As I rode my bike past this tennis court just southeast of Crested Butte, Colorado, I felt a pang of sympathy. Its brethren in Florida and Arizona and most places in the country, really, teem with people and balls and action. Not this one. He sits alone surrounded by peaks and trails and aspen groves, pining for company, pining to be needed, played on. One can only hope he enjoys the view.
We are sitting at the bar in the Blue Fox in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s an election year and the TV is tuned to the National Geographic channel. Right now it’s a show about elephants. On the big screen we see a mama elephant and her adorable baby sharing an affectionate moment. Even though the scene takes place out on the African savanna where things are supposed to be “nature red in tooth and claw,” everybody here at the Blue Fox looks at the TV and goes: “Awww. . . .”
Then for no apparent reason, mama elephant tips over and collapses to the ground. Everybody gasps. “What’s going on? Is this how elephants take a nap? Is she dead?” Meanwhile baby elephant has his own problems. He is looking at mama lying there on the ground. The expression on his face—and yes, you can recognize it—is one of bewilderment. The look says: “What the hell, mama? I love you, please get up!” But mama does not get up. She does not move. She might really be dead. The look on baby elephant’s face now shifts from bewilderment to full blown terror. He turns and runs away, exiting the camera’s frame.
Enter now a couple of scientists dressed in stylish his-and-her safari outfits. We know they are scientists because he’s shouldering a tranquilizer rifle and she’s carrying what appears to be a medical satchel. The volume on the TV is turned off—and we’ve all had a few drinks—so admittedly some of this report should be taken as guesswork on my part. Nonetheless, the two presumed scientists, smiling for the camera, proceed with their business.
They attend to mama elephant, who—it’s safe to infer—is out cold from a Mickey Finn delivered with a dart. The scientists start taking measurements of mama’s body. She does not move. If she’s still breathing, we here in the bar can’t see it. The female scientist, still smiling for the camera, reaches into her satchel and pulls out the all the gear needed to make a venipuncture and draw some blood. The bar goes silent. All eyes are on the smiling scientist as she steps toward mama elephant’s comatose mass. She runs a cool hand over mama elephant’s ear. The vein is located. The needle is unsheathed. It glitters in the African sun. “This won’t hurt a bit. . . .”
Somebody in the bar shouts: “I can’t take this anymore! Change the channel! Let’s watch the Republican convention!”
Sometimes we sit in this place, just stare out the window at mountains and forests and parking lots. This is Alaska and that’s what happens here. Elsewhere it’s another story. And another. And yet another. A less pleasant story, one that’s on its way. It draws closer and closer. It will be here soon. What ever shall we do?
Look! There. See! Our reflection in the window.
The new parking lot in Alaska is already becoming sketchy. The yellow lines laid down just last year are fading. You can barely read them anymore. Soon they’ll be gone altogether, erased by sun. Drivers then will be forced to fill in the blanks. They will park as best as they can, as best as they can remember where the lines once were, where the lines ought to be, as they are or ought to be in all the other lots within the horizon of their experience: supermarkets and mega-churches, stadiums and mortuaries. That would be the best case scenario.
It could go otherwise. It probably will. Without the lines to guide them, people will park wherever there’s an opening or an opening can be made. In short order, chaos will ensue. The pavement will fill up with vehicles parked any which way, just as a blank page is heaped with somebody’s ill-begotten words. Things will spill out onto the margins, even beyond. The whole scene will come to look like a junkyard.
Skiing on the Fourth of July is a tradition for some, less so for me. But I love it every time I do it. Our parade of nine, hailing from near and far, convened at a trailhead up a washboard-y dirt road last week to say goodbye to the 2015-16 ski season on this swath of discolored white. After the turns (and caviar and champagne at the top of the hike) we barbecued bratwursts and drank beer.
My informant for this story is my wife. I was gone for the day hiking.
Catherine took the collies for their morning walk. The big collie—still licking the wounds inflicted to his self-esteem by yesterday’s mishap at the haunted well—decided he needed some alone time. So off he darted once again through the woods to the Stinky Pond. Nothing like a good mud spa to salve a collie’s injured pride. He was gone a good half hour or more. Meanwhile Catherine and the little collie continued on their peaceful stroll through the woods. Eventually they started heading home and still no sign of the big collie.
Just for a change of scenery, they decided to take a lesser-used path that runs along the side of the hill, among the broken ledges and immense dying hemlocks. Some of the biggest trees on Paradise Hill are found here. Also some of the biggest bears, who leave some of the biggest scats you’ll ever find in the woods. And if you can’t find one yourself, don’t worry, the little collie will. And wouldn’t you know it, this morning she did. A nice big, fresh, steaming pile of hell candy! Upon which the little collie promptly plopped down and started to roll. What fun! The only thing better than this would be to tangle with the bear itself.
