Featured poet: David Axelrod 



[ a congress of unruly voices ]


Luckily, Magellan died before his return. As for his pilot, he simply completed his task without worrying
about the horrific thing—there was no longer an utter remoteness in the world.

                                                                            —Victor Segalan

                  [ beginner’s mind ]

                  At this altitude it’s not a river, but a shallow stream wandering
                  alpine tundra, carving ornate signatures: abandoned meander,
                  backswamp, slough, and scroll, going wherever gravity wills,

                  it curves, re-curves, sweeps wide at point bars, clear at riffles,
                  murmurs in a bed of cobbles, deepens, darkens to emerald, gains
                  velocity, cuts under heather banks, pools behind a dam of debris

                  and forms a placid lake…but water never hesitates long, it throngs
                  against glacial detritus, sluices through a breach, pours toward falls,
                  stumbling as though down disorderly stairs—
                                    how long freefall seems, 

                                             as long as a lifetime, 

                                                        the current dividing, 

                                    memory dissipating, 

                                             until particles of river

                                                         gather again in a pool, 

                                    where water calms, 

                                             remembers its shape, 

                                                         then continues on, its current urgent and whole.


                 [ Woodrow Wilson asks ]

                 The grand ballroom doors swing wide
                 to welcome daybreak, and you
                 follow the crowd
                 as it sweeps across the threshold
                 and down a long staircase
                 to a marble rotunda, and on
                 through a candle-lit passage, 
                 where at a window you halt, 
                 hearing a tinny voice
                 speak as from a gramophone, 
                 far down inside the cygnet horn
                 pitched too high, and see him,
                 “the gaunt deacon” alone
                 in the snow on the other side, 
                 his sallow mask
                 distorted in the leaded glass,
                 his bespectacled eyes baggy, 
                 exhausted, all his hopes
                 soon betrayed: You there, 
                 asleep in time, how will you
                 make sacred ground of this, 
                 our old lost cause?


                 [ ten years ago at dawn ]

                 Dobido woke and climbed
                 to the pass above Hobo Lake, 
                 the basin brimful with gold, 
                 a trick of wind and sunlight—
                 water’s wrinkled foil. 
                 It took him an hour
                 to ascend through krumholtz, 
                 pick his way around boulders, 
                 kick footholds into snow, 
                 and the barren cirque below
                 filled with fog rolling in
                 across tundra, swift as a god
                 pursuing an errand on earth
                 heralded by gusts of flurries, 
                 mouldering stench of autumn
                 and the famine that follows. 


                 [ two views of vagrancy ]

                 The hobo, whoever he was—namesake, 
                 criminal, vagrant, or holy man—
                 herders last saw him
                 in September 1939, 
                 running away, shy as a goat, 
                 darting from boulder to whitebark pine, 
                 until he crossed over the pass, 
                 deeper into wilderness. 
                 The hobo knew by then
                 the many disguises worn
                 by the one who appears at your door, 
                 the hazards of welcoming these
                 periodic impersonations of fog, 
                 boom of thunder, squalls of snow— 
                 he'd seen it all a hundred times before
                 abandoning this stone ring
                 full of ashes and grown up in sedge, 
                 a hand-hewn cabin crumbled now
                 to a rectangle of ochre dust. 
                 The hobo never returned
                 to his austere loneliness
                 gouged from granite by ice,
                 but went ahead to forage the future
                 following in the wake of gods.


                 [ an unruly congress ]

                 Why not wake him? Otherwise
                 Dobido will wander in circles
                 all day, following a faint silver path
                 without any clear purpose in mind.
                 Let him ponder how to answer
                 that sorrowful man, 
                 peering in the window at him. 
                 Otherwise, he won’t leave the palace. 
                 He’ll pause like all the rest
                 at the verge of 1914, 
                 blind to what’s coming—
                 the glorious licking
                 the accidents of 1917. 
                 Guests whirl in formal dress
                 across parquet floors,
                 the halting steps of the hesitation waltz
                 women say, insinuating more, 
                 Seem so passionate
                 fanning their cheeks, flushed at the neck, 
                 trying to catch their breath
                 on the arms of officers. 
                 How to wake Dobido in time?
                 How to answer a sorrowful man?
                 Dobido knows neither who
                 nor what he really is—is he just this
                 unruly congress of voices, 
                 the nostalgias of generations
                 whose turmoil he’s the product of, 
                 one era entangled in another? 
                 How to prepare for this time
                 when they all have passed from
                 one world into another
                 filled with shadows?
                 If they left instructions, 
                 they wrote them out in old script
                 it’s impossible to decipher
                 here in this desolation of stone and sky
                 at the brink of—


