Crossing the River: Poets of the Western United States

Crossing the River: Poets of the Western United States

by Ray Gonzalez
This anthology introduces some of the best younger poets writing west of the Mississippi, including William Pitt Root, Alberto Rios, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jim Simmerman, Sandra Alcosser, and 64 others.


This anthology introduces some of the best younger poets writing west of the Mississippi, including William Pitt Root, Alberto Rios, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jim Simmerman, Sandra Alcosser, and 64 others.

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Permanent Press, The
Publication date:
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6.48(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.55(d)

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Crossing the River

Poets of the Western United States

By Ray Gonzalez

The Permanent Press

Copyright © 1987 Ray Gonzalez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2407-5



Crossing the River

"Today, walking south of the river, I remembered those figures — wide, dusky wings flapping, necks of carved ivory — I knew that I had seen the birth of a new language"

Jon Davis


    For All the Sad Rain

    O my friends why are we so weak
    In winter sunlight why do our knees knock,
    Why do we walk with small steps, ugly
    And spindly as baby birds

    Whose world do we think this is?
    O my friends take it,
    O my friends don't look at each other
    Or anyone else before you speak.

    I have had enough of scared field mice
    With trembling pink ears,
    I have had enough of damp
    Diffident handshakes,

    Do you think I haven't been stepped on by giants?
    Do you think my teachers didn't stand me in a corner
    For breathing, do you think my own father
      didn't burn me
    With the wrath of a blast furnace for wanting to sit
      on his knee?

    Indeed I have been pressed between steamrollers,
    I have had both my feet cut off, and the pancreas
    And the liver and lungs of the one I love
    Have been sucked out of my life and the air around me

    Has turned to cereal, how will I stand up,
    What opinions can I offer but I will not be silent,
    There are dogs who keep their skinny tails
    Permanently between their legs

    But also there are sleek horses, as easily as there are curs
    There are squash blossoms that flower around fountains
    Like white butterflies, there is courage everywhere,
    For every reluctant nail-biter

    There are a hundred raised fists,
      for every broken broomstick
    There are millions of bent grasses snapping
    Back and forth at the sky, beating the blue carpet
    As hard as they can, with the frail tassels of their hair

    For every pair of eyes squeezed tight
    Under colorless lids there are thousands of others
    Wide-open, on the proud columns of their necks turning,
    Observing everything like King Radar,

    O my friends for all the sad rain in heaven
    Filling our dinner plates you have ten fingers of honey
    Which are your own, stretch them, stick them up
    And then, wave to me, put your arms around
      each other's shoulders

    When we meet in a field with no fences
    The horizon is yours, and the books and all the opinions
    And the water which is wine and the best bed
    You can possibly think of to lie in.

    After the First Embrace

    We are separated almost at once
      From every airport we are calling

    As the wash of liquid heat
      Disperses itself love

    Thins out, cooling
      Over the whole globe,

    But after the first embrace
      In Sacramento there will be one pocket,
        Here and there others,

    A few cooking fires friends
      That still remain to us flickering
        Just over the lip of earth,

    Gathered around the hearth signaling
      Greetings from nowhere
        Touchable ...

    As the messages come back, jittering
      Over the torn wires

    Lying in bed, I listen
      To the tapes they send, spoken

    Days past: the children
      Fly back and forth, believers

    They grow tomatoes, bread
      Rises in small ovens,

    Thread knots itself into islands
      Clusters of people waving

    For the lacework of our lives
      Is so fragile, by day

    From East to West fingertips
      Ravel, reach for each other ...

    But talking all night like candles
      In the windows of the young

    Though we gutter out by morning
      In Mexico, China, Greece,
        Each face cannot be present

    Every minute where are you
      Though the fabric rots the pain

    Holds us together here
      In Cuba, Alaska, New Zealand

    Fire shoots across the heavens,
      Or falls in the water, stunned

    Tongues speak, burning
      Chunks of meterorites whose absence

    Is not absence in this life waking
      In darkness I hear your voices

    We who are one body
      We who are one body.


