Two Poems by John Willson

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American Toll

Park Service Tour, Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 

Imagine a cylinder about the size
of a tomato juice can, packed with iron

balls. Exiting the cannon’s muzzle, the tin
rips open, shot scatters and flies toward you,

whirring like the wing-beats of a partridge.
So he plants us in the shoes of the dead.

Carrying plywood-and-PVC muskets,
high school students on our tour

duck through a fence. Imagine bullets
clattering rails and posts faster than hail

on a roof. Before they double-time
toward the stone wall, he taps every

third one of them to fall somewhere,
the charge’s final stage an exercise

in Advanced Placement History.
Earlier, in the Visitor Center, a soldier,

chest blown out, hurled back on wheat,
forearms upraised, stared from a photograph.

Imagine corn, oats and wheat growing
here, in place of this tall grass. He conjures up

Landscape Rehabilitation, its aim to restore
to farmland the fields of fire.




Tucson Mountains, Arizona

From the supplicating arm
of a saguaro, a mourning dove calls
me to shade cast by a smooth rock face.
Gravel’s damp here, a mile up the wash

where it widens, could be a spring beneath.
That block of stone, size of a fridge,
fallen from the wall opposite,
bears a figure on the surface exposed
to the sun. Like two forks,

three-tined, facing away from each other
but joined at the handles. Pecked there.
Impenetrable, it draws me in, the word
prehistoric like gravel in my mouth.

Dear Whoever, you who found the blank
stone, who possessed the water and time:
Chipping away, did you notice a desert cardinal
perched at the end of an ocotillo branch,

swaying as it sang from the flame of its blossoms?
You set your tool down.
I raise my water bottle in a toast,
you and I both permanent
as a post card written from this basin.




John Willson is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize and awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Artist Trust of Washington. A two-time finalist in the National Poetry Series, John lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where he has been designated an Island Treasure.

Photo of cannon at Gettysburg battlefield by Jorge Moro, courtesy Shutterstock.

Westward Ho!

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