Tom Sexton is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Alaska. His latest book is The Bend Toward Asia (Salmon Run, 1993).
The tall grass in the meadow
that the brown bears pass through
on their way to the Chulitna
to fish for spawning salmon
has gone to seed. I walk upstream
fishing for char with mottled sides.
I have cheese and bread to eat
for lunch when I reach the beaver pond.
Bending down to examine a bird's nest,
lined with down and green feathers,
I notice a shadow, a gray wolf moving
like smoke in a clearing
before it disappears in the brush,
and I am honeycombed with awe
as Adam must have been standing
in the Garden, naming, naming, naming.
No path led from the abandoned hand-hewn cabin
to the glacial river or to a garden plot.
Inside I found slivers of bone, rusted snares,
an ermine's skull, a rotting blanket.
A sealed Mason jar filled with glacial
water sat upon the windowsill. An inch
of silt had settled to the bottom of the jar,
leaving a bud of water as clear as any spring's.
Had someone used it to measure the fading
winter day or the darkness of the night?
It's a midsummer's evening. Green light
filters through the chinkless logs.
Closing the sagging door to leave, I feel
that one could not ask for more as epitaph.
A few yards from the road, almost closed
by drifting snow, two hunters butcher
a caribou. It is almost dark.
How heavy the air above them seems
as they bend to their work
in the flickering light of their snowmobile.
I think of a snapshot of a friend's wife
taken last fall in a field not far from here.
She is lifting the still velvet rack of her caribou
from the tundra where it fell.
Soon there is only a thin ash of light above
the mountains as we drive from dark to dark.
Watching a beluga breech the inlet's
silty tide brings back that spring
morning when I first saw one rise
near the mouth of Portage Creek.
For years I tried to hold it in a net
of words: sea-ermine,
embryo of light. Now I know
that these white whales come to feed
on spawning smelt. Indifferent to imagination's
longing, they sound the glacial dark.