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Winter 2003, Volume 20.2



James Gurley

James Gurley lives in Seattle, Washington, where he works as a librarian. His poems have appeared in
Indiana Review, Many Mountains Moving, and Willow Springs. He recently won the 2002 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry by Truman State University Press, and his book Human Cartography will be published spring 2003.


Absolute Music

I have saved for you these small notes:
   Finches hovering round our bird feeder
ready to land, while a salamander
   suns himself on a rock in our garden.
We mostly ignore these goings on:
   Snails at dawn feeding off a leaf.
Earthworms in the compost bin
   burrowing new life into the soil.
Raccoons rummaging through garbage cans.
   It's enough to love this plenitude,
birdsong a new language to heal or soothe us.
   Isn't this music a balm for what ails?
We're afraid of the transcendental:
   how it opens avenues of pleasure,
quickens us. We're afraid to feel
   our lungs and heart more rhythmic than
a symphony, the pitch getting right
   into our pulse, our blood, these vibrations
in the yellow narcissus on the table,
   its opulence the hosannas of Bach,
a diatonic scale like the colors of roses,
   hummingbirds so deep in a honeysuckle
their wings harmonize with the flower.
   Ah, I have saved for you these small notes—
such remedies in the ordinary, the mundane,
   our apple trees crazy with new buds
while we stop, listen.


Wild Coast, Rialto Beach

"Swim and you are not in your country."
         —Richard Hugo, "La Push"

Sea makes the rules here. You walk
a wilderness beach at the continent's edge.
No trails inland, but a cloud-hungry forest.
Fog and salt-spray carry the wind-speech
of crows and seagulls. Rain mist. Water
carried over stone—as intake of breath—

over seaweed tangle, over crab shell,
salt-soaked wood, sandflies circling
a decaying fish. You cross woven streams
and follow animal tracks in the sand.
No sheltered lagoons at Rialto Beach.
Ignore tides, and strong waves trap you

against sheer cliffs, white-foam breakers,
season's turn. You've sought solitude
in this lean-to of overcast day, the shelter
you made from sea-weathered logs. Here is
a whale's jaw bone, mossy-cup of wood,
speckled talisman rocks to palm, feathers

from a bird you've never seen before.
No further westering than these elemental
objects. Waves surge over your pantlegs,
and you stare at tiny rivulets drawn
back to the ocean, to the islands offshore,
at silhouettes of trawlers lifted in squalls

from the west. You crouch down inside
the root hollow and wait for autumnal
winds off the Pacific that will sing
your belief in this cloud-haze, the raw
dark, in black-matted woods swirling with
each gust the wind-ripped trees embrace.


Picking Late August Blackberries

   For Charles Cook

In spring, mowers widened the path
that skirts our slough, and the flower
buds, revealed over languorous weeks
where no rain has fallen, turn
from bitter red to sweet black.

We dress in long-sleeved shirts, jeans.
Hike up to an expanse of tangled
vines. Those leafy thorns can't stop
our hands searching for the plump
fruit so prized we make it a tradition,

a Friday we commit to this gathering,
the perfect elusive ones that slip
from our grasp. Our fingers scratched
and stained, we can't help but taste
the odd berry, savor its primitive joy

on our tongues. It's the same for us,
each summer blazing open as we pick
it, the honeyed musk belying our labor,
our reaching into the bramble, while
the bucket rings with wild dark clusters.


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