Sunday, October 8, 2006

Poem: Bill Hotchkiss

It goes against my better judgment to post very long poems here, but I am making an exception not because Bill Hotchkiss is my good friend and mentor, but because this is an amazing poem worthy of the space it takes up.


SUMMER lightning
Flickers the Sierra,
High granite, pure, hard, black-freckled,
And overburden above timberline,
Basalt and mudstones,
Bunchgrasses, kinnikinnik, cascara,
Whistlings of marmots and picas,
Snowfields and spring flowers in August:
Great waves of thunder crush
Through the sacred dark —
Bullbats and perching hawks
Cry out:
Now here, now there,
The sleeping mountains emerge
Into light and vanish —
Deep in gouged canyons
Ceaseless riverine voices
Whisper syllables I scarcely understand,
Though I attempt translation.

Seasons flow,
Bear me deathward.

I’m not certain who I am,
Where I came from, where I’m going —

Perhaps I’m simply a figment
Of wild imagination —
Bits of rock and particles of soil
In flotation or suspension,
Electric threads that vibrate in the clay,
Struggle to a dream of consciousness:

All process seems illusion,
Visionings of a frightened creature

Attempting through indirection, definition.

Call it miracle sufficient.

An old coyote I met along the road
Told me to speak the minute conscious flarings,
Moments vivid in memory, fragments
But hidden, disguised, incipiently alive —
For each, he said, contains a mystery —
Even as a ghostly azalea blossom
(Hidden in rootstock, in meristem, a portion of ether,
Intense conditioning of space, paradigm and template,
Genetic encodement, yet prior to that)
Makes endless replication,
Produces multitude and ceaseless variation,
Odor of something like honey faint in the air
Of a May morning in a mountain ravine —
Hidden clusters of yellow-throat flowers,
White-petaled, dark-stamened above flowing water.

I know the commandment
And speak without choice.
Do you wish to hear my words?

No matter, no matter.
The best poetry means to be lived.

The words — art, cadences, images —
The mystical creature sheds its skin as it goes.

A Great Coyote grins.

You live another’s thoughts
At the risk of your own,
You bask in another’s poems
And hesitate to test the river’s current.

Old Swollen-thighs solved a riddle
Drew on the cloak of power,
Was envied by those who looked upon him —
Yet ruin came as a summer flash-flood.

The human creature is frail
Death swallows the greatest pride:
It’s foolish to envy anyone,
For life lacks tenure, and no one’s fortunate
Until he’s dead.
Thus sang the ancient ones:
Only the dead have peace.


Friend, I think
We should comprehend one another.
I suspect we’re more alike
Than we suppose.


I remember light that came in a burst,
And with it a blur of images,
A babble of voices, sensations
That filled me with fear —
I cried for the simple beauty
Of dew on the leaves of wild lilac.

I came awake amid streams and mountains,
Forests and long ridges and creek channels
Where half-crazed miners, obsessed,
Once frenzied for gold —
Men who cut and shot each other, hunted Indians
On holidays, tore at the earth, and went away.

Reclusive, I was seldom at ease
Among groups, like a coyote in a cage,
Unable to accept merely human madness.

Perhaps you understand?

We read of torture, lynchings, pogroms,
Death camps, purges, genocide.

American cities are haunted
By pain and fear of violence,
Seething unrest, utter depravity —
Wanting, wanting, wanting —
Inchoate desire, thirst for rare wine.

What I can’t accept, I try to avoid:
That old wound of mine, knowledge
And dread — I’m not quite civilized.

In the forest I carry a gun —
Though not in fear of bears or mountain lions.

The enemy’s real, bipedal, large-brained.

Death, cries the earth, death, death....


My own words trail off behind me
Like wind-driven sparks from a night’s campfire.

I think of a flight of wild swans one morning
In the northern Sierra, white birds on the water at sunrise,
And I regret I never wrote about them until now.

I wish I could make you feel what I felt then —
I wish I could make you see them.


We’re merely visitors. Our stay is brief.


Landforms, lifeforms are the ultimate poems
The source of all poetry whatsoever —
We’re from them and of them — rocks and trees
Are brothers and sisters,
From the earth we receive meaning;
And when we grow tired, the glittering soil
Draws us to its bosom, embraces us.

Forms and processes surround us always,
Forever speaking, capable of telling us
About themselves and about ourselves as well,
Hieroglyphics minuscule cut into stones,
Runes utterly sacred.

Rocks and sediments are rich with clues
Which invite and challenge.

