Swimming with Elephants Publications had a chapbook competition this summer. I spent the last weeks of May working my tail off to send in a manuscript. Winners were announced last weekend at the Power to the People Poetry Slam, which included a performance by the Abq Slam Team. I’ve been increasingly nervous as my book made it into the finalists lists, one after another, over the course of July.
I also hadn’t attended a slam in many years. The Abq Slam Team, who are heading to Nationals this month, were truly amazing, performing several powerful, dynamic, affective group pieces, finely crafted, on potent topics. I am so glad the SwEP contest got us out to experience this work! As a friend put it, we were in church.
and my book, The Bones of This Land, won first place! it will be published this fall by Swimming With Elephants Press. It will be a smallish volume, around 40 pages. I will keep you all posted on the details as they emerge! I am so excited!
i remember your first purr.
small creature in from the wild,
slowly learning to trust me.
you had not purred in years,
and you were rusty, motor sputtering,
body half-tensed for flight.
but you let me stroke your chin, slowly,
and you leaned your head into my hand,
where it fit perfectly,
and blinked, slowly, your forgotten purr
rumbling to life.
now you sleep beside my pillow,
and every night, you are purring
before you even leap
onto your spot on my bed.
I stroke your soft chin
and blink back at you
until we both fall asleep.
in late winter or early spring
between the cranes
and the green
the brown world
warms and wakens.
in a single morning,
wheeling and crying,
a hundred thousand sandhill cranes
take to the sky,
create their own north wind,
and leave behind
a warming breeze,
and skies wrung silent.
until the songbirds come.
the eternal sun gleams on bright
brown cottonwood skeletons
pulling up sap from deep roots,
beginning to think about spring.
i am an echo
i am changed and changing.
a seed, a star, soil,
the space between stars.
i am dna, history,
a particular education,
a set of leanings, a fire.
i am often in motion.
every day echoes everything
i have ever been.
deep in cold soil i turn,
awaiting, with patience
the warming spring,
i am not ready yet.
i grew up on a mining claim
in the mountains of central arizona.
bear with me.
i grew up in a nice-enough house
on the poor side of a small town
in the mountains of central arizona.
i walked to school every day,
got a job in a thrift store when i turned 15,
and spent every second weekend
and then some
up at the mine with my dad.
this was not a hobby.
my dad drank hard.
the desert dried him out,
more or less. saved his life.
like a cactus, he retained
what he most valued.
books, beer, his daughters.
the desert gave back clarity,
his skin baked brown under that long sun.
the old copper mine had played out
decades ago, the top collapsed
into an open pit. an ore mill straddled
the hillside above. junk abounded.
old cars, oil barrels, you name it.
the product and refuse of industry.
dad’s buddy Chris would come
up to the claim with beer money
and they stood there talking
in the shade of one real big oak,
where dad kept his camper parked
near the edge of the bluff,
how they were gonna get that mill running,
and make a million bucks.
or even a living.
they didn’t try very hard.
it was enough
to stand in that shade, that sun,
and take in each day. the sun
and the solitude filled him up.
i spent my nights by the light of a kerosene heater,
in the old stone cabin, its shelves
piled with antique chemistry in jars,
enticing and dangerous.
my sister collected interesting rocks,
set them up in a pile by the old mine tailings.
we read books, talked with dad,
sat in the shade, or explored scrub-covered hillsides,
and the seep down the hill, at the old cave-mine entrance,
where a cottonwood grew, and watercress,
while dad sipped his beer, read, smoked cigarettes,
year after year. we ate lentils cooked with an onion,
circus animal cookies, orange crush. it sounds
like poverty, and it was, but those were good years.
twenty years after leaving that place, my sister and i
went back to scatter his ashes. it was not
the place he died, or the place he’d lived the longest.
but it was the only place that made sense.
we had the idea that we’d stand
on the edge of that bluff, under the old oak
that sheltered those years, and throw ash to the wind.
we found the mine. the road was gone,
locked and rucked into hillocks and destroyed.
we walked up.
the old mill was gone. how do you erase
something the size of an ore mill?
a wide flat spot remained, buzzing with
bees drinking nectar from horehound and mallow.
not a single gear or barrel or oil stain remained.
i found one steel washer in the dirt, and a piece of plastic –
a relief. this tiny human thing.
we walked on.
the bluff was gone. the old oak, vanished.
the land just – stopped.
a tree big enough to live under.
a hillside wide enough to grow up on.
washed down the gully. we felt
that we had imagined our childhoods.
the bones of the land
spoke to my bones.
the horizon remained,
limitless, green, unspeaking.
pinned under the vast blue
of that desert sky, and, always,
offering up to it.
nothing had changed, except us.
everything had changed, except us.
we ate lunch surrounded by manzanita and silence.
i found one stone, a pebble,
flecked with mortar
from the vanished cabin beneath the oaks.
i took it home.
now, even that trace is gone.
we scattered his ashes off the new edge of the bluff.
scrub oak and manzanita accepted
the dust of our father’s body,
as they had accepted the dust of his life.
i piled the last handful of ash
beside a tiny purple wildflower.
as we watched, an ant walked on it,
took a fleck of bone carefully in its mandibles,
and walked away.
now even that trace is gone.
it lives, like you,
only in our bones.
the perseids fall.
the weather breaks,
sharp heat turning to sudden wind
and sometime rain.
i stand at the kitchen sink,
scrubbing what remains of your life.
a photo of the most beautiful work
your hands ever made.
the thing itself long since rotted
by mountain rains and sometime sun.
a license plate with your radio call sign,
the name you kept even after moving
to a place ham radio could not reach;
the plate you kept long after
you stopped driving.
eleven years of cigarette
smoke and winter gloom
scrubbed off the glass.
sent down the drain.
i cannot love only
the beautiful, only the proud, only
the moments of shining redemption.
i can only love you whole.
i wrap myself in the last coat
that comforted you in life,
curl up in the brief, welcome coolness
of a rainy desert night,
i stand in a twilit field
watching the water ease in,
watching flickering bats hunt mosquitoes,
watching you prepare to leave again.
the water seeps over dry soil,
finds every fissure, pours in.
the bat careens in circles,
appearing and disappearing against a darkening sky,
feasting and frantic.
you load the last boxes into your truck,
shut the tailgate, and meet my eyes.
it will be half a year
before you return.
the last light slips from the sky.
at least, this time, it is summer.
the heat of this night must hold me
until you return.
a clip of one of the two poems I performed at this past weekend’s Albuquerque Aerialist Collective show, A Curated Exhibition of the Lost & Found. this video was taken at rehearsal the night before the show. by opening night, i had actually managed to memorize that line at the end.
my dad, and the girl scouts, taught me how to read a map.
to interpret topography, climb a mountain, return home.
to carry a compass at all times, and to use it.
if you have this, you can never get lost.
for years i kept one in my purse.
now i remember your crooked brown finger,
tracing the line, then pointing out the ridge.
now i map my past, trace roads and ridges
on satellite maps, hunt out your old campsites,
feel the curve of the land and the road in
the shape of my childhood,
to find my way back to you.
to bring what is left of your body
and what is left of my childhood,
back to one place,
and feel that long sunlight,
and the ash in my hands.