River Stones

Author's NoteCottonwood

I said my goodbye on the Popo Agie,

Saturday night–

a thousand miles from the open ground.

Cottonwood leaves cliddered in the dying light,

swalved and cliddered

in the wind and sunset light.

Thank you for that.

Thank you for the spit in my eyes,

for the thumb that cleared my ear,

for the claws in the scalp that turned me,

gently, gently, unwavering,

to look at the dance by the fire.

How will I remember you?

I will remember the boy

who stripped and washed his mother's corpse,

his hands chaste with love,

medical in their thoroughness,

perhaps burned that necessary day

down to the bareness,

the transparent angularity

of age.

I will think of you when I see the Polish sow;

I will remember the white one she passed eight times.

I will remember the rictus of your laughter,

the coughing lift of your shoulders,

the sidelong glance evaluating my amusement,

the hand that rose, scaly as a raptor's

or ancient, cagey lizard's,

to stroke one claw the length of your nose.

I will remember the one image I can keep unchanged:

You in an easy chair, shelves of books behind you,

Your face aimed at a plow's angle into the book in your lap,

Your hand resting like a spider on the pages,

Moving, I imagine when I supply color and movement,

Gently as a father's fingers

on a baby's sleeping, naked back.

I will remember the illusion:

the strides that ate acres,

on shoes like shovels,

the shelf of shoulders

high enough for eagle nests,

the head I craned, stiffnecked,

to see eye-to-eye,

and never quite,

the cloudy yellow tear I never saw

except on paper,

and your hands.

Most I remember your hands.

I remember how you touched my heart into a brief bloom

by telling me you judged a man by his handshake

and mine was good.

I remember your hand swallowing mine

like a tree's root

a riverside rock.

I remember the parchment texture of it,

lightly haired,

spreckled with age,

both light and dark,

pale as birchbark.

I remember the stone angles of it,

the knobs of knuckle

like river stones

crazed by winter ice,

the spans of joint,

broad as temporized bridges,

the angles of tendon and bone

mapping a Badlands hill

you crawled to remember.

On the Popo Agie in September,

I watched the water toss through the same arc,

each molecule passing through and never returning,

but the whole a permanence of chaos,

repeating to the casual glance,

various to the closer look.

I thought of driftwood carved by eighty years—

bleached and rendered by the sun,

hardening when the water left it high,

kneaded and leavened by the rising stream,

scoured by wind and the sand in its teeth,

turned at last from living, frail wood

to something dead and eternal,

a walking stick fit for Tiresias,

a stake to hang the old father on

in Yeatsian rags,

a plum tree's prop.

I am told, sitting by the Popo Agie,

by someone who trusts these things,

You will be my angel now.

If so, take your work seriously:

Lean your shoulder into the mountains

I set my own shoulders to;

Roar laughter when I cannot laugh at myself;

Wrap your hand like fence around my little plot,

not to keep in, but out;

Sniff out the truth in what I have to tell,

and flick with the spade of a nail

the false away.

Old tent of bones,

I hope they let you keep your guts;

I want you seeping through Doon's water,

to make the men nervous

and the women thirsty.

I imagine your blood dry as pipestone powder;

mixed with the wet blue earth,

it makes a red day,

a good red day.

Old cottonwood,

father of my spirit,

brother of my loins,

companyero of my questing will,

grandfather and son of my moving hand,

I miss you forever.

September 10, 1994

Sinks Canyon, Wyoming

Poetry Writing Dancing Badger