know.
Pretty tired coming back down
today, too. Birds are difficult
to identify against this light.
Sudden black shapes bank and vanish,
light flashing, uncolored, off a wing,
a glossy back. Meanwhile just ahead
beside the trail the little sycamore
with its as yet entire and at the moment
motionless set of yellow and bronze leaves
has lit up like a lamp, backed by
the cold shadow of the great ridge
where the sun just now touched down.
The whole day I’ve been alone.
And now I see a woman
a fair distance away,
standing just off the trail,
and looking up intently
into the dark treetops,
quite unaware of me
under my big daypack
approaching through the dusk.
Since she still hasn’t moved
I click my walking staff
against a trailside rock
letting her know I’m here
before I come too near
and perhaps startle her.
She gives me the briefest glance
and goes back to her gazing
and soon I am drawing near her.
She is a tall, plump woman,
well into middle age,
dressed in T-shirt and jeans,
looking as if she’d just
stepped outside the house:
no hat, no jacket, no
binoculars, no daypack;
up here alone, it seems,
maintaining this rapt stillness
in the stillness, as the birds stir
high up in the foliage,
darkness a half hour off,
the canyon chill increasing.
“There’s a lot of birds up here,”
she says, an eagerness showing
a little, and a slight shyness,
under the factual manner.
I nod and mention seeing
some signs of bear up above.
She rounds our meeting off,
“We saw bears on Pine Mountain,”
releasing us to resume
the solitudes we broke,
she mine, that is, I hers.
I go and she stays on.
I meet nobody else
The rest of the way down.
The appearances all say
she has come up here alone
and on the spur of the moment.
It is dark when I reach my car.
Whiskey of youth once mine,
White fire straight from the coil
Of a hidden still …
Cool, dark I keep the wine
Of age, that yet may spoil,
Or handled, spill.
The Morning of Glenn Gould‘s Funeral
Hearing him now on the car stereo —
That’s as he wished it when alive —
I look for browsing deer, and slow
For the tight down-curves as I drive
Through deep oak shadows
Over the back way to Ojai.
The October day burns quiet bright and dry
In the brown meadows.
The thing he’s playing’s a rocky-riffled clear
Mountain stream of a piece by Bach:
The bright quick-moving length of it’s here
Along with sun and oak and rock
O brief survival
Glittering in the light and air
And in the dark unbreakable silence there
The new arrival.
An Early Spring Day on
the Upper Santa Ynez, Exploring, Doing a Little
Fishing, Bringing in his Daypack, Along with
Trout-Flies and Lunch, the Paperback
Greek Anthology Made
by Peter Jay
Here were no noises of high-up water
dropping over rock ledges, nor had herders,
in the first big storms last fall, left behind
propped against trees their roughed-in
woodcarvings of the girls of groves, nor were there
young women in cut stone standing under the falls,
smooth beneath their thin dresses of the
creasing water; nor was there any tablet left here,
by a late-summer traveller, in thanks
for the shade and grass and running water.
He had leaned his fly-rod in the fork
of a weedstalk gray from a year
of the weather, and sat reading
Leonidas, and eating a sandwich. Below him
sprawled the remains of an enormous oak,
long fallen, the underparts softening
into dirt. The chill green fire of
the week-old grass worked into them, and on
downslope to the little river running clear
in sunlight. A pair of young oaks nearby
checked a cold wind. He was alone
the whole day in that backcountry. Once
he put the book down to rest his eyes on
the two oaks. They would move only slightly,
briefly, in the gusts. Fresh in their strength,
crisp, pitiless, splendid from stem outward
to their clear leaf-limits, hard trunks
stone smooth, stone colored, they were OK
as the small deities of this steep place.
— there was a red lizard, brick
red — and a red cow in the creek,
showing through the willows, sloshing
awkwardly upstream bawling
frantically for her calf,
which she had lost somehow.
Diving from overhead
came skipping across the pool
where I had caught the rainbow
two dragonflies — Chinese red.
Then an electric blue
dragonfly shot by too.
Then finest of all came one
(Christ! this was years ago)
the color of the air.
I could best see her where
she floated on the stone
distinct where she was not;
seeming, herself, almost
her own faint-featured ghost
over her charcoal show
of self on things below;
and free of anguish there.
Going to Pine Mountain again!
after many years, and just because yesterday
a friend spoke of his own recent visit.
The moon will rise and entangle
itself in the huge old pines up there; and
when that happens — I’ll be exactly where?
Remembering early fall evenings on the Upper North Fork, Matilija
… now that the evening star is bringing on
earlier the day’s last light and its shadows,
how many minutes more will that calm reach
hold the bright tan hillside? and the dark bay leaves
make dark bay leaves on the surface along the bank
of a pool there? and toyon berries, dead ripe by now and
hanging by the fistful, put their redness in your riffles …?
Item in the paper:
‘In people over sixty the
sweat glands have begun
to deteriorate.’ It is
yet another touch
on the hair-trigger
of this horror at what
has been happening
The small disasters arrive
and form up in this
old age. Every change
now, is for the worse.
‘There’s no future in it,’
he jokes to a smooth-faced
young friend, knowing they belong
to different species now.
