Winner of the Dr. Sherwin W. Howard Poetry Award
Winter 2005, Volume 22.2
Return to Jemez Canyon
What you remember
is the canyon wren's vast range
—a downpour of exultant notes
suddenly transposed into a haunting cry;
the rain's silly chatter
on the tin roof
that shuddered through the timbers
but also comforted.
There were certain rules we lived by.
Snakes slept in winter.
The cholla linnets
sang ravenously in the cactus,
safe and unstartled by household cats.
The red rock mountains are still there,
riveted in place. The long adobe house
has not yet crumbled. But the marriage
has fallen down, undermined by minutiae,
and the well has run dry.
The bunker halfway down the hill
has become a snake den
coil in and over and under.
Nothing remains the same.
An embankment becomes a temple
of fallen leaves.
I have prayed there.
The river rushes its message
over rocks and stones.
It does not hesitate to speak its mind.
There are things we only learn
—a shallow stream may soothe and console
but not sustain as the deep well
which is constantly replenished
—frogs emerge after decades of burial
in dried mud
—certain seedpods burst open in wildfires,
requiring devastation to make them grow.
There was a person who once said, "I can't,
I'm not strong enough,"
but she became a survivor.
There are fish that millenia ago grew wings
to fly up into the trees.
If all evolution teaches us to attempt the impossible,
why, then, should we give up with so little effort?
When New Mexico sunsets ignite the sky
among silhouettes of the Sangre de Cristos,
canyons are stapled together with purple shadows
and the night doesn't grieve when the sky goes dark.
It showers itself with unprecedented stars.
Night In the Jemez Mountains
When night beckons through gates of glass,
only the moon can hear the pastel crystals
of its highest notes. Staccato warblers
sing in smudged sage, the evening sun's
a faded copper kiss, and the spirit
of the ancient mountain loosens the powder
of its ghostly hair.
It's like a shifting load, loose blossoms
falling from a branch, the way snow melts
high up in a tree and suddenly lets go,
the sudden windfall of silence,
so palpable it's startling.
Crickets begin to chatter like clothespins.
The hills are falling asleep, the valleys yawning.
In the kiva, a fire that consumes the wood,
turns it to glass, transparent and brittle
with incandescence, its embers faintly tinkling.
One night, you see the mesas changing shapes,
scraps of seasons sing into life over the bone-lit adobe.
Darkness doesn't fall in New Mexico,
it gathers… shadows fold into themselves
across the dusty yard where chaparral and wild rosemary
exhale their long held-in heat, and the cottonwoods
which only hours before in the sudden wind
created a blizzard of airborne seeds,
laid down a carpet of silver silk
in the rutted lanes.
And you wonder how even one
single human life
lays down its moonlit silk
to reflect whatever light it can
in the gathering darkness.
I sit here watching the cholla cactus
in the last light, its cerise blossoms
on spiky canes, and now I'm looking
at the same mountain I always saw
from my kitchen windows, back when
I lived here and never dreamed
I would ever live anywhere else.
My perspective has changed,
what I knew as "mine" now seen
from the eyes of a visitor.
There's the Laughing Lizard Café,
the creekside motel called Giggling Star,
the adobe church where we painted
gold angels in the choirloft
with the Jaramillos.
When we're young and come under the spell
of a particular bend of river,
or the way trees settle among the hills,
we tell ourselves "This is where we'll live
someday." We envision our children there,
our futures revealing themselves
the way stars wink into being, one by one.
But when we're old, we revisit
places we've lived as if bidding farewell,
each time marking our passage,
taking into our hands whatever we've once held
and going through the ritual, all over again,
of letting go.