Read an Excerpt
Crossing the River
Poets of the Western United States
By Ray Gonzalez
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1987 Ray Gonzalez
All rights reserved.
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"
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
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
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
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.
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,
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.
on her shoulder,
a dozen shallow trenches, scratched
by the ornamental claws of a walrus blanket, that
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
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
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
WILLIAM PITT ROOT
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
this land over a blue idea
melting behind them, burning before.
The flatfaced stones beneath my feet
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.
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.
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