Gary Gildner lives on a ranch in Idaho's Clearwater Mountains. His 18 published books include Blue Like the Heavens: New & Selected Poems, The Second Bridge (a novel), A Week in South Dakota (short stories), The Warsaw Sparks (a memoir about coaching a baseball team in Communist Poland), The Bunker in the Parsley Fields, which received the 1996 Iowa Poetry Prize, and a second memoir, My Grandfather's Book (2002), named a Top Ten University Press Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine.
Mr. Gildner is the featured interview in our forthcoming winter issue. Watch for it along with his short story "The Romona Tomorrow Story."
Sometimes I'll take a word out of the blue
to see how many words are inside it,
like I'm doing with "Washington,"
where I happen to find myself now.
Wash and ash and shin, as and in, man
it's loaded, on and to and ton, a friendly hi
in the middle, though was, right off the bat,
is waving, one might imagine, goodbye. And then
there's the shy, small, dun-colored ingt
I almost missed, that feeds on the tough and stringy
but honey-sweet hin flower, which followers of this rare
creature agree is the key to its survival—a bird in fact
that's often mistaken, by amateurs, for an aberrant newt
or frog. It flies, yes, unfurling surprising pastel
wings, finer than silk, but only once, when afraid.
Thus it leaps up, flying, higher and higher, until
its tiny heart, barely bigger than a blackberry seed, bursts,
and down it swirls, slowly, light from the sun or the moon
or the stars caught in those delicate petals
and softly thrown in every direction. Devotees
of the ingt are few, a handful, their personalities marked
by restraint, a certain scarlet swatch in the cheek
appearing when hearing the little bird's plaintive fee fee
at mating time (after which the male crowns himself with mud)—
backing away from further intercourse, withdrawing
into the bush, where we might glimpse them quietly crouching
over the chewy hin, their principal nourishment.
Seeing the brilliant death once, they say, is enough.
A Walk Up White Bird Hill
I know the many shoulders of rock I make my way over
rolled out after a great heaving, shuddered
still, and in the long slow leavening
of dust and water, grass and animals and blood
became this place come to be named
for one who could fly. Fly and sing
above white men wanting him down, and did sing,
making them feel lost. Pausing
where White Bird leaped away, and again away, to soar
and score his name in stone he only wished to leave
alone, I feel small.
What do I really know? I know my companion's
eyes are green, the green of spring's early, best call,
and that when she speaks I hear a voice
trailing softly off
to whisper among the wild timothy.
I know the fair downy feathers
we suddenly stand over mean
a coyote ate a meal there, leaving
something so randomly fine it can't be
taken up whole. A quilt, I fancy, a quail
comforter for other birds to carry home to their young
a little at a time.
My mind wanders. I know this. And that
sounds we make with our uncertain mouths are less
and less fine, the poetry of childhood going, going—
but where? For help? To find shelter? Becoming simply noise
we think we can see? Fog or mist or a low sky
hovers over the trees a pioneer planted up ahead,
no doubt wishing the best. Hoping they would always stay
and say, in all these vast embraces of rock, Here,
here is where you want to be. Come safely back. Rest.
We stop to rest and pick two apples.
"Sweet," my companion says. "Still sweet."
And they are. How far that sweetness traveled
year after circling year, to greet us, to let us suck
all it has come through. "Look," she points. Among
the fallen fruit deer bones bleach and sink, bound
to their playful scatter, going back. Where?
I wonder, as if I could put my finger there.
"Where? Is that what you said?" I hear the orchard echo.
Did I say something? I want to. But I am not here
a little. I am out there looking in—
at this sheltering sky scored by red men,
by pioneer boughs and nipples of apple blush.
But I do, now, wish to say something—
something fine as feathers and bones flying off,
if I am lucky enough. "My apple doesn't have one worm—
or if it did I ate it," she says, taking the sounds
I'd like to have made, that nourishment turning us round and round,
right out of my mouth.
From the beginning I have wanted to follow
someone like this, whose eyes are always
in season, their humor catchable as breath.
Who will lead me to a pond not many
have stood beside, and say, "Listen—"
She raises a reed to her lips. She pretends to play
two or three notes, and in the distance, with great confidence,
a little call comes back, circling, comforting…
"You see?" my companion says. "Such a good friend
telling us we can continue."
for Barbara Ann
Where the Dog is Buried
Nights sometimes under the moon
I sit in my daughter's swing
and smoke; later I toss
the raw mound a little more
grass seed, a little more water.
If in the morning I find a mouse
beside my muddy boots on the deck,
I wing it into the valley, praising
the natural gifts of my cat, her cool
green eyes, and release.
These bright summer days when my daughter is here
I cast our line in the river and then place the rod
in her small hands. At night I read
from our book, feeling her warmth ease the ache
in my shoulder.
Over the graves of two quail
that broke their necks flying into my garden fence
I put up the sign she made: home cemetery. It's where
the dog I said ran away with a wolf
also lies buried. Waiting for sleep
I watch her reeling a rainbow in, see it flash, fly up, her joy
and relief as I kneel to cradle the fish in my shirt.
She was conceived in Czechoslovakia that famous year
of the Velvet Divorce, in the Slovak part, in the spring,
below the Tatra Mountains. Which the mountains around here
resemble so much, certain days, I feel both held still
and dizzy. I remember her mother and I often
ate trout, those slivers of sunlight and musky leaf
the tongue, when it's happy, catches up to.
The birds my daughter drew for her sign
are all in flight. Look at them,
she cries, pushing off between the two red fir perfectly
spaced for a good journey. When she goes out
far enough, flying over and over the cemetery,
the ropes sing. They both do—
and they are so in tune
you cannot tell one from the other.
The Fish Dog
The children went down to the river and took along Oliver, their
fish dog, who possessed an extraordinary nose and equally surprising
eyes and ears for anything cold-blooded with fins. He could hold a
point like a saint, not moving a muscle until someone threw in a line
and got a bite. As soon as the fish was hooked, Oliver began to sing.
When he sang an Irish pub song, for example, everybody knew the fish
would be fabulous; when he sang a lullaby they knew it would be too
small and they'd have to toss it back. Tunes with a jazzy treatment,
like "On the Sunnyside of the Street," always meant the fish would be
just right and made them feel especially lucky all over. Sometimes
he'd sing a deeply emotional song of love or of tragedy from one of
the great operas. These were unusual passages—subtle yet demanding—
when the children were starting to leave childhood. At such crucial
moments Oliver sang his heart out, and hearing him it was difficult to
remember the fish; indeed, landing the fish seemed irrelevant, even
foolish. No one knew when the crisis would come. That's why Oliver's
gift was kept a secret by the children, who often pretended he didn't