                 [ a door ajar ]

                 In a palace corridor, behind a door
                 a servant left ajar, Dobido glimpses
                 a man—a carpenter, a coffin-maker—
                 seated on a stool, quietly planing
                 boards in a city armies lay siege to. 
                 The man pauses, distracted by a cold
                 draft he feels, holds the plane blade
                 still in the air, and then begins again
                 planing a board lying across his knees. 


                [ Dobido returns]

                …and it might have ended there at the shore of Hobo Lake, having
                misread the map and convinced myself that, by virtue of my error, the
                trail switchbacked toward clarity not bewilderment, 

                that remoteness is its own purifying event: alone at the end of
                summer, as baffled now as last I stood in boulders and frosted
                sedge at the lakeshore, present but unable to answer.


                 [ close that door, damn it ]

                 Who needs any of that
                 insinuating itself into this
                 recessional aubade?
                 Almost-dawn, New Year’s
                 1914, the long-postponed
                 finale of another century—
                 the dreamer losing hold
                 of her tiny hand, and she
                 slipping away into the throng.


                 [ an exchange of letters ]

                 Dawn meanders west, 
                 slowly raising its gray dome
                 over plains, and snow begins
                 to fall into the Neman, 
                 the Vlatava, snow falling
                 in the Vistula, the Danube, 
                 snow soft as a collar of ermine
                 the beloved wore
                 at the dawn of the era
                 of the white beam and black hand, 
                 of ideals and ideas
                 that will wear hair shirts,
                 so wrote the patriot
                 from Sindlesdorf
                 to his friend in Berlin, 
                 whoever they may be
                 in the dark we’ll feed them, 
                 not history
                 but handfuls of grasshoppers
                 and wild honey.


                 [ an idyll ]

                          …summer evenings, 
                      singing in a whisper that’s the voice
                          of a woman you thought you loved

                  once—you could do that, imagine a virgin
                      earth, begin again at some farther
                          extreme, so long as you were willing to 

                  live like a dung beetle, master hardships, 
                      call punishment purifying, you could do it, 
                          grow ferocious and remote in your mind 

                  so people feared you and kept their distance,
                      but not that woman inside your head, 
                          because there can be no solitude so hopeless 

                  that the woman in your daydreams refuses
                      to join you there, her body your refuge, 
                          a trail through gentian and fleeceflower 

                  at the end of the alpine summer, frost-burnt
                      sedges at the dreamer’s feet, 
                          and 10,000 toads—some still with tails, 

                  others without, some with one leg or three
                      or none at all—threading chaotic passages
                          as they scurry toward what instinct says 

                  is the safety of numbers, shallow water, 
                      warm, cloudy mud, heat sink of stone,
                          the long slumber of winter ahead.


                 [ of people and mules, of trees ]

                 Heaven placid seven days—
                 round-the-clock, unperturbed
                 quiet, the late summer light
                 stunned into stillness, odd
                 to see sky as he never saw it
                 before or since, that day-lit
                 vacancy but for a ghosting
                 quarter moon at mid-day.
                 A pair of hunters he met
                 on a mountain trail pointed
                 and asked, Did you notice? 
                 this alien, soundless blue, 
                 unbroken by contrail or cloud—
                 What happened?

                 He tried to explain it
                 to a circle of people
                 and mules under larches, 
                 the trees leaning forward, 
                 listening closely because
                 it was their burden too,
                 this serenity in heaven, 
                 sensing that concussive
                 waves rippled toward them
                 across the Appalachians, 
                 Great Plains, across the Rockies, 
                 all the way to the Pacific
                 and beyond, the spectacular
                 catastrophes that befall other lives.


                 [ a diplomat from the congress of unruly voices ]

                 If we’re not going to open that door, 
                 then accompany me through this one
                 to look at pictures in another room. 
                 Here is one I like. The title translates: 
                 Ruins with Unhorsed Prophet. The boy  
                 with his back to us walks a dusty road
                 under the arch of an ivy-covered ruin,
                 completely unconcerned. But look,
                 here in the corner, in the shadow
                 below the crumbling pillar. A saddled
                 but riderless horse looks perplexed, 
                 if you can say such a thing of a horse.
                 Look again. Closer. There’s a lion
                 devouring what must be a prophet.
                 His head is already gone! Glance
                 and it’s just a 19th century dream, 
                 derelict Orientalism, a sleepy scene,
                 twilight of the Ottoman Empire.
                 But it’s a provocation, too, an insult, 
                 nature’s joke whose punch line is
                 Where’s your God now, holy man? 

