Descended into it, we catch our breath
and tap our compasses. The light is from Poe,
misty and pale with rivulets of thought
crossing back and forth, cataract-eyed,
and in this light, the path we take along the valley floor
wavers sometimes, yet sometimes becomes so clear
we see each tree root, every random stone.
Mostly, we go single file, unroped and wordless,
the bodies before us and the bodies afterwards
motions and gutturals, oddly jerking shapes
we almost forget have names. The valley walls
are steep and smell of doused campfires.
Boulders fall through the ferns. Mornings,
we count ourselves. Someone’s always gone.
To where, we don’t know. We think we hear them
climbing a long ways away, or their swimming strokes
in a river or pond, or in that dream-shout,
that popped ear, that single Winchester rifle crack
waking us to nothing but that they are missing,
the soft wind in the spruce, a barracked night bird,
overanxious raccoon with its