All living things reveal
The same priestly writing, even as now
In muted thrum of a rainy December night,
Coyotes sing chorus to a Coyote-headed God.

A handful of soil contains secrets
Of creation and destruction,
Divinity and the human soul,
Solitary consciousness,
Of a vast, rough-hewn, exacting intellect.

Earth music continues;
But caught in human frenzy,
We often fail to hear.

Yet something’s inside us,
Coded deep in the spindles —
It corresponds, effects harmonic, sings
In the presence of beauty or love or wonder.

Wildness chants to a wildness within,
Suggests but never defines
Harmony with all we construe as life
And all we construe as non-life.

Is not the earth itself
A huge living thing, sentient creature
Drifting through suns and tides,
Infinitely small in a cosmos of titans?

We’re no more than the most minute
Cell in the star-shelled body of All,
God and Goddess forever coupled,
Forever interpenetrating, in spasm....


As a boy, I was obsessed
With the woods,
Was driven to know
Every creek, canyon, meadow, and hill
For miles around my home.

I wanted to take others with me,
Show them places and things I’d found.

I suppose my friends grew weary
Of being dragged off to Goat Rock, Bear River,
Chalk Bluff, or Woodpecker Ravine —
But surely that was where the words began,
In pine and oak woods, hills, arroyos
Of the Sierra’s west slope.

A boy discovers a bee tree
In Fall Creek Canyon, you understand,
A boy talks about the bee tree.
A boy says, “Look, look at this damned bee tree.
And the waterfall. Look how sunlight glints
In the flow, there, just where it curves
And fans over the rock-rooted ledge....”


Before I could ever speak syllables,
I knew what was out there
Was fierce and beautiful,
Corresponding to something
I could vaguely recall.
I sensed this Other had rhythms
And needs of its own, sibilant loveliness
Indifferent to the cries of cougar
Or kingfisher or human being,
Yet beautiful beyond all expression:
I didn’t wish to live without it,
Made certain vows.

Religious and aesthetic awakening,
The dogmas few, commandments absolute....


That young boy obsessed with woods
Is smitten still, and knows it. He’s addicted,
Is drunk and staggers down the years.

Several times I’ve nearly drowned
Because lure of swift-running streams
Overcame good judgment —
A promise of rushing green water,
Effusion prismatic with sunlight.

I’ve been chased by a bear
(Somewhere I’ve read
One should never run from a bear).

I’ve gotten myself stuck
Halfway up a rockface,
At ten thousand foot in the Sierra,
And no one around for miles.

Stepped on rattlesnakes. Slid down mountainside
Snowfields and near broken my neck.
I’ve gotten lost in limestone caves.
Ocean waves are also dangerous.
I’ve learned to beware the kissing bug
And the poison oak
And one or two other things.

Cleave the wood and thou shalt find Me...

I was ten, and the promise of an August day
Drew me up to Genoa Peak — I didn’t tell my parents
For fear of prohibition. Then far below
The blue-black surface of Tahoe gleamed
In showers of sunlight, while westward across the lake,
The snow-touched peaks of Rubicon and Tallac
Boundaried my new-found vision of heights:
I scrambled among granite boulders,
Tested a hand-hold, it came loose in my grasp,
And beneath, motionless, an amber-green scorpion:
Mysterious and potent, I presumed, with death.

Hardly able to breathe, I replaced
The stone shard, made quick retreat.

Lift the rock and I Am there....


Rain cuts through darkness tonight
While higher in the mountains
A white fury of blizzard frenzies,
The snowpack deepens, winds coil out
Through high crags, swirl among cirques.

In the year the stars fell the streams
Were still full of beaver —
Men asked, How’s the stick floatin’?

But beaver vanished, buffalo disappeared
From American plains and prairies,
Wolf and grizzly grew rare:
Our far, sprawling lands were changed —
Emigrants moved westward
Until they confronted the Pacific.
The merely human tide was turned —
And fierce old Eden grew tame in places.

Gold, silver, copper, iron —
Coal, petroleum, uranium —
Dams on the great rivers,
Forests cut. Huge cities rising —
Interconnecting weave of highways.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which way a tide runs —
Waves chew at rocks, rains fall, and snow drifts down.


With mallet and chisel, brush and pincers,
I tease from compacted debris and hardened muds
A fossilized human hand, a skull,
A fragment of glass, a rusted metallic lump.

I see millions of people
Dying of starvation,
And still our numbers grow:
I see diseases sweep
The planet again,
I see bones everywhere.