                 And where’s the Good Samaritan
                 in this picture of the parable? 
                 In the middle-ground, a priest walks
                 arm-in-arm with a wealthy burgher, 
                 descending a hill. If we follow them
                 toward the misty light that shines
                 on the city below, we pass a man
                 on the left, squatting behind a shrub
                 to move his bowels—a holy recluse. 
                 Outside the tavern, another man
                 kneels, recognizable by his clothes
                 as a foreigner, his throat bared
                 to a thief's knife. Exactly where
                 in all of this is human kindness, action
                 that takes us out of our ordinary lives, 
                 makes us worthy of the life of Christ? 
                 You’ll have to keep looking because
                 it’s hidden, covered over by the gaudy frame—
                 the injured man’s torso, the Samaritan
                 bowing over the one to whose rescue
                 he’s come. These are the victim’s feet, 
                 and these the worn soles of the shoes
                 the Samaritan wears. It’s hard to say, 
                 given so little information. The painter
                 knew us better six hundred years ago
                 than we know ourselves today.


                 [ contra naturam ]

                 All night, the sound of a stream
                 washes over Dobido’s dream, 
                 glacier melt trickling across moraine. 
                 In the east, the violet dome lifts
                 under indigo and sky pales upward
                 from the rim of mountains, the edge
                 of the earth. All those obscene
                 and profligate toads throbbing now
                 in warm mud, the palace guests
                 stepping back from the threshold
                 of 1914, as though to linger longer
                 inside the palace as evening replays
                 in reverse. The warmth of laughter
                 promised a future. Her laughter
                 came last, her smile came first. 
                 She smiles and the dreamer
                 leads her back to the dance. 
                 He wants all that once more, 
                 the smile, the woman, a dance floor
                 in a palace in winter, encircled
                 by forested hills, his troika skating
                 toward her through starlight, 
                 his mind’s birthright a remote place,
                 nature forgiving all offenses future
                 or past, the consequences no one
                 predicted, healed now. A future. 


                [ along the western front ]

                Leafing through postcards from early in the last century, cozy, hand-
                tinted pastels, and four black and white snapshots mixed in among
                vacation greetings from the heroic resorts of long ago:

                a mass grave in a farmer’s field, with tight ranks for enlisted men on a
                slope below their officers, who lay above them with larger crosses
                behind whitewashed pickets; 

                also what appeared to be a farmstead bombarded by artillery rounds; a
                coal barge half-submerged in its haven; and a high street lined by
                rubble—somebody’s village,
                though no people are in sight, only a few scorched plane trees milling
                about, stunned by calamity. That, I thought, must be France or
                Belgium, autumn of 1917.
                I recalled, too, how, after the Great War, the young Harry Martinson
                worked as a day laborer shoveling brass bullet casings that clogged the
                the drainage ditches in Flanders.

                Stranger yet, is how around Easter time there are popular bicycle
                races, the so-called Spring Classics: Ronde van Vlaanderens, La Flèche
                Wallonne, l'Enfer du Nord, La Doyenne,

                each progressing along those same cobbled, muddy farm tracks
                aficionados affectionately refer to as le pavé. The countryside grown up
                now in lush pasture and impudent forest,

                and everyone’s favorite colorful riders in the peloton moving in weird
                synchrony across the hills, fans sometimes becoming so unhinged
                from drinking the local beer, a few will strip naked

                and I have watched them run in the mud alongside riders, shoving
                their bikes forward, shouting encouragement because they believe this
                will embolden their heroes and countrymen
                to overcome the great pain so evident in their faces.