    Great River In Arid November

    This cloudless morning we walk into the river's
    Bed sucked dry to its middle by November drought.
    Only the ripple marks, rounded scars of old flows,
    Announce that deep water raged here once.
    The waved and scalloped sand shines like a small Sahara.
    It tells secrets about the furious underbelly
    Of melting snow and how it swirled silt to shape —
    Rain-rasped from shoulders of Colorado rock.

    Everywhere smooth disdainless mounds
      and valleys cradle
    And seduce the light. All is bleached and frail.
    All is order shaped by formlessness — brittle peace
    Lapped and havened beneath the sun's bland watch.
    And yet so much perfection — and poise — disconcerts.
    The very stillness says "no wet, no life." Far off,
    High, we hear the cronks of equatorial geese
    And begin to wish this way might suddenly roar
    With spring. The prim sandy scrolls beg savage birth.

    But to be drowned to life is a fearful thing.
    So quickly we turn toward the grassy bank, climb
    Back into our world of fixed stumps and cracks. Then we
    Look down once more and pray this dried pelvic place,
    Earth's lavish cup, will fill again, but stay its course.

    Thinking of Fairy Tales

    We read them still.
    When we do they are good enough
    to keep us awake,
    these mouths of all beginning.

    What is it?
    What is it exactly that they hold for us,
    even when we've crumbled into bland adults?

    We would have to look into some pool
    into the pure center
    of its deepest
      to find an answer.
    It would come as a fish, as an ugly head,
    as a contrary mote of light.
    We would have to take the fairy tale test
    of admitting we are helplessly big.
    We would have to stoop down to the littleness
      of the polliwog.

    It is hard to see our life as shambles or pit.
    It is hard to find "the prettiest girl that ever was"
      is the soul we've airily aborted.
    It is hard to recognize the "kind king" as the son
      we've slaughtered.

    Late Walk With a Father

    My father appears at the door.
    And asks, "How are you, son?"
    Evening's wind jokes with his thin hair.
    He has the look of a vague star,
      the voice of a dreaming tree.
    "I'm all right," I tell him.
    "And you, are your fields still drunk with sunflowers?"
      He smiles. "No, they're all quiet now."

    He comes with the evening into my room.
    Watches me with his two different eyes.
    Then says, "How about that hike in the hills?"
    I stare into his right eye
    a coldness in it,
      the silence of the owl's swoop.
    We walk out but I can't think what to say.
    All I can remember is my mother undressing.


    Pt. Barrow

    She was lactating. We know this
    by the right, swollen breast.
    By the swollen bladder, the lank stomach,
    we know it was early morning.

    So the hours become these hours.

    An Arctic storm, rare in the springtime,
    scales sod from a dome
    by the amber, marrow-filled bones of the gray whale.
    Beneath it, a woman,
    a man and small child are sleeping.
    The dome is made humid by a circular flame of moss,
    sputtering in the throat of a seal-lamp.
    In its blinking, flip-frame light, the sleepers,
    the arrows and buckets,
    appear, disappear.

    It is 1600.

    The woman wakes to a yawl of cracking whalebones.
    At the beach below her shelter, the on-shore wind,
    the flood-tide, the sea-ice melting for weeks

    combine in a statement of preservation.

    Nothing in her world has sounded like this, has
    pressed like this. She is lifted,
    tasting salt. Slowly, her stiffened walrus blanket
    leaves ridges on her buttocks.

    We trace them.

    We trace the ragged blossoms of seal-smoke
    blackening her lungs.

    There is sperm stalled at the lip of her cervix.
    And here,

    on her shoulder,
    a dozen shallow trenches, scratched
    by the ornamental claws of a walrus blanket, that

    chafed, chafed,

    that, just before midnight, rolled off

    with her spent husband, like
    a black bear, comic, mottled with light.

    Surely, she spoke then. Surely
    the child, keeping sleep, took
    her language to a dream, gave it
    motion, shape,
    hurled its icy, perfect body into the hours.