He’d been thinking
about the young waiter in
the Hemingway tale,
who declares, ‘An old man
is a nasty thing.’ The kid’s
exasperated: it’s closing
time, his girlfriend
is waiting for him. The old
man, the one remaining
patron, quite drunk, has,
with his dignity
intact, just ordered
another brandy. The older
of the two waiters defends
the old man, quietly
and well. The other, not
disputing him, serving
the old man his one more
brandy, sticks to
his own opinion.
He folds up the newspaper.
Nothing to be done
but make ‘Spinoza’s
laconic agreement to
conspire with necessity,’
phrasing he had copied
(from whom? he’s forgotten)
years ago into a notebook.
As for the knowledge and
wisdom of old age, such as
they may be, their basis
and most of their substance
he had built up, well
before he was old, back
when thoughts and perceptions
came at propitious times
unsought-for, quick and clear.…
Mid-July, down the back-country
he loved most, the stream
slow and low, mid-day
above the scrub, how
he’d pour sweat, soak
his heavy belt clear through.
July 21, 1994
For picking a high place,
unsheltered; using shattered rock
to thread roots through to the poor and
shallow soil; strong at extremes: in
relentless winds, only a few
cushion-plants for company
on the last ridge twisting up, up
aslant in thin bright-blue air,
slow swerves in its multiple
twistings, in its grain its warm
colors staying fresh in this dry cold
through the centuries — tree that is one wild contortion
from its sprawled-out clenched-down root system
half-bared by erosion, to the snag
of its tip, single existence in
among existences which sustain
and assail it at the same time: what else
is there to be found — you cannot
imagine the nothingness of the before
and after — you get no further than
the silence of stone, of a standing bristlecone
in the terrific fixity of its achieved exertions.
Still there is a certain casualness in
its leaning into open space, and
in its reach for air and light up here
there’s eagerness not anguish. You see it
in the jaunty half-twirl of
the barkless twig at the top.
Time: the middle hours of a day in late December
I, who love walking, and who always hated riding, who am fond
of some society, but never had spirits that would endure a great deal,
could not, as you perceive, be better situated.
— William Cowper, The Letters…,
(Everyman Library No. 774, p. 201)
The sound of a waterfall down below
had made him turn off the trail; now
he was working his way down,
crouching to get under low
branches, shoving aside or
snapping off the smaller stuff,
his boots skidding, his cap
snatched off once, his pack
twice lodging against a limb,
stopping him dead with a jolt,
making him bend even lower
to go on. He was sliding sidewise
when the falls and its big pool
came into sight. He was here
for the first time.
Just below him,
a boulder sunk into the slope would do
for a seat with the vantage-point
he wanted, once he’d found stones
to fill a wide cleft in it
and cleared away some intruding
thin branches and twigs.
He eased off his pack and sat, still
catching his breath. He’d come out
near the foot of the pool, where the ripples
were pushing upstream in shallow arcs
evenly spaced. The waterfall was bright white,
small and steady. It dropped from the V
formed by a pair of big, clean boulders
up above. And it can’t be improved upon,
He was out of sight
from the trail above, and from the far bank
where the slope was steep and the trees
and the undergrowth too dense for a hiker
to force. He was alone with the place.
He worked out of his pack the box
he’d squeezed a big sandwich into.
He positioned three river-stones on
the slope, to set the box upon. It was almost
level. He drew out his thermos, steadied it
between his boots, and with the edge
of a piece of flat, thin sandstone
that had broken cleanly, loosened
and levelled the soil between two rocks,
unscrewed the thermos cup, and pressed
the rounded bottom into the ground,
rotating it back and forth, to make a socket
for the cup to stand in; and then slowly
filled the cup with coffee. He replaced
the stopper and laid the thermos on the slope,
its base against a boulder. There was no spot
to stand it on. Then he ate, and watched
the yellow leaves revolving at the lower end
of the pool. They went counterclockwise. Those
in front of him travelled upstream, then swerved
back across the water, rejoining the main current
where it drove against, then along, the far bank. Then,
slowing and swinging on back around, the leaves
came toward him on the quiet water. Alder leaves,
brilliant where sunlit, bright in the shadows.
The whole place lay held in the water-fall noise.
He would come up alone to see
what the day here would be like
this time, on this or the other
branch of the little river.
He had been doing so since the days
when few people came up here. He still
liked the hidden edge of danger
here, and the change from the useful
and not so useful routines
at home. As he walked along
taking in things around, his mind
might, on its own, work at some
persisting difficulty in some of
his reading, or in some writing,
and the lacking thing arrive by itself,
he getting it down without delay,
having learned that his memory could
not be trusted with it. The other day
he had read in Aubrey that Hobbes
when at work on Leviathan
often took walks and kept a pen
and inkhorn in the head of
his walking-staff, so that when ‘a
notion darted,’ he could write it
down, on the spot.
— Coming up here
was no escape from any
bad time he was having. He’d learned
that the bad time tagged along.
He liked walking up here
with his wife, with his sons,
with a friend or friends.
When you are here with others,
the place is the occasion and
being with others is the event.
