Fire Series Concludes

Voices from around the state

For the past couple of months, I’ve posted poems here related to fires and the people who battle them. The series has included the voices of Washington poets from the Methow Valley, Spokane, Ellensburg, Yakima, Kingston, Leavenworth, Lake Chelan, Seattle and (because fire knows no border) poets from Oregon and Idaho.

My deep thanks not only to those poets whose work is featured here, but also to the dozens more who sent in their poems, and to all of you who took the time to read them.

Katharine Whitcomb: “Inscription Found on a Cliff Face After Drought”

Tony Kroes: "Tiger at Marigold Gate" Color-reduction woodcut.
Tony Kroes: “Tiger at Marigold Gate.” Color-reduction woodcut.

Inscription Found on a Cliff Face After Drought

We fled our valley after the vine-beans withered,
followed the stream’s dwindling trickle to the high trail.

Burning brushfires chased us up to the treeline,
great flame-bombs leapt grove to dead grove.

The old people used to say to break a drought
one had to track the tiger, follow her far

into the mountains, and wait. Our wasteful lives
caused the water to dry up; our only hope her forgiveness.

We hid in dry weeds for days near her paw marks.
We offered her our hunger-gifts. She slipped behind rock

after rock, shy, then radiant. She breathed out dark clouds.
We sang our songs so her tail waved with pleasure, she heard

this story and her sweeping tail raised the rain. Then we
crossed under marigold gate alive, wet petals on our sleeves.

–Katharine Whitcomb

“Inscription Found on a Cliff Face After Drought” is being exhibited as an artist/writer collaboration in artist Tony Kroes’ solo exhibit, “October: Bells Heard Through Leaves” at Keeler Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October/November 2015.  When the artist sent me an image of his print for our collaboration, my head was full of worry about the fires in the west and the drought — I built my poem around an imagined place after the rains had come again. —Katharine Whitcomb

Carol Smith: “Wildfire Weather”

Wildfire Weather

Every year, the Santa Anas
Rushed down from the high desert.
The winds sang hardest in the blue night,
Blowing through our dreams and turning
Children into small gods
With fingertips that sparked.
The winds blew against nature.
Hot and dry
And drove people from their houses,
Instead of in, children spreading
Their coats for wings.

Some years, the winds set the hills
Above my childhood house on
Poppyfields on fire.
Neighbors gathered in the streets below,
To watch the fire whirl
And breathe the sweet and stringent
Smell of eucalyptus burning.
The fathers spoke of devil winds
And wildfire weather.
The mothers calculated and recalculated
A safe distance from the flames.

The children, though.
We danced in the street,
Excitement leaping crown to crown.
We knew the burned hills
Were the best place to fly kites.
Tossing a square of fabric overhead and running
Down the hill,
Feeling the string snap and suddenly,
We were holding down the sky.

–Carol Smith

Originally published in the Mississippi Review; reprinted here with permission of the author.

Julie Tate: “Fire Summer”

Fire Summer

Not one, but many
so many
you thought the whole valley would burn
gone up together like some sort of
end-of-the-world rapture.

It was the summer of texts and Facebook and
pack-your-things-oh-my-god-there’s-no-time
get out

get out

get out.

What did we take?
You looked around: a brown sweater,
a pair of shoes, that skirt you never wore,
no, leave that.
The dog, of course, the dog.
You wouldn’t leave the dog, or the cat
but you had to choose.

Time to go.

You stumbled to the car,
you heard someone crying- it was you- but you didn’t recognize the voice
because it was new.
Strange, keening sobs as you gunned the engine and pulled away
leaving the place you thought
your babies would grow up,
bring their first boyfriends,
have that wedding with
candles and sunflowers and white table cloths.

You left when the Shasta daisies were blooming,
whole hosts of them
glowing like fireflies in the almost-dark.
You wanted to kiss them
bury your face in them
say goodbye to the roses that just opened that morning.

You drove away without looking back
because the fire was ahead of you
blazing away like some kind of freak show, the
whole mountain lit up and shining
trees exploding like bombs.
You drove too fast, reckless, crazy
the firefighters turned away when they saw you because
there was nothing to say.

It felt like the
end
of the world
that summer.

You got drunk on white wine and blueberries,
went swimming in the river,
you dove

down

down

down.

Down there with the fishes
grazing your hands on river rock
slippery with silt
you could forget
the image of your friend’s house burning
incandescent,
like a sunset
burning-flesh
smell of smoke and
scorched earth and
burnt-over landscape.

For a moment you were
just a girl underwater

everything

 beautiful

 and

perfectly

still.

–Julie Tate

Julie Tate Libby is an anthropologist/sociologist who lives in the Methow Valley and has written about regional issues such as amenity migration, socioeconomic restructuring and tourism in North Central Washington.  She teaches anthropology and sociology at Wenatchee Valley College.  This is her first attempt at poetry.

Dan Peters: “Letter To Students Who Are Not Here”

Letter To Students Who Are Not Here

in memory of Karen, Jessica, and Jason 

Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in the dry air.