    Child in the Wagon

    The child in the wagon remembers a sound:
    leaves that clicked down the cobblestones
    like the toenails of running dogs.
    It was evening. She turned, expecting the worst,
    and found instead the swirl of madrona leaves
    and then on the street corner
    candleflames cupped in their glass boxes.

    I will not hear that sound again, she thinks,
    and looks to her left, right,
    where the long Conestoga wagons bumble
    through the switchgrass. There are forty, indigo
    and red, moving not single file but abreast,
    their hoops and canvas hoods swaying white, and
    seen from above, the child thinks, like a wave
    spilling into the harbor, its line of froth
    and the dust swelled up behind like a second wave.

    So the pattern continues, until day ends
    and the center wagons stall, all their horses
    simply stepping in place as the end wagons
    arc toward one another and the wagoners
    on their lazyboards draw up
    their perfect circle, like the nets of Maine fishermen.
    That evening, near sleep on the floorboards,
    the child describes to her parents
    the sound of madrona leaves, running dogs.
    How, for an instant, fear passed through her
    like an icy tooth — the long-haired sea dogs
    rushing in from the ships —
    and then there was nothing: leaves, a certain peace.

    And that sound ... like this? her mother whispers,
    clicking knives to a pewter cup. Then the father —
    who will die in October, his cheeks in miniature
    the caved salt cliffs they are leaving —
    begins, tapping this, that, this, that,
    until the wagon, in its circle of wagons, fills.
    And there on the canvas, the child thinks,
    how beautiful the hand shadows are:
    great moths come in from the wilderness.
    Like this? they ask. Like this?
    As if in a moment, the absolute sound
    might appear — then the dogs rush past, thick with loss.
    And there would be peace.


    The Arrival of My Mother

    — New Mexico Territory, 1906

    She got off, according to her diary,
    dressed in a lovely beaded gown, fresh
    from Washington with sixteen trunks of ballgowns,
    chemises, blouses (4 Middie), shoes and assorted
    lingerie. She was at that time about 25, old
    for an unmarried woman. Her stiff mother was at
    her side, she also wildly overdressed for New Mexico
    sun and wind.

    What must she have thought, seeing my uncle standing,
    hat in hand in the dust of that lonely train house,
    cracked yellow paint, faded letters of welcome
    for passengers that rarely come?

    The buckboard was waiting and they rode out into
    the darkness of evening toward the tent, & that half
    built frame homestead house, wind dying as the sun
    sank, birdcries stilled.

    I see her now outshooting my father and me, laughing
    at our pride and embarrassment. My sister, as good a
    shot, waiting her turn. Or that picture of her
    on horseback, in Eastern riding clothes beside the Pecos.
    A picnic when I was small and how my father lifted me up
    to her and she carefully walked the horse around rock
    and sand.

      I suppose she finally arrived in New Mexico
    in the April of one year when my sister and I sat beside
    a rented bed, each holding one of her hands and watched
    her eyes grow childlike, unmasked as a kachina
    entering the final kiva of this dance. The old mother
    heavy with years slipped away and the woods of New
    England dimmed as these dry hills ripened and caught
    her last breath, drums, drums should have sounded
    for the arrival of my mother.

    In Sere & Twisted Trees

    — El Rito, New Mexico

    Walking the small trails of stonecropped hills,
    my son and I read with the grains of our skins
    the old language, its tongues of night and day,
    toned winds and the watching trees and skies.

    How it all grows easy and secure when one realizes
    everything is alive in the summer's sun, listening
    watching. I speak to my brothers. I tell them
    we are coming, meaning no harm. Wait. My son, 10,
    is a fisherman, and he hopes to catch trout.
    I tell them this, promise he will eat what he catches.
    I will see to this.

      A prayer for the trout.
    A prayer for my son, whom I love more than ever
    watching his graceful figure dance to the rod
    and fly he made. I needn't have bothered the trout.
    He was wiser than my son. We walk back, Kevin,
    still excited, apparently not caring about the lack
    of fish, full of the adventure of the day.

