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.
[ 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,
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
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
to his friend in Berlin,
whoever they may be
in the dark we’ll feed them,
but handfuls of grasshoppers
and wild honey.
[ an idyll ]
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—
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—
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
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!
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.