Two Poems

IN THE THICKET

“To slay, to love—the greatest enterprises of life upon man!”

—Axel Heyst, Victory

We always learn something, love, in a thicket
At home with you now, in the ultimate confusions
Of love and death, death and love, I think
Of the summer I was thirteen: skulking
With an older friend named Harold in a jungle
Of scraggly lodgepole pine and fern and whatnot
Going dark in the dusk by the Pacific,
Bat and locust hour in that slanting limbo
Between the absolutes of sea and mountain forest—
We spied a man in a clearing, with a woman.
Our fright and their lust made them luminous;
We were dumbfounded by all that pale motion on the ground.
He was doing things to or with that woman
We hadn’t dreamed of yet. “Should we
Tell my father?" I said to Harold, sotto voce.
“No, let’s wait and see.”What more to see
I never learned, for Harold’s callow throat betrayed us,
Cracking up between a whisper and a squeak.
The man reared up, twisting the shadows;
Before our eyes his movement and the woman’s,
Faceless, eloquent, swimming over
The dark earth together in circles, straightened, harkened
To us, became a final spasm of recognition
As he grabbed a rifle up and turned and fired,
Snapping off four shots like curses.
Three went wild, the last one lopped a branch off
I held in my hand.
When we stopped running
On the moon-stunned beach in sight of the village
Our wounds were three toenails missing between us,
And my hand was numb to the wrist, as if I’d
Hammered a spike on stone. “What if he’d killed us?”
Asked Harold. In the sand his foot was bleeding the answer.
“Maybe she wasn’t his wife,”I said.
Indignant in safety, limping toward final causes.
Such naïveté! And yet my hand
Twenty years older grows numb once again when I phrase
For you the question I vowed that night never
To ask my father, for fear of his begging the question:
Was it love somehow
Was it love that wanted us dead in the thicket?

DREAMING OF CANNONS

“Before we was mustered out in ‘66 and went on home to the Valley, we buried our brass cannon near the Camp. We thought old Chief Paulina and his braves might make trouble again sometime, and anyway, that cannon would have been tolerable heavy to carry back over the mountains.”

—A member of Company A, First Oregon Volunteers, stationed at Camp Polk, Oregon, during Indian uprisings in 1865-1866; as told to Walter Mendenhall, as told to his nephew Max Mendenhall, as told to his nephews . . .

Max, your twice-told tale of buried cannons
Has unhinged me, I think of nothing else
These days, so far from home I must believe it.
I close my eyes and there we are, you and I,
Next summer maybe, in a humming meadow
By the boulder-rolling creek the Indians called Why-chus
Where those homesick shiftless troopers
Caught their salmon horseback, and plinked
Away at deer and varmints raiding camp.
Their unused marching ground is camouflaged
For good in kinnikinnick and rabbit brush
And somewhere every volunteer lies mustered out
For good or bad. Now Indians die in cities.
But Max, can you imagine it—
In the loam beneath this turf and pine duff
Blind breech and muzzle, long as you,
A cannon lies aimed at everything!
My mind burns towards the touchhole like a fuse:
Cast in Philadelphia instead of bells,
Georgia oak the wheels that hearsed it here,
Now they rot in Oregon, while the patient roots
Keep fumbling, prying at the barrel
Colder than the stones beside Why-chus.
Like nothing else beneath this meadow
It does not turn again to earth.
Darkly spin the years along its burnished bore.
Now then Max, we dig, you there, I here.
Black loam turns gray in the sun like gunpowder,
Crumbling bones and ash and flakes of charcoal
Explode and sift beside the deepening crater,
And soon our shovels clang like bells, sunlight
Roundly glints on brass, and Max I see us fall
And kneel like infidels beside our brazen god:
Unearthed, untimed, the cannon gapes and blooms.