(The Oregon Trail, 1871)
All across Wyoming, notes
are showing up scratched on bones
wedged in sandstone ledges
and flying bright strips of cloth.
And so the unwritten dead turn out
to someone's advantage. Reading
a femur or clavicle, you learn
the distance to sweet water
or grassland for the oxen
or the next trading post. Here's
a skull the color of fair-weather
Peeler's Physicing Pills.
With ten crosses to the high plains
mile left by wagon trains
and by Mormons pulling handcarts
lettered "A Glorious Way to Zion,"
there's no time to reopen the earth
for pilgrims pulled from shallow
graves by wolves. Another month
and blizzards will close
passes to the Willamette Valley.
A woman's betrothed, gone on
ahead to start their orchard
of apples, cherries, pears,
has poured out his heart
in this long rain shadow,
and so she'll bring to trail's end
a hope chest of bones.
Because November's an argument
that never fails to move us,
we're sealing this bedroom window
with a rope of putty. Outside,
in an upper corner of the window frame
and foxed like an old book, the nest
remains that a solitary wasp
raised last May in the shape of
our marveling Oh. Our garden,
pitchforked under, lies knotted
like the back of a tapestry,
and the stream whose marigolds
she drew nectar from to feed larvae
the color of paraffin candles, each
in its own chamber, holds fast
to bedrock. As this holds fast,
hanging by its stem, a nest
we'll go to the winter window
to revisit, alone or together,
on days the light is cutting
corners. In spring we take down
the colony, and so a wasp returns
from wintering under leaf litter
under snow or in a stone wall,
to make of saliva and wood fibers
what not even zero can unring.
Awakening The Stray
(for Clarence King)
On the Parkway today when a sheet of tin
floated over the divider, skimmed
across the new snow in front of me
and was gone, I thought of your toboggan:
railyard scrap that looked like a push-and-lift
can opener's plowshare had cut it out.
You curled the leading edge back and held on,
your only brother, a kindergartener, on board
as klaxon down Ascension Street
and through the intersection, your timing
a miracle those mornings before school.
You were the only one in eighth-grade absent
from Mass on snowy mornings.
Because you and I were neighbors
- your parents wouldn't meet with her -
Sister Mary Perpetua said
"Awaken the stray, return him to the fold."
Winter dawns I found you tobogganing.
I wanted to ride, hanging on
at the jagged rear and risking lockjaw,
but would I have dug my heels in
nearing the bottom and got left behind?
I never tried to bring you back.
I reported that no one answered
when I called below your window.
Later that winter your mother left -
"awarded" your brother. That was the word
you used. I couldn't tell you why and you
couldn't stop asking. Then one morning a voice
below my window awakened me to
an overnight snow. Oh, I wanted to come
but knew what it would cost me
to push off from the top of Ascension.
When the bells rang out for morning Mass
I stopped traffic for each class in turn
with my crossing guard's badge and belt,
then followed the faithful in.
Thirty years, and today a sheet of tin
to brake for and climb aboard.