Oh wait! This was the little collie’s lucky day! That poor bear was right over there, not more than a couple hundred feet away, fresh from its innocent crap. And the little collie was off! She charged right at the bear—barking barking barking! For its part, the bear started with a menacing look, then gave a growl, then started charging right back. The little collie—no dummy— immediately turned tail and started blazing back toward Catherine, who surely could fix this little problem.
This story might not be ending well were it not for the big collie. Out of nowhere—or more likely, the Stinky Pond—he burst from the hemlock shadows—charging, growling, barking—and heading straight for the oncoming bear! Now it was the bear’s turn to turn tail and flee. The big collie was right after it—barking barking barking. The chase concluded when the bear wisely scooted up a tree. The big collie stopped, looked up, and reckoned his job was done.
He turned around and trotted back—smiling triumphant—to Catherine and the little collie, who were awaiting the return of their stinky hero.
This is not how the story is supposed to go.
The big collie takes off through the woods toward the Stinky Pond. He has a mud spa in mind. The rest of us keep walking along the trail. “He’ll come back soon.” Time passes. No sign of the big collie. The little collie is starting to look worried. Abruptly then, far off in the distance, the sound of panicky barking. It’s the big collie! What’s he gotten into?
The little collie takes off in the direction of the barking. I take off after the little collie. The big collie’s panicky barking continues. He’s never done this before. Must be big trouble! The little collie and I run through the woods as fast as we can. We run and we run and we run. The big collie keeps barking, barking, barking. I lose sight of the little collie. I’m getting winded. We’ve come a long way through the woods and I’m a long way from my marathon days. The barking ceases. Where’s the little collie?
I spot her standing next to the crumbling wall of the haunted well. I approach her and turn the corner. I look down and there’s the big collie! He’s fallen into the well. He’s okay but he can’t get out on his own. The look on his face is that of the favorite having just lost the big match to the underdog. He needs help. So I roll up my pant legs and lower myself into the murky depths. At first it’s up to my knees but then when I begin to lift him out I sink another foot into the primordial ooze at the bottom of the well. Rescue complete. The big collie is so happy to be out of the watery entrapment that he shakes off the mud into my face.
I claw my way up and out of the well. The big collie is already off running with joy through the woods. The little collie gives me a puppy head tilt that says: “Can we change his name to Timmy?”
In the hours before this double rainbow appeared, I sat on a plane that was forced to fly 200 miles off course due to thunderstorms, while a wailing baby (ours) threw a temper tantrum in the seat next to me. It was stressful; the boy was angry for at least an hour straight. After the flight finally ended, we walked outside in the rain and took a bus to the parking lot, with a two-hour drive ahead of us. Then this rainbow appeared. We stood in silence and stared at nature’s little gift. For the first time in half a day, everything seemed OK.
I hope you enjoy these poems here in the midst of summer. To me they are memorable and surprising in their clear and lovely evocation of simple things, like rain, anxiety, wonder, and silence.
SEVENTEEN WAYS OF SAYING RAIN
The Japanese have seventeen words for rain.
Rain that makes the yellow leaves fall, rain that drips from a downspout into the mint patch, rain that beats a tattoo on the metal roof, rain that soaks through a waterproof jacket, rain that hangs like small pearls on spruce branches, rain that turns river water café au lait, rain that drips from the backs of black and white cows, rain on marsh marigolds that was snow yesterday, rain that rolls rocks down onto a mountain pass, rain that makes dust puffs rise from dry earth, rain that shines through July afternoon sunlight, rain that smells of wood stacks and wood smoke, rain that hisses on asphalt under truck wheels, rain that unearths mushrooms in the forest , rain that paints deep red the sandstone cliffs, rain that bends down the faces of sunflowers, rain that mingles with tears of sorrow.
The bell had hung there forever, it seemed.
We came to the church with our children
after years of childlessness—sleeping in,
reading each section of the fat Sunday paper,
drinking café au lait from bowls made by potter-friends.
Sundays were for museum-going,
brunches out with mimosas, omelets filling
elegant white plates, walks around the reservoir.
The gray wood church was nothing like
the brick edifices of our childhoods,
pews stuffed with families,
lines of men standing along the aisles, holding their hats.
By the time we prodigals returned to church,
it was a half-forgotten ritual.
You could always get a seat.
White-robed acolytes, tasked with pulling
the fat white rope each Sunday,
were lifted up on tiptoe, pulled by the heavy bell.