Those were good times.
Memories of them stayed
lively. Always his need
to go up here alone was
for the place itself. In time
it became a physical need.
Within the water-noise he was hearing the buzz-buzz
of some small bird. He couldn’t identify it. Now, still
buzzing, the bird approached in stages, keeping hidden,
causing no movements of the leaves that might
give away its position, but keeping on the move and
both scolding him and sending out the news
of his presence here.
No voices, no other
sounds from above of people going by
up on the trail. The U.S. Forest Service built
the trail, he reminded himself. Trail that leads on
into these mountains — and then on back
down to the narrow dirt road, that takes
you down to the locked gate, where the blacktop
begins, that takes you winding back
down toward.… His sense of things here today
was temporary. Well, so was any sense of things.
He thought of the phrase ‘the lightning flash
of reality’ in a van Gogh letter.
spring day many years back, he was on
the trail along the main fork, nearing
a stretch of the stream he considered his.
You reached it by a hard-to-make-out
way through the scrub. He told no one
about it, he’d never seen anyone else
on it. The stream was beautiful, and it had
many trout in it.
Out of view in his pack
was his new pack-rod, and his other tackle,
all of it first rate. It had taken him years
to get it all together, one item
at a time, mostly. The day before,
a dozen trout-flies had been delivered
Air Mail, Special Delivery, just
in time. They rested now in the clear box
they came in, next to his reel, in the pack
(he kept all his tackle out of sight
until he got down to the stream)
and his mind was on them. They had come
from Livingston, Montana. They were tied
by local women, mostly middle-aged,
sitting at long benches. One year
there had been a photograph of them
in the catalog. The flies were packed
and shipped (by another such woman,
maybe) upon the arrival of his order,
check enclosed. The money it was
that brought them. His dozen
Royal Wulffs had come bobbing down
from Dan Bailey’s on a rivulet
of money — liquidity, that was
the lingo; cash flow, that his job had
turned into; job he was, well, spending
his life in. He saw the whole
country afloat on money. All things were
soaked in it (including money
itself) so that from them money
could be squeezed. A great convenience,
no doubt. Too bad about its power
to pervert.… On such a day
as this, in such a place — what a topic,
he’d thought, his eye alert once again
to any slight change portending
danger to the place: this narrow
road, grassy and weedy down
the middle, dwindling vaguely into
the trail up ahead, was a great threat.…
He had turned off and made his way
down toward the stream, easing through
the stiff, abrasive chaparral, clambering
over boulders, crossing several gullies.
He was fifty miles from home. Inventing
the wheel, Ford Madox Ford had written,
was where we had gone wrong. He’d laughed
when he read that. It had come to seem,
some forty years later, his consideration
of it fitfully persisting, plausible.
He tried to recall the title of that book.
He was midway through lunch when he saw
the quick indistinct movement, deep in the pool.
Getting out his binoculars he soon found
the two trout: six-inchers, like twins.
The floating leaves made excellent cover for
the pair moving slowly below them. Their bodies,
being the green of the clear green sunny water,
looked translucent, their shadows were inconspicuous
among the shadows of the leaves and of the flat
stones on the sandy bottom. He watched the pair
hover, and then cruise, with an easy flick
of fin shifting direction, assured and
unhurried among the shifting pillars of
the shadows of floating alder leaves.
He no longer fished. His tackle stayed in its cabinet.
One day soon he’d divide it among his sons.
They could cut cards to settle any disputes. Now
he was content with just coming up here.
It was one of those places that has
a radiance of its own. You could see it
when your state of attention was right.
The whole pool was lying in one cold shadow.
He replaced the empty thermos and box
in the pack, worked the binoculars back
into their case, and passing the strap over
his head, hung it over his right shoulder so that
the binoculars rested on his left hip. He hoisted
the pack and shrugged into it, buckling
the waist-belt, tightening the shoulder-straps.
The pack had some weight to it. He always carried
what he would need if for any reason
he should have to spend the night up here.
He secured the binoculars to the waist-belt
with a thong, buckled the chest-strap, turned
away from the pool and its waterfall, fought
his way back up to the trail, and once again
headed back down into what lay outspread below.
December 19, 1994
Note: The title of Ford’s book is Great Trade Route.
… she wakes, and with the same
quick start and buoyancy
heads without hesitation
along her usual ways — those
trim routines she fashions
through ordinary days —
yet in an instant, game
for the unscheduled jaunt,
So far as I can see
she’s lived her life out free,
somehow, of the bad passions
(but knows well — forgivingly,
I’ve learned — the ones in me);
free of the wants that claw
and gnaw at others so
for this and that; has no
taint of that vanity,
ambition for her sons.
She’s no worrier. Is brave,
those close to her can attest,
as her youngest son knows best,
whose life she dived to save
in the Rogue — a fast river
well-named from those it drowned.
She’s quick to understand
the good that comes to hand
in the course of things, for what
it’s worth. Her gaiety
at any flash of wit
confirms its quality.
And I saw just last night
her yet again fresh delight
at seeing the moon rise …
August 22, 1996
© 2017 Alan Stephens Poems. All Rights Reserved.