Poetry Supplement Summer 1999, Volume 17.0
Allan Johnston (Ph.D., UC Davis) received a finalist award in poetry from the Illinois Arts Council in 1999. He has published one book of poetry, Tasks of Survival (Mellen Poetry Press, 1996) and recently had work appear in Poetry and Rhino. Currently he teaches writing, creative writing, and literature at Oakton Community College, DePaul University, and Columbia College. See other poetry published in Weber Studies by Allan Johnston: Vol. 6.2, Vol. 11.2, Vol. 14.2, and Vol. 19.3.
Seven Poems from Return
1. Listening to Buddhists While Driving Into Nevada
The highway leads us to the golden promise.
It moves toward the stars, past Desolation,
the Wilderness Area clinging in grey-white
rocky prominence above us, granite
massed over the forest. But halfway there
half the forest has burned completely over.
This is the road that leads to the casinos.
This is the road under "improvement." We wait
half an hour as the Russ Food Vans
pass the washout while the workers smoke
their cigarettes. We put in a tape
of mountain people, tantric Buddhist monks,
chased out of their homeland, now living in Berkeley.
Underneath the burn a few bright elms
have come back among the tamaracks.
with the rise of night
on the west edge
of the continent as we wait
to drive into the state of games,
the monks chanting prayers on the stereo,
filling the world of the car, or filling
night or all the possible thoughts
of risk the billboards play upon,
showing the man who rolls out the dice
and shouts out "Oh, Baby!"
as the paneled truck goes by
following the flag car.
I turn on the motor,
momentarily cut the chant, and we follow in the line
like ants entranced by pheromones.
At the crest sky opens in all directions,
empty of all meaning, full of hope.
In their deepest interweave of chanting,
so it is said, the monks' deep basses cross
and recross in cascades of overtones
that hum and spin, and gradually take form
in the image of a dancing child,
or even as some geometric shape,
and this is Shiva dancing in the origin
and in the end enacted.
As we drive
the energy keeps booming through the stereo,
and everything is already here
at the other edge of Desolation,
by Lake Tahoe.
And yet, when we hike
into this place where man is not allowed
his work, we find the human everywhere,
not just where campers spread their neon tents,
but even on the trail we follow up
to the hard geometries of granite.
The maps and signs tell us where we are heading,
and names have been attached to every peak.
We follow trail blazes, count the time
to get in, go up, and get out again,
to reach the car by nightfall. At Velma Lakes,
even the ducks are tuned in to our game;
they recognize the presence of the beast
that feeds them. One swims to us on the shore,
walks out, waits for food, then scratches, jumps
back in the water, bored with all that ogling
that doesn't bring a handout. Silence reigns;
plants go on with growing, slow explosions
out of the form we place on all we touch.
They are intent only on the water
and sunlight moving on these slopes in summer.
3. Tahoe City
Along the roadside, buildings cluster:
restaurants, stores, and hotels;
bicycle rentals and accessory shops.
This is a tourist town,
and we are tourists here, not here for casinos
or jet skis, just for the woods, air, water,
trees and animals, life.
Down south, someone
also seeks his pleasure in the woods.
He's lit nine forest fires in two days,
then disappeared, leaving the smoke haze
that blots camera views and scenes of the lake
from the slopes.
We're here for the scene;
scene, not the action, action, not interaction;
only the way up and down,
in and out
of these ancient mountains; this is what we are here for.
Coming out of the Wilderness,
one finds lines of cars
crawling from California.
These are places we have invaded:
sailboats, jet skis, silences, impostures,
dildos, swordfish, hamburgers, a trolley.
Everything assigned an importance
in the cash crop of the tourists
flowing through by the millions
each year like spawning fish.
Here the water slowly bursts and sinks,
thousands of years. Board feet
of trees lie idle, listless in noonday heat.
We look at forests
and see nothing.
4. Mt. Tallac
The forest is organization, deep and strong
It leaves its lilac scripture in the lichen
spreading up the schist. It knows the lesson
in the fracture lines of stone,
up and out of ponderosa pine,
the extravagance of flowers. It spreads
dreams the way imagination
might spread were it not held
by the thought of all that
might be real or unreal.
Call it self-unconsciousness, distraction;
the fact is the mountain is here,
shedding skin in talus slopes
we scramble on, climbing for hours
from the point where forest dwindles,
leaving traces only twisting
out of rocks like those of dreams
or the lush green leaf
with its Christmas spires of parasite.
Here a worm or caterpillar
blends onto a leaf. The ridge
it forms marks
of mountains, dust
we kick up with our feet
as we go up, come down, go on.
night is cool at camp, the stars are everywhere
silent between the trees. The quiet grows
from outside and inside. We see how
the dreaming evening passes into nothing
that is not joined to us. We find the stars
shining empty, airless light through space,
and somehow in the coolness we feel warm.
On one side
on the other
rock music, laughing drinkers
boasting about accomplishments—
the enclosed world. Men in tee-shirts,
girls in chic dresses. Being here
is a statement. It shows wealth
and status. There is no being
other than this need
to understand the night
with stars outside the lights
Next to us, quietly, suddenly,
a lake wave washes against the breakwater.
It is there. This is the way
water unveils itself
not with a laugh
but with a ripple
into the deepening pools of concentration,
into the rock it hides within itself.
It separates the mountains from each other,
makes pebbles round as teardrops on the beaches,
eroded form liberated in water:
leaf drip, blown splash, rock wave, plane of stillness
water laughs, and drinkers laugh
boast of sport or job, eye
each other, checking skirt length, comparing
compromising thoughts in liquid form,
late at night. Shutting up.
Everyone has gone to bed
except one drunkard, lost in the sea
of his weaving, wary and slow,
close to unconsciousness.
A waiter helps him wash out the door.
I am the lord of the stones. I am the water.
I am the landing goose. I am the gull.
Spiral of wave or bird that lands in water.
Thought of the person looking into the lake.
The lake here is cold. This is a harbor,
a house. Swimmers are allowed. The water
says nothing about swimmers. There are machines
to take care of everything.
The humid septic tanks just off the road.
This is the land of water and dry land.
This is the way of water. First, the feet
enter and freeze. The toes strike against rock.
Then water lifts to shins and thighs,
and one is safely in. When thoughts are water,
water is the magnitude of thought.
Thought takes the form of water. Then it flows
over the ideas and imaginings
that dart or sit upon the rocky bottom
called reality. This is where feet hurt.
Despite the numbing atmosphere of water,
this is the end of thinking as we know it:
breeze in the heat upon the shore, eyes closed,
ears wide, open to the world, all thought
gone. This is for a moment everything
that comes to life in water or in sunlight:
wave, light, heat, slight breeze, everything and nothing
being experienced until time has passed,
when we gather towels and head for home.
7. Red Duff
The granite pulverized to powder
across the trail
and down the whole
Here and there, trees have succeeded
in securing some support,
in the grey white talus.
One tree has fallen
to the parentheses of dust;
slowly it returns the sleep
of cells to the first powder,
plant to earth to mineral.
The sun leaches water;
the soil is now a fine pattern of red,
a desert color.
Were one to look for water,
were one to look in this place
for anything resembling or recalling private life
this alone would be found,
dust in dust
Yet the sorrow of passing life
does not intrude.
for what is freed
through the love of whirlwinds
of duff down
from fire. The dust
is slowly inverting
in spirit, and now
forming the dust devil, upside down,
in the shape of a cedar tree,
bringing all again to life
just in the moment of silent spin.