Once, the smallest boy went aloft for a second.
Now the tower’s closed for business, the bell silent.
Rotted window frames, sagging beams
wait for the engineer’s report.
No peals disturb neighbors on the street
where the church stands, unremarkable, plain,
against a backdrop of pines and oaks.
This sixty-year old bell used to strike ten times,
a call to worship, a wedding. On the day
of the death ritual, the bell rang the ancient
three times three strokes for a man,
three times two for a woman.
Sliding into a pew this winter morning
I hear the near-absence of sound, or maybe only
the rustle of a choir robe, a cough, the accidental slam
of the front door as a latecomer slips in.
If it has a soul, the bell
must be bursting with the long wait,
its peals constrained. It’s an unnatural quiet—
its barrel still, ear asleep, its tongue tied.
YOU’RE DOING IT AGAIN!
“You’re doing it again!”
I remove my chewed up left pinky tip, sporting swelled spots and mini blood drops,
From my mouth, and squeeze it in my right fist.
The sting makes my ring finger twitch.
Then pointer and thumb start to scratch, they tap and fumble on the table,
I’m not hungry, or sharpening.
“That’s a nasty habit.”
I’m not teething.
Then there’s a middle nail bit resting on my tongue and I’m not sure whether to spit
Or swallow. I toss it in my teeth, against roof ridges, then
Notice nine fingers left in need of leveling.
Perhaps left for dead
in some sodden gulch
tart on my tongue.
You still carry the voice
of glacier melt
the quartzite gleam of memory
lost in faded composition
your epoch diary.
Speak to me the language
of speckled trout,
the winding current,
the solace of lush banks
and distant falls.
I reach for you now
to make this canyon ring
to shatter me alive
to make this lifetime count.
THE PRIMATE HOUSE
We watch. One Black Howler strokes the other down the belly. He rests his hand on her light pink crotch, then pats aggressively. They are hunched on a high branch, probably plastic. Their tails grip others nearby, for stability (we infer). We imagine their muffled howls. There’s a couple behind us, shoulder-to-shoulder, texting. The light of their phones is captured in the thick glass that separates us from the horny Howlers. You turn to me and ask, what if the aliens came down to Earth and caged the human race? We gaze into our reflections, Black Howlers and LED dancing in our peripherals.
fear of forgetting
We were birding North Park
and along the highway
each electric pole held a raptor
hunched and hungry
for the smorgasbord
of jackrabbits smeared
across blacktop, waiting
for first light to strip
down mountain shoulders,
sweep green into the valley
and it was right then that
I said something profound
which rang honesty
like a small silver bell
but I couldn’t stop to jot it
so I pledged to remember
and kept it safe in mind until
the pull off where we piled out
to study phalaropes
in Lake John which launched
an ascension of ibis
and my perfect line rose too,
wisps of the root thought
dangling in the mist
and while white birds circled,
dropped like smokejumpers,
found balance on one leg,
that thistledown of truth kept flying.
Kierstin Bridger is author of Demimonde—recently out by Lithic Press and shortlisted for the 2015 Manchester Poetry Prize. She is winner of the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize and the 2015 ACC Writer’s Studio award. Find her poetry in Thrush Poetry Journal, Tulane Review, Fugue, Contrary and December. She earned her MFA at Pacific University. www.kierstinbridger.com.
Chloe Mozer, currently a freshman at Pitzer College, grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She attended high school at Francis W. Parker, where she discovered her passion for reading and writing poetry—through the inspiration of teachers such as Bonnie Seebold, David Fuder and Matt Laufer.
Beth Paulson’s poems have recently appeared in Ellipsis and are forthcoming in Common Ground and Cloudbank. Her newest book, Canyon Notes, was published in 2012 by Mt. Sneffels Press.
Formerly an art teacher, Harriet Stratton practices what she taught, reads poetry with a passion, and listens to birds. Currently at work on a poetry manuscript, she is a member of the Poetry Book Project at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.
Lynne Viti teaches in the Writing Program at Wellesley College, where her courses focus on law, media, and bioethics. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Blognostics, Silver Birch Press, A New Ulster, Journal of Applied Poetics, Moonsick Magazine, Three Drops from a Cauldron, The Lost Country, Irish Literary Review, The Song Is, and Grey Sparrow Review. She blogs at stillinschool.wordpress.com.
Spring is all about new life. In the high country, aspen trees bud, dandelions bloom, fox kits scamper around the junkyard. In Minnesota, as my uncle-in-law showed me last week, blue birds lay eggs in PVC pipe nests.