                [ the diplomat's last discourse ]

                Those pictures in the corner over there, 
                by Herr Guttmann, we should look
                before we go. No masterworks, these. 
                Guttmann. A typical name Jews invented
                when Joseph II, in a reforming mood, 
                permitted them the rights of man, 
                requiring only that they create their own
                German surnames, which turned out
                so much more beautiful than German
                surnames—they chose tree of roses, 
                golden stones, starry fields, shining lake,
                blossom glow, and good man. . . . 
                Here on the wall is a very small
                share of eternity a good man earned
                starving to death in the Lodz ghetto— 
                Robert Guttmann, autodidact, 
                born in Sušice, Southern Bohemia, 
                avid Wandervogel and Zionist, 
                an enthusiastic attendee of congresses
                for the future Utopia, a fanatical man, 
                impervious to Weltschmerz
                an innocent too, who, when deported
                on Transport A from Prague, 
                16 October 1941
                appeared promptly at the platform
                carrying a small roll of canvas,
                in his valise a nub of graphite, his oils
                and brushes, because what else
                is necessary to keep alive
                even in your sixty-first year?
                Putting aside the absurdity of survival,
                those who are good, who are ethical, 
                who always insist on acting morally, 
                are naturally the first to die, 
                death choosing them, who refuse
                to betray principles, even as others are
                quick to betrayed the same. The Golden Rule, 
                distorted by the inversion of circumstances. 
                And those of us alive today? 
                Our world’s a criminal colony!


               [ proverb ]

                Parody is the ideology of slaves. 


               [ the trauma of Prague, the last discourse continued ]

               Robert Guttmann, nostalgic for Prague,
               looking back, that is, from Hell
               or from Hell’s antechamber, 
               did not summon nobility of soul
               latent in his character, nor achieve
               greatness. A ghastly painter, 
               we might try to dignify his efforts
               with the terms art naïve, say he earned
               outsider status. This intimate little picture
               in oil, Kindling the Hanukah Candles
               “is imbued with a tranquil family
               atmosphere on Sabbath.” Paradoxically, 
               it was completed in 1941, after his arrest
               and deportation, a scene from Lodz, 
               as dignified as reciting Kaddish
               before a gallows. Ain’t that a paradox? 
               What are we going to say about it,
               Mr. Dobido? Contradictions force us
               to reconstruct the ends of things, 
               praise what refuses stubbornly to give in, 
               right to the end of it, the finale of evil
               being no finale at all, just another episode
               layered among layers. . . .How to account
               for sentimentality in his only other
               extant painting, Tyrolean Landscape
               the Sublime rising from stone and ice
               and cool lush grasses of summer alpage? 
               Here I apologize for a violence to decorum, 
               and commit a violation of Godwin’s Law,
               as die Führer, too, in his formative years,
               painted the same sentimental song, 
               Eine alte Naturlichkeit,
               O, alles ist blumen und kräuter!

               another almost-unknown-painter, 
               once some hausfrau’s little darling
               in his confirmation dress, stood there, too,
               at the doors of this palace and stepped back
               from the dawn of the year 1914.


               [ a short song ]

               Behind that door a voice
                       ordered the dreamer to close, 

               mothers ululate, pound fists
                       against the mahogany panels, 

               a discord and dissonance
                       composers will soon deploy 

               to vex us, behind that door
                       devolves the spirit of our age, 

               behind that door aggrieved
                       souls announce the arrival 

               of manifestos, greater velocities,
                       conceptual pranks, alarms,

               no contracts, no guarantees,
                       electricity, only and always— 

               bivouac and acceleration.


              [ the sense of something approaching ]

              The frost hardening into veins
              of granite, heartwood of trees,
              the cries of snowbound elk.
              Under hazy sky, flurries, the dry
              snow drifting in the barrow pit, 
              a haloed moon playing peekaboo
              through clouds. What leaves us
              returns. Twice every day
              across the mountains in the dark.
              Cold deepening its blue resolve,
              the ice flows groaning against
              the tired pilings of a bridge.


              [ on intermediacy ]

              I too tried to live like a dung beetle, mastering hardships of hunger, of
              cold, and dark, calling punishment purifying, growing so ferocious in
              in my mind people feared me
              as I sang to myself on summer nights, foraging boletus and berries...
              One spring, returning north from Mexico, I rode the train, snow falling
              so heavily the playa seems intimate, 

              distances vanished, the horizon narrowed, and I caught a glimpse of
              another man stooped inside a culvert under a road, waiting out the
              storm a 100 miles south of Salt Lake

              and hours later, as I changed before dinner, I watched the TV bolted to
              the motel wall as police dragged a man from his car and beat him to
              death with clubs, 

              the grainy video looped a dozen times, the victim on his knees pleading
              “Please, no more.” At dinner I asked my hosts: “By what privilege is
              is one man granted a private death and the other not?”
              And later: “To what degree does curiosity, the unwillingness to avert
              our eyes, differ from the complicity of witness?” By the time they served
              sauterne, I knew I should not have returned.

