Mount St. Helens
Cinders and Flowers
The north side of Mount St. Helens gapes wide open
where it blew out in 1980
and left this scrabbly strew
of gray and white pumice
glaring in afternoon sun
and crunching beneath my bootsteps.
Ten years before the mountain exploded,
I stood on the snowy summit
one summer afternoon
and shouted my joy
down to the expansive earth.
Since then I have earned
an unhappy back,
an ankle that pains me with every step,
a titanium knee, a shoulder
of bone rubbing bone.
Please tell me, believers
in the resurrection of the body—
Oh, I’d take again the youthful version
were he offered—though not
if his angst and confusions came with him—
and I’m pretty sure
this creaking frame could bear me up the mountain
to search him out.
That peak where he stood and hollered,
wanting nothing that was not there,
is not there.
The blowout left him
and the forty years between us
in windy space,
a quarter-mile above the crater rim.
If that boy is to live again
he will have to do it
in this body of complaints
trekking a blasted plain,
a country born dead
but not dead now.
Gophers swam up from their havens, stirring
the grit and pebbles.
Bunchgrasses sunk roots.
Willows, shrubs, and saplings,
sparrows and flycatchers nesting among them,
have taken hold
by the snowmelt stream
that pours from the mountain’s core.
And now, this late July,
riots of blossoms have exploded all over—
blue lupine, penstemons
pink and purple,
Indian paintbrush of the deepest orange,
in clumps where I walk
and hazing the farther slopes in soft pastels.
I’m glad I stood
on that summit once, if indeed it was me,
but where, on a mountaintop,
are the birds and flowers?
I’m happy enough to saunter along in my gimpy way
where I see not as far
but stand in scale
with small beauties making the most of their moment,
my legion of pains
never failing to report
that like the mountain I am alive and finding my way.
Wind clatters the loose tin roof of the barn today
as it did thirty-five years ago,
when I lived here
and wrote that sound
into what I hoped was a poem.
Sweet hay filled the barn back then,
children filled a pail with warm squirts
and left the milk cow safe for the night.
I’ve forgotten the cow’s name now,
the kids and bales are gone
and the barn itself is going,
board after board splayed loose by sun and storm.
The door swings on squalling hinges.
Snow blows in through the gaping walls
and swirls on the packed earth floor,
where a coffee can and scraps of wire,
withered corpses of mice,
and splinters of the barn’s own body
lie where they have lain for years.
It was made, they say, down-valley somewhere
before anyone can remember,
dismantled and rebuilt here
close to the year I was born.
And now that sparse history too is falling away
with its warped boards
and tattered roof, and I say good.
Why should the barn hold on to what it cannot keep?
Let it strip down now to its surest self,
to the stalwart posts and beams
that nameless makers long in the ground
adzed and joined with pegs.
Let the frame stand as long as it will,
let hawks perch there by day
and owls by night,
let the spirited air that once pummeled the walls
now whistle freely through,
let it burnish those timbers smooth
of history and time itself, of everything
but the old keen light of the Hunter’s moon
as it arcs long and mute across the clear cold night.
John Daniel’s most recent book is Of Earth: New and Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press), which includes the two poems above. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University, he now lives and writes north of Noti in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range.
Photo by Simmons B. Buntin.