Survival of this race
May lie in diminishment,
With total population
A tenth its present count.

A merely possible salvation....

During my lifetime (these seasons of witness),
Human numbers have more than doubled,
Have tripled almost.....
Too many people now, and we know it.

Frenzy before long silence.

I recall several wars — astonishing weapons,
Technology we can scarcely control,
Yes, and lurking specter and reality of mass starvation,
Sexually-transmitted super-viruses,
Perhaps unstoppable, hosts of malignancies:
Scientists engage in a frantic race,
But success eludes them —
I see desperate acts, madness and violence,
Religious war, race war, oil war,
Conflicts of competing ideologies:
The only apparent end is power itself,
Cancerous imposition of government
Upon the lives of all,
Humanity forever in conflict with itself,
Horribly ignorant — yet certain in ignorance,
Hatefully willing to die in attempts to strike
Faceless enemies, oblivious that civilizations
Have risen and fallen many times,
That all ideologies fail.

I think of species becoming extinct.
Not since the dinosaurs
Has there been such die-off,
And we, like locusts of the field.

At the last we may leap
Over a cliff-edge ourselves,
Stored lightning behind our eyes
Of little significance.

Death, intones the moon, death, death....


But tonight I look into a black window before me,
Confront my own image, distorted — I think of snowfall
In the Sierra, I think about other ranges
Farther east — Whites, Rubies, Snake Range, La Sals,
T├ętons, Wind Rivers, Absarokas —
I see ancient bristlecone pines
Silent in darkness, silver flame-like forms
Huddling high on desert peaks,
Roots tight to weathered limestone,
Trees that live thousands of years,
Endure extremes of heat and cold and harrowing wind:
Witnesses, patient, endlessly patient,
Curious perhaps (if trees are curious)
What may occur next.

These bristlecones
Are gaunt, grave witnesses —
And far too few.


Human life’s a fleeting dream, match-flare
Against delimiting, timeless dark.

Years run inexorably,
And the boy who grew up obsessed
With wandering California woods
Has awakened, puzzled, to find
Himself a gray-beard doctorate,
Member of that class of individuals
He always considered harmless old men
Full of books, their lives somehow behind them.

Death sings in the wind, death, death....


The boy understands what’s happened may be
No more than alteration of dream-setting,
Landscape somewhat changed,
The metamorphosis essentially unmodified.

He and I, one person, walk down a canyon
Where creek alders clad in grapevines
Cast cool shade by running water;
We suspect we’re a long way from home,
Don’t question the matter, proceed in good spirits.

Our sun’s crossed meridian.

These woods are filled with strange, wild voices —
Lights glitter from the stream
We walk beside, reflections so intense
We’re obliged to shield our eyes.


I want to know where the creek runs;

I have no intention of going home yet.

My own conjectures frighten me,
Not in terms of personal, transient safety,
But regards the human race —
Though something tells me I shouldn’t chew
On that old bone.


When I find survey stakes and ribbons
Out in the woods, I remove them,
Though my actions accomplish nothing —

Yes, I carry a gun
But promise not to fire
At non-human animals.

I observe pollution of air and water,
Devastation of landscape, human erosion —
A wearing upon things by the simple fact
Of bipedal passage, including my own.
I think about fires
Harbored beneath
These mountains I love.
I toy with tectonic theory,
Playfully envision sudden shifts
Along the many zones of fracture,
Great new mountain ranges forming.

And the sunlight chants life, chants life, chants....


When I was yet a boy —
During wind and rainstorm in the early hours
Past midnight, I made my way to a hilltop
Where I climbed a pine and clung to a crown
Wind moved like a great metronome,
And from that crow’s nest I surveyed my life —
I was seventeen — the city and the university
Ahead of me, all things
Still clutched in the node of sheer potential —
Yet what I could sense was darkness of storm,
Energy immense of wind and rain.
What, damn it, was it all about?

Now at the edge of age, I laugh:
The life-storm runs past me,
A man who would cry
For times past and friends past,
One who gives thanks for manifold blessings
And senses his days shorten, the net tighten,
A child who intends to stay out until starfall.

Pilgrims between darkness and darkness,
We don’t understand the nature of quest —
But know at least most west-running rivers
Ultimately find their vast Pacific:
We vanish into a zone of wonder,
And long darkness promises peace.

Man may not become wise
Before he owns winter’s share
In the world’s beauty.

Dream-settings are characterized
By unending transformation,
And we must speak.

Old Man Coyote,
The one with all the whims,
He says so.

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