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— which one? 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. But why? 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 down here, 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 here below, 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.