Joel Long introduces his poems:
Slowly to the Island
Most of what I see I can’t tell you.
Memory and language conspire like sick stones,
stars that will not let go the light twice, spendthrifts
of vision. The dog chases a lizard into the rabbitbrush,
the lizard just a spark from the forge, full of organs,
two eyes I never see, obsidian chips and nerves
to the little brain the dog aspires to but never
reaches, so quick, so filled with this terrain
which belongs to the lizard not the dog, the difference
between what we see and what we want to keep.
I am prone to capturing, wanting to keep things still
so I can return to them in a moment that is not still
and consider them, consider an arrangement of land
and grasses, an antelope caught staring at me
and the dog who doesn’t see the antelope at all
or would, if she did see it, pursue it with no intent
but to run. Perhaps the dog is me in that, to run,
no intent but to chase this thing before me, the clouds
shifting in oil sheen, the crow tearing its shape
out of the sky, the island to the west allowing distance
to make it blue and indistinct, a blur of detail
that will not return to specificity, its condition, its truth.
Bryce Canyon Epithalamium
for Alysha and Adam
When water was water, the lake was deep
and the lake grew deeper here; river lifted
grains of sand from the west, and the sand
fell in still water of the lake. What sang
in the sky, the template for song, fossil
blue, the kind of distance no one sees.
I’ve been here night when the sky froze,
and curls of frost fell from stars, desert
cold the center of my wrists. And when the sun
rose, I felt thaw, felt my wrists expand.
Every stone felt water. Every stone felt
water recede and the weight of earth
push down, millennia of winter,
every page in the library of things, freeze and thaw
lifting the calliope of hoodoos from the shore,
stone temples the sacred family, sandstone,
pinyon, bristle cone pines smelling of caramel
a thousand years.
Now, a mountain bluebird
lives the moment on a silver branch of pinyon,
its wings fashioned Assyrian lapis lazuli,
its breast, carnelian, rust the color sandstone, blood.
It sings the new song from ancient water, bird
small as your mouths, small as your palms, held
together today. It pulses with breath and feathers
small eyes aperture to the entire canyon and time.
Here at the edge of two vast waters, you kiss.
Here, with your hands against stone of a thousand
winters and springs, you say yes. You double the time,
double the canyon with mystery of being, yes,
to seeing every night sky together, waters growing deeper
inside you both, flooding visions of the singular world
and love, blue bird calling through every mortal cell.
Field Guide for Western Birds
Books will tell the names of birds,
but I wait to tell you what I’ve seen,
describe wings, shape of the head,
describe breast color, size, where it was.
I show you the photo I’ve taken, thing
I’ve seen turned electric light, an entire
sky behind, trees of light. I ask
you to tell me the name; you do not fail
to give the word. I repeat what you say,
because there is magic in names of birds,
golden eye, cinnamon teal, warbler, waxwings,
kestrel resting on a winter tree after the storm,
and when I say the word, I have no power more
than I had before except the brain where the word
finds color of wings blurring, bird song,
temperature of day, and the word fills
with sky and flying, snow geese, a wilderness
of peaks glowing behind, pintails, buoyed
in the crack in spring ice, tundra swans, necks
curled with the slight weight of their heads
so everything is half a heart, a bowl of white feathers
crowning water. I could check the guide,
flip through a continent of birds, index where
birds are arranged by name, but I come to you,
to check the ether, the memory in your skull
a menagerie of birds and mornings, singing quick
your whistling throat, names like spells
to call them from dream thickets into actual air,
beyond words, thing itself, this nesting ground.
The Illusion of Actual Space
The water’s skin is silver. The sky is.
The rain is silver, small as mist.
One hundred cliff swallows shape
air with their flight, swirling strings,
contour of a girl’s cheek, meander of water,
filaments of milkweed. Wings are dark
petals skimming water, dipping down
so seed shaped beaks can pinch a mayfly
that walks on water. Cottonwood trunks
silver lights green smoke, rattles leaves.
The swallows come every direction.
There is no center here; every thing
is center, every bird, slipping over
the breathing water, the river pulling
hands of earth, white sandstone lit silver,
the grasses at the shoreline, the blue sage,
pulling it past in waves of frankincense,
cool flame, silver this time, and barn swallows,
their wings cobalt blue, bellies lemon, touch water
without touching water this time, there,
there, touching water, gone silver now, there,
again, another bird that comes from nowhere.
In the desert, the hull of a whale surfaces in stone.
It is as textured as the present, the porous bones
still porous, socket of an eye pouring with shadow.
It tells us of an inland sea before man invented time,
and the birds in the stones tell us of flying and sound.
Stone leaves like leaves in the gutter shimmer tracery
of opaque glass that looks straight into the pressure
of the earth on the earth, pulling into its center
every kind and species. In the times of bridge building,
men on girders hung above the river in its current bed
like reflections off silver, bits of shaved ice floating down
from the heavens. And when they came down to shore
from the high scaffold, the bridge looked permanent,
as though it had been there as long as the river,
and the men vanished with their voices and most
of their words, stones in the quarry without hammers.
In the city of your birth, refineries clean the blood
of ancient birds and palm groves, the scent of orchid,
the smoke of ruin. The world has waited this long
swinging around the sun with slow velocity, patient
for us. The bridges in every city we visit have been rising
over waters. And the rivers have changed direction
by wearing away granite, leaving behind oxbows
and meanders from centuries of bearing down, lifting
silt into itself, shining with it, laying it down softly
in its bed. For us it must be easy to wait. The earth
teaches us patience, and we calmly release our love
into its grace, two bodies and hearts that have waited
this long for the flash, this ecstasy of sweetness.
We are left to participate in this grand sweep of things,
sparrows squeaking in shrubbery, thunderheads building
above the butte, cows drifting clouds of their bodies
beneath cottonwoods shade, and the river renaming
each stone, each meadow and sky. We are awash in all.
Header photo by Joel Long. Photo of Joel Long by Sarah Long.