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Spring 2000, Volume 17.3



Walt McDonald photo of Walt McDonald.

Walt McDonald was an Air Force pilot and has published many collections of poetry and fiction including Blessings the Body Gave (OSU Press, 1998), Counting Survivors (U of Pittsburgh Press, 1995), Night Landings (Harper & Row), and After the Noise of Saigon (U of Massachusetts Press, 1988). He has received three book awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and has published more than 1,700 poems in journals including The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, First Things, The Georgia Review, JAMA, New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, Poetry, The Sewanee Review and The Southern Review.


Faith Is a Radical Master

In months of harsh sun like a hammer,
our ranch parches like Kalahari summers
after Eden. Hippos snort and waddle off
through dust. Elephants with babies starved
for water and slopping in rotting clay
remember a river miles away
and turn there for salvation. Frog ponds
swallow the sun like salt, and prawns
turn back to clods. Geese sip the last brown sap
and flap, flap to rise. The wart hog flounders,
the least beast of creation, half-finished,
formed of the mud of the fields. In pitch

between corpses of monkeys and snakes, the flesh
of half-eaten gazelles, frogs hold their breath,
wedging their skulls deep, deep into holes
until it rains. Here, the lung fish wallows
and thrashes, gills down, thick lips like a bass
gulping air, in the shallow molasses
of mud. Bubbles rise up from the breath hole.
Mud hardens over its mouth, the earth's own throat.
This fish, dried flat as faith, turns stiff,
but if it rains, if it floods, it will live.


Backpacking at Fifty-Nine

Listen, she whispered, squeezing my wrist.
Down on both knees, I laced her boots.
For years, we pitched that tent like second skin
and now, silence, except tapping, a peaceful mood.

Shifting to one knee, I laced my boots,
tent nylon ripped and sewn, and now the snow:
silent tapping on trees, a peaceful mood,
tent tall enough to kneel in, bundling to go.

Tent nylon ripped and sewn, another snow,
flakes brittle on leaves and needles,
drifts tall enough to kneel in, bundled to go
under pines. We crunched white powder, brittle

as tundra, flakes flicking on leaves and needles.
Chunks of snow broke loose, limbs springing
in the pines. We crunched white powder, brittle
as last year's twigs. We held cameras ready, knowing

chunks of snow breaking loose and limbs springing
meant magpies or hawks. Mountain goats nibbled
this year's twigs. We held cameras ready, knowing
our children had known mountains since cradles,

magpies and hawks, mountain goats that nibbled
near our home. We hiked miles of trails in hours
decades ago, our children after cradles
scrambling up boulders we climbed panting, now.

Near our home, we had hiked over trails for hours,
ten miles of echoes, backpacked steeper cliffs
than this, scrambling up boulders, but panting, now.
Snow fell in chunks, tatters fluffed without wind,

ten miles of echoes. Backpacking steeper cliffs,
we had caught fat trout in lakes we hacked from ice.
Snow fell in chunks, tatters fluffed without wind.
With flint and frozen sticks, we built the fires.

We caught fat trout in lakes we hacked from ice,
we ate the fish. We licked thick crystal flakes.
With flint and frozen sticks, we built more fires,
and fat snow vanished on our tongues. We crossed the lake

for decades. We ate the fish and licked fat flakes,
panting, leaning on our hands, eyes closed.
Snow vanished on our tongues as we crossed the lake
years ago, snow falling fast on snow.

Last week, we leaned back on our hands, eyes closed,
panting, ten inches of snow since midnight,
snow falling fast on deep packed snow,
silence, except tapping, the whole world white.

We climbed out into snow still falling since midnight.
Gray flecks of silver in her hair turned white.
Silence, flakes tapping the wide world white.
So many miles vanished before our eyes

even her gray and silver hair turned white,
that tent we pitched for years like second skin,
so many miles of flakes tapping our eyes.
She whispered Listen, squeezing my neck, my wrist.


When It Seemed Easy

Back to the salt mines of my mind,
gathering words like slabs of rock salt
as my flying buddy Duke did on the moon,
moon rocks rocketed back thousands of miles

to labs and climate-controlled museums.
Weighed and tested, rocks will outlive
curators, queues of the curious who pause
to make those ordinary rocks exotic as jewels

behind bulletproof glass. Our children are scattered
like volcano ash, raising babies we adore.
From the porch swing, I see a thousand acres
of boulders, the rubble of stones on slopes.

A month to make a mountain, millions to wear it down
to a blip on the radar screen of Apollo 16
approaching earth thirty years ago when our twins
were babies and words were saved for praise.


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