A Snohomish hay field rusts in the sun
in early July a red the color of an American robin
who dusky orisons plea for night.
The twilight lingers but eventually gives way
to moonless star-splashed darkness.
40 years ago in an Idaho field more yellow
than this one, shimmering with sweet grass
salted by your sweat.
You bucked bale after bale
under a malingering sun.
At quitting time, you still had enough
piss & vinegar to fly a rope swing over the swimming
hole on a creek once the site of an Indian battle.
Your brother thought you were just playing
when you didn’t come up right away,
when you didn’t leap out of the water to have another go.
We all have these arrowheads in us
working their way out, leaving scars of elegy.
Some young cowgirl riding hard on a summer day and the palomino stumbled.
Some golden glove boxer riding a John Deere on a side hill and the tractor tipped.
Some gearhead hot-rodder who tweaked the carburation just right:
fuel, oxygen and spark. He made a chariot of his Chevy
and flew off the East Sammamish Road.
They all sailed into oblivion before they had a chance
to know much of this earth, how it’s built of blood & ash.
Along the fence line, tangling wild cucumber is a tiny constellation
of white flowers among the fireweed and purple vetch.
This night I will pull down with a gaff hook the tired ancients
who’ve had their songs sung too many times.
They’ve had their run.
Here’s to the tragic heroes of my childhood,
For my sisters and brothers and friends.
Let them look to the heavens and remember:
Paul, Jody, Doug, Kathy, and Sorensen
and so many others.
I put you all among the stars.
~ ~ ~ ~
Dogfish rise from the muddy
gorges of the Salish Sea
in a waxing moon
that lanterns the green canopy
with a light as cold as the water.
All teeth and eyes
They see and hunger
and hunt in packs
Over eons of slashing through oceans
From here to the coast of Honshu
they’ve grown defensive
armored in denticles
And hoisting sabre and foil
Some are learning to breathe
fog and crawl upon the shore
When the lighthouse signals
the time is right.
They hold a grudge like crows
Who chatter cruelly in madrona groves
egging them on
to Poulsbo or Edmonds
where unaware fisherfolk
grizzled and gnarled
fillet & fry mudshark with chips
Dogfish carry night in their hearts
and venom in their spines
Like us, they remember every slight.
~ ~ ~ ~
Hunger hung around like a three-legged stray,
like the dank smoke of a town where families burned
anything in their stoves to stay warm.
My father was nine years old,
the last child and only surviving son of immigrants from Umeå.
En svenska his parents spoke of sending him off
to Morfar’s logging camp in Embarrass, Minnesota
the coldest place in the contiguous USA.
Their marital troubles found a gloomy truce
in conspiracies to shelter the boy from their disintegration.
They smoked stubs of cigarettes to stave
off the hollow pangs, so the boy could eat dark bread.
Everyone was unwell.
The sickly grew sicker then died.
Alfred sent word: Worse in Seattle.
A Hooverville bigger than Fargo.
A contagion of despair.
Don’t bother coming west.
As a small boy my dad trudged the railroad tracks
with his teenage uncle under a frozen moon, dogged by frost,
casting a light as dim as hope.
The two of them picked coal that had fallen from cars.
Lying low from railyard bulls,
hiding in the siding,
Uncle Ralph whispered how in Alaska
You could walk across rivers on the backs
of salmon and there was still gold
paying out of Uncle Al’s claim north of Nome.
Ralph had a plan— bum on the Great Northern
to Seattle, then work a steamer north.
He would send for my dad
to save him from the logging camp
he was sure would kill him.
Years later Dad told me how Uncle Ralph kept him
believing in a letter that never came,
in an impossible Alaska that got him
through hard times, through the war, through the logging accident
in ’49 that took Ralph too young,
an Alaska where the summer sky
lights up past midnight the pale blue of his eyes.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
James Backstrom grew up exploring the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest. His poems have appeared in Soundings on the Salish Sea, Spindrift, The English Journal, Poetry Seattle,and other publications. He is also a proud charter member of EPIC Poetry Group that meets monthly in the Edmonds library. A long-time teacher in the Northshore School District, he and his wife raised their three children just north of Snohomish. Whenever he can get away, you’ll find him hiking the trails of the Cascades and Olympics.