              And when I woke the next day, pulling open the curtains, it seemed
              worse—the spring blizzard had left the mountain groves of aspen
              covered in white, 

              the valleys mottled by broken sunlight, intensely cold at dawn.


             [ Hobo Blues ]

                               …the curve of her own life,
                          passed close enough to mine, I heard her
                               singing from the falls, from falls
                               heard her sing, empty empty empty

             nameless and alone, she lived all summer
                      alone across the lake in a grove, 
                               a grove of stones, and each evening
                               she told the same, I won't come back

             not according to anyone’s plan.
                      At solstice, I lay on spongy ground
                               and stared up at bright Vega, stared
                               as sun and moon intersected trails

             and peepers, nighthawks, and crickets
                     all ceased their loud love-making, 
                              and mute thunderstorms erupted, 
                              in branches of light that burst 

             in long arcs over foothills, but these
                     were not signs of anything she felt
                              compelled to obey. Obey
                              she could not, refusing 

             to abandon her seclusion, swim
                     with ease across the water, 
                              climb ashore, combing weeds
                              from her long, tangled hair: 

             Every day I remake a boundary
                     between us, and across the verge
                             of our two worlds, gravity will never
                             seize me, nor your hand grab hold.


             [ armistice, note to Woodrow Wilson ] 

             In the village of W—
             just a few abandoned buildings
             surrounded now by weedy fields—
             people were out digging potatoes
             when news arrived that the war
             in Europe ended the day before,
             and allowed themselves one
             evening of respite between
             epidemics of polio and influenza, 
             one night when everyone
             gathered after chores
             and it was “truly a wonderful thing,” 
             one woman wrote in her journal,
             “hearing the mill whistle
             shriek six miles downriver,
             knowing my brother would come
             home from the war.” That shrill joy:
             she left no record that he ever did.


             [ the hobo, sotto voce ]

             I’ve lost track of people. 
             My youngest son, already grown, 
             tried once to summon me back, 
             as they used to in Russian novels, 
             believing nostalgia a stronger force
             than a man’s estrangements, he spoke
             my name in each of the seven directions
             across the mountain ranges
             that divide our world: Dear father, 
             it’s the happiest time of year again, 
             when, overnight, it seems
             the season changed.
It’s true. 
             Last night, the first storm
             gathered against the peaks, 
             descended over the lake, 
             wet moraine, departed by dawn, 
             ice glazing whitebark pines. 
             I’ve kept his words close for 20 years
             and carried his name within me
             like a bag of rice and bouillon, 
             dry strips of meat, the flask
             that forgets the vault of heaven, 
             the oppressive immensity of it. 
             How is it possible now, dearest one, 
             after decades of drought, 
             and all I loved lost, I still feel this
             odd gratitude return each morning
             I climb across the alpine tundra, 
             taste its frozen berries dense with sugar, 
             and then climb higher for no reason
             along a narrow, sawtooth ridge
             dusted by snow, overwhelmed by
             the immediacy of other lives, 
             small but intensely present
             as your last words to me, 
             stubborn as crickets chirring
             in swaths of fleeceflower
             burnt red by the fires of early frost, 
             crickets dying satisfied by
             the bounty of trail-side dung. 
             Tomorrow, I turn north again, 
             the cardinal point I’ve travelled toward
             all my life, believing that, 
             on its most remote peak,
             compelled to answer you, I will
             find words as unambiguous as this
             first cold mass of autumn air. 
             A double happiness? Conjured—
             despite our ineluctable distances— 
             by what your words intended to summon,
             Where have you gone, father? 
             Will you forgive me, son?

                                                                    Wallowa Mountains 1993-2013

David Axelrod is the author of seven previous collections of poetry and one collection of creative non-fiction. He is the editor recently of Sensational Nightingales: The Collected Poetry of Walter Pavlich, forthcoming from Lynx House Press. A new collection of poems, The Open Hand, is forthcoming from Lost Horse Press. New poems have appeared or are forthcoming in About Place, American Poetry Journal, Cape Rock, Cascadia Review, Cloudbank, Fogged Clarity, The Hopper, Hubbub, Miramar, Southern Poetry Review, and Stringtown, among others.