–Gary Snyder, “Piute Creek”

The hills are green and will be for a month.
Then, as the cheatgrass matures, they will turn red.
By the time you come home, fewer than before,
they will have changed to various shades of brown.
Now, though, they are green and some mornings,
when clouds cover the valley, you can squint your eyes
and almost believe you are in another country
where all year long, hills remain
as round and bright as these ridges today.

A year ago, I wrote another letter.
I said I don’t have anything other than easy answers
that seem tired before I can get them out of my mouth.
Much later, I saw some things were passing through me.
Maybe it was just so much had changed.
My friend drove me around for more than an hour.
He copied down this line: No one loves rock, yet here we are.

Outside my window the sound of a lawnmower
drifts back and forth. I am not where I was,
and you are not here, anymore.
The ridges change as they did before any of this happened,
before we lost so much.
That’s no kind of answer, but I’ll stand by it.
Across the valley, I can see pillars of smoke
where orchards stood. The trees behind your school
empty of blossoms in the wind and rain.
Those beside the river fill with leaves.

–Dan Peters

From Down the Road the Children Go (Blue Begonia Press); posted with permission of the author.

Laura Gamache: “Past-Tense, First Creek Fire”

Past-Tense, First Creek Fire

I can’t capture it. Embers dance,
pierce stacking chairs, grape leaves,
plume behind the house as the lake laps.
Wind changes, you lose everything.

Fire sucks oxygen as I do. Creates
its own weather and lightning.
Forgive its hunger, it takes not
for revenge or historical hatred.

I wake to another infrared map,
expanding Rorschach veiled in red-dots.
Black x’s mark lines the fire won’t cross
unless it does.

Trees torch, pass it on
what fire touches is gone.

–Laura Gamache

Used by permission of the author. Read more of Laura’s work here.

Brooke Matson: “The New Season (Canada Geese)”

The New Season (Canada Geese)

To live in rivers is to live among mirrors. My family—we are grafted
from one another, sprouting along the river rock like lichen. I have mistaken
their wings for mine, recognized their coal-black beaks dipping among
the yarrow and felt my own hunger raise its neck. Once I looked into my own
eyes and saw a raging falls, a red stream of salmon twisting like a muscle
across the land, a fire running with yellow feet across the bodies of trees.

A moment ago, I floated among the sedges—the ones with roots that taste
like the caps of mushrooms—the water smelling of rusted steel. Goslings
pushed their tiny bodies across the current, following their mother’s wake
like beads of dew running across a spider’s thread. Then I tasted the delicate,
warm dust, bitter with the sap of unfamiliar trees. It fell around us
like a new season.

Maybe it is the sun pausing like a hot ember in the clouds, or maybe
it’s the scent of burnt feathers mingled with pine, but my sister says
the word first. My call follows hers—like the goslings following
their mother—and then we are all calling with our blackened mouths,
the memory lifting us like a many-winged river from the earth. I glide higher
among the flock, heart pounding, and as I do, the sun itself flies down to rest
on the water, fanning its red wings.

—Brooke Matson

Used by permission of the author. Read more of Brooke’s work.

Derek Sheffield: “Firefighters Walk into Mountain Sports”

Firefighters Walk into Mountain Sports

Straight from flames, faces soot-slapped
and yellow jackets swishing,
they track cinders of century-wide pines
wrenched from root-sockets
and sucked skyward like bungled fireworks.
Blazes in their ears, they shout across aisles
and racks, thumbs hooked over belts
with curious assurance: whether they hold
Pulaski and shovel, or Polartec and Nike, the end
will come nameless, wearing the same face.

One models a hat, and they hoot.
If they wanted, they could howl
at such prices or the well-tanned skier
in search of a deal and a fit,
clomping seven times across the store
and back in orange Atomics.

Slim and pig-tailed, the girl
who rips their receipts from the register
is the last line they walk
before flinging again comets of earth
at something like the sun unhinged.
From their radio, a staticky voice,
the green world going black.

–Derek Sheffield

From Through the Second Skin (Orchises, 2013). Used by permission of the author, Derek Sheffield.

Suzanne Edison: “Smoking”

Smoking

Record summer of fire
close to home, yours
a trailer, at the confluence
of the Columbia River overflowing
with fish, and tinder dry Methow
Valley. Gone. Mercurial fire burnt the water
tower, school, and churches,
your tortilla comal, torched
family pictures set in Michoacán, zircon
tiara from a glowing quinceañera,
smoked your job tending
hilly orchards where apples
caramelized on the branch, left you
stranded like the bear cub
whose mother couldn’t outrun
the flames, and no eating
the charred cows branded
and fenced in pasture, who were bred
not to flee, as you did, arriving
years ago with a few pesos, holding
tears on your tongue, and a blazing
hope—you might have been
the man standing, garden hose in hand,
spraying down his roof, green lawn
of dreams, untouched.

—Suzanne Edison

Read about Suzanne and her work here. Poem used by permission of the author.