James Engelhardt’s poems have appeared in North American Review, Laurel Review, Hawk and Handsaw, and Painted Bride Quarterly. Work is forthcoming in Natural Bridge, Cirque, and other journals. His ecopoetry manifesto is at octopusmagazine.com. After serving as the managing editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska--Lincoln, he is now the Acquisitions Editor for the University of Alaska Press.
Winter melt covered the grassy trough,
and the spring swell wasn’t much, enough to smooth
the longer grasses anchoring the banks.
Still, Helen steps slowly across the tight horizon,
then down into the shallow channel
that runs up from the one full-season creek
the nearby farms draw from to keep crops alive.
Helen walks into summer—all leather and waver.
Grasses stand straight, dormant,
living more down than up. Brush-tops rustle,
monarchs stutter past, flies hum over the scent
of dry, and the world is dry down to the algae dregs
scumming across the pebbles and sandy bottom.
Another rain will come, though there’s no thought
of what that will mean, just a bowl of waiting,
held breath while the sun skips across deep sky
and the moon takes her turn, and the damselflies
take their prey until earth spins a cool wind
up the draw, which is when Helen marvels
at all the hope that looks skyward, faces up
until the ice or rain surprises eyes
and the streambed fills again with water.
No awakening this afternoon as Helen
turns back to water, the riffle and plink, the calm.
Maybe today she will put her hand into the stream,
slip her body in, become fry, tadpole, caddisfly larva.
She can do this and come back to tell you
there is no end to it, no end to the spiral.
Any calm evening can find the exit light dimmed,
door closed, the exit that might open onto a stream.
A drainage ditch, really, sour at the bottom, turgid,
and the seasons wheel past around it, and you
hold your back to the door, pressed against steel.
Or take Febold in his truck, stopped at the top
of his driveway, bed gory with remnants and mud.
The hunt unsuccessful as hunt, more a carousing:
too much money on too much beer and bourbon.
He steps into the living room with new furniture.
Why mention it? Let the vision clear, step back
to the truck, hide the liquor and shells receipts,
call the count even, sort the processed meat
into what goes into the deep freeze, what stays
upstairs for dinner tonight, breakfast tomorrow.
You wonder about advice from Coyote, soft guy
telling you his tricks for ordering high-grade cigars
from a company in South Carolina, how
he hides his separate credit card from his wife.
Keeps a post office box across town for treasure.
The exit door, remember, is pressed into your back.
A strip of marsh slinks past your feet, down into dusk.
Your best choice to slide along the still-warm bricks
to the blacktop lot opening under lights turned weird
against the cobalt sky, and so many cars twinkling.
The After Party
Guests waited until the toddler had gone to bed
to gather with their cups near the one tall window.
They pointed to the moon, waxing gibbous,
low over the house to the south,
over the short expressway, glow smudged
by running clouds across the black sky.
Oh, they said, pointing, let’s turn out the light.
Let’s see if the glow will turn our faces
that same yellow color. And with the lamps dark
the room let all the words sigh off their shelves
until we stood empty as parchment
and the walls held up only moon, clouds,
the roof’s bare line a street away.