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James Gurley


Ancient Murrelet

Limestone Island Birder's Station
Haida Gwaii, 1992

We're outsiders listening to birders
who tag each chick, chart its progress—

how it veers, stammers, two days old,
hungry, racing downhill.  This miraculous

survival, how they return in April.
That renewal we seek in our own garden

rituals, new leaves, first buds of spring:
Our faith, like the bird whose wings

brush familiar rock and cedar, circling
pitch dark or moonlight for the hidden

nest, as the homing instinct enters
his throat, the hillside in song.



A Temporal Bestiary

Beautiful is the still of the night.
               — George Trakl, poet, 1887 - 1914

We're held by the rhythms of light,
like the fruit bats who fly out to feed

at dusk, rising from the trees
in a gray-brown fury of wings.

Somehow we carry these time signals
through our bloodstream, the body's own

clock predicting that behind our house
tonight fireflies will swarm,

their lunar mating rituals triggered
by the synchrony inside each flash,

each insect seeking the harmony
of others, instinct telling them

just this moment of light, this is all.


I sit beside you on the damp grass.
It's late, we should be asleep

but a whippoorwill starts up, a dark
portal as his calling grows near.


What we look upon we take into ourselves,
the pollen-drenched blossoms shut

for business;  our cat prowls
the flower beds, her curious chattering

at her prey.  My trance is broken
by the whirl of moths

around the patio lights,
by your voice as you tell me

office gossip, jokes, that our car
needs a tune-up, how your plans

for the weekend include sleeping in.


What of those creatures like us
who take their bearing from the sun,

emerging at dawn from pupa stage,
cousins of the darkness and light,

birds who migrate to subtle
changes in the seasons?

We are bordered by the earth's
steady pull, cool breezes

so you long for a sweater,
and wonder why we are out here.

The fireflies?  The summer night sky?


We walk back to the lit house.
Muffled suburban noises engulf us

until our voices are mere echoes
of what we've seen, satellite headlines

of war.  Disaster.  Our lives
flare up in these earthbound days,

the early hours when I can't sleep,
can't stop the great curve of light,

its strange powers, its radiance
edging through our bedroom window.

Originally appeared in Prism International.



The World, or Instability

I wish to sing the changeful ample world—
          — Constantine S. Rafinesque, botanist and archaeologist, 1783 - 1840

Fatigued after a day's walking, Rafinesque feasts
on corn bread and salt pork.
Wasps assail him like the Furies
while he eats.  He presses new plants,
new species in his notebook.
Later a rival botanist determines
they're European weeds.
Hope is like that.
All is new, new, NEW! and sprung out
of the cataclysms of our Earth.
The forces of plenty abound:  the world and all within
mutable, the divine instability;
science.  I'm guilty as Rafinesque,
preaching on, not telling you
of his umbrella, a constant companion;
the family he abandoned in Italy.  How reading this
you might think him cruel to set sail—
A failure.  Like this portrait,
leaving out his later years
in a Philadelphia slum, burdened
with his herbarium, his unsold life's work,
I tell you instead of his wanderings—
his mania for naming:  Rafinesque head bent
down to an oddly shaped leaf,
a small man in a coat of yellow nankeen
stained all over with plant juices.


James Gurley is the co-editor of Salmon Bay Review, an online literary journal for writers and readers of the Pacific Northwest, where Mr. Gurley lives.  His poetry has recently appeared in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, and Many Mountains Moving, and his poetry chapbook Transformations was published in 1995.
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