California Desert Suite

(for Janine P.)

California Desert Suite

Overture

Will I speak in the desert of other than dryness
glued like an unripe persimmon to my lips,
other than wind the clear sky has banished
to these dry rocks, this fruitless terrain?

Can heat speak of anything other than sun
tanning hikers’ legs on cracked soil,
derelict sea beds fertile with saltbush
in a land where a smile will fossilize?

Still grasses speak of the wind’s hiatus,
how wind borrows the skirt of a breeze,
then casts it off when creosote bushes
dance their wild green thin-branched dance.

And the paloverde like bright green flames
lets spring consume her blossoms in frenzy
of shadows sharpening red rocks’ contours,
enslaving a sun that remains undeceived,

until dryness tastes like a persimmon ripened,
sensual on evening’s downy lip.
Stars shine like broken bits of earth,
Venus a shard of today’s indigo sky.

1. Before the Hike

Look at this rock shaped like a spear head:
an ordinary stone, but it’s meant to kill.
Our will like rock our hearts shaped
like an arrow that captures spring wind,
turns mill wheels into useless artifacts,
our bread to essential hungers
we overcome with bigger rocks
than those displayed in city museums.

Rocks shaped like mountains
you climb to laugh at the ascent,
to kiss your wounds, send your ambition
reeling over peaks you’ll never conquer.

On the desert floor a sun-bleached carp skull
come from the Colorado close by—souvenir,
symbol, of unceremonied days trekking sand
and detritus in search of thought’s burial ground.

In evening over mugs of Chianti,
under shining splinters of nocturnal bone,
by glowing coals, prowling winds,
we sit on a rise, coyotes gathering
below, each of us wondering
what to speak or sing of. Campers
who no longer hunt buffalo,
never rode wild burros into the river’s jaw,
we’ve mixed our passion for inhospitable terrain
with the waning moon reflected in our wine.

We sing not of hills climbed or unclimbed,
nor of bread or prehistory or heroic expeditions,
but of a life we are slowly reviving
whose tune is the stillness only the restless find.

2. Hiking

Dry in a dusty land,
alone as the big horned sheep,
as elusive as unseen or rarely seen,
I am what you intended o sun:
memory and destiny of a naked sky.

I am not proud of my holy calling.
I militate only to the needs of vultures
who rip muscle from rock, bone from sky,
deposit me in a spurt of undigested light
on some square feet of earth I’ve never known.

Not afraid to say I grow old with the eagle
or crag twisted and deathless on Picacho Peak.
Not too old to say I’m fresh as rainwashed lichen,
nor too sad to say the sun will dry out my fate,
winds will harden my ghost,
moon will polish my lover’s heart.

Dry in a dusty land,
ready as milk of unsucked breasts,
alone as children of a god that never was,
children who must eat their names,
who carouse with scavengers of light
and sleep like prayer on a few feet of sun.

3. Getting Lost Overnight

A rag of mountain hangs from the vulture’s beak.
The hill lying on its side apes a man.
When the crow caws the sky will be bluer,
for I’ve learned to love these animals,
protective spirits. And I’ve learned to love fear,
alone, lost in the desert night, all night,
obsidian night, stars of quartzite, comfort
only of knowing I still sleep on earth,
bare legs buried in arroyo’s gravel.
Daytime creature I am also of night,
of the frenzy of ants, deliberation of tortoises,
river of misguided pilgrimage,
composer of my own death sentence
hiker to the peak that wont save me.

A splinter of determination, dead eagle’s feather,
sun-varnished crag bloodied with memory,
impales my exhausted hands, blistered faith.
Yes, I believe in the savagery of the sun
even while the sun refuses to slay me;
it has more howls in its jaundiced throat,
more blood to smear on my logbook.

I rise at dawn from wash into wasteland
to celebrate not the malice but the confluence
of animal nights with days of chanting and magic,
knowing radiance may yet kill before reaching camp.

4. Back at Camp

Night is sparkling mica. Day a green branch
that sings these weeks of living nomadic, half idle
captives of the elements that disdain praise
or censure, inheritors of America’s divine
average on a willing diaspora, self-exiled
to a country that’s tent, hibachi, day long hikes,
eating outdoors except on cold nights we dine
in the tent like two westernized Bedouins.

(She cooks in beauty who did not go with me
to climb the peak. She awaits tearfully news
of my fate knowing it was my will to go alone.
I return bedraggled, empty-handed, mindless,
with no god in my gut, just a hug for her.)

Day is a time for collecting unusual stones.
Night is a black serration of many hills.
Day is a jackrabbit that eludes the trap,
learns the trick of surviving to find life good,
to return to love after conquering his fear,
a raven’s wing jauntily tied to his brow.

Coda

Stones are torn from the mountain’s ribs
to create a woman craggy as desert peaks,
a man tender as a hedgehog cactus bloom;
stones torn like clouds from a hawk’s shadow
on dusty mesquite lining heatstruck washes.

Azure birdsong over earthen shoulders, buttocks:
shale and sand of my body bathed in its beginnings.
Terrain translucent, accessible as an easy death,
piling eyesight on affection for stone,
shadows and wind on the contours of stillness.

I have climbed the crumbled rock of my thought
where absent brothers peopled the eyescape.
Afternoon spent in a dry arroyo where sun
knew no discretion—then back at camp
predusk winds and dove’s coo were the song
of myself, herself. Notes she heard on the wind,
cooking, as I sat silent on the rise looking west
toward the peak that almost claimed me.

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