    He no longer holds my hand now, and I understand.
    His embraces are quick, embarrassed, his eyes
    shifting warily away towards the hills. It won't
    be long, as this canyon's time is measured,
    before he leaves me. Pray for me, Trout.
    Pray for me, Mountain Stream.


    There is This You, This Me

    There is a net between your breasts
    a net of deep sighs & fields mowed with blades of steel.
    There is an owl who flies over you
    an owl whose eyes bleed & who never remembers names.
    There is an ear at your side, an ear that hears
    whispers of other lovers
    who've come to you on mornings like these.

    There is soil between your teeth
    soil of buried seeds & vanished towns, of hidden
    letters & deaths of ones near.
    There is a highway that connects us
    a highway through trample of rain
    & mirrored canyons at the break of day.

    There is this you, this me
    who fold into the deepest blossom
    with no fear of night's undertow, no dark hedge
    behind which to pretend.

    There is a river of dust, a mirage
    of silence to begin the world.
    There is your face & mine.
    There are these bodies never here for long
    these breasts & private parts ready to sing.
    This innocence, this lust
    this pain we hold.

    There is this you, this me
    who sleep inside shadows, who rise
    from under a wing, to grasp a hand through a flame
    & discover Someone waiting, whose flesh
    reveals the Body inside the bodies of everyone.

    Hymn for a Night Feast

    Take the war from me.
    Take the penumbra for a crossroad.
    Make a parachute from our bedsheets.
    Run your hand across the circuit of air
    stirred by our bodies.

    Take the right and wrong from me.
    Take the gleam in the Lamb's eye
    and wear it as a gown.
    Our flesh is counterfeit.
    Fire douses water.
    Flame spreads the wind.

    Take the smoke from my garden.
    Take the river as extreme unction.
    This room is moist with praise.
    A crane lifts its wings
    under a canopy of filtered light.

    Take what is left and rock the sea.
    Take the firefly, the hour hand, the iris.
    Make me glorious to the world again.
    Give me courage to ask
    your name.


    Light in a House of Mirrors

    considerations at La Push

    "Islands high as our inland hills"
    — John Logan

    I sleep deep in a clump of dark humped trees
    where the river forks and roars below a bridge.
    I sleep fitful as light in a house of mirrors,
    dream of a drunken Indian
    who sells me my own scalp slick as a skinned cat, dripping.

      But when I wake and write to a friend
    the dream I tell for her
    is of a shape like my shape by the river,
    filling slowly with a sunlight
    bright as honey, quick as rain.
    A tall attentive glow beside dark water.

    Here were the flatfaced people whose earthfathers
    circled toward
    this land over a blue idea
    of godliness
    melting behind them, burning before.

    The flatfaced stones beneath my feet
    predate Cezanne
    longer than 10,000 redwoods end-to-end have lived
    swallowing air and sunlight, rain and drifting
    soil up into that gradual dance of the self
    in whose shadow even longlived tortoise withers —

    Split and fracture,
      dark falls of light
    squaring edges of the once-round stone.
    Scald and freeze of passion's glance and intellect's regard.

    A great ghoul grey from the ruin of a log
    rose like mist before me
    as I took my last steps back to camp, startling
    as if to distract me from my story.
      But no,
    it was only my imagination, yellow-eyed and moss-faced

    Once there was more land, higher than now. The
    waters grew jealous, gathered their tribes and conspired.
    Men knew this and the greatest planned to
    flee inland, leaving the others — the sickly and the
    weak — to form a wall to hold back the waters. So
    there they stood, and the waters were delayed before
    they rushed inland. Today we can see the
    heads of the old ones at the shore here, vast, moss-
    haired, silent — for these were the runts, the least of
    their race — and we feel dwarfed beside them. For
    the greatfathers, who were saved, shrivelled among
    the safe places far inland. The heroes still stand
    guard at the edges. We call them stones so we will
    not remember. They no longer speak to us, who
    are neither their sons or daughters.


Excerpted from Crossing the River by Ray Gonzalez. Copyright © 1987 Ray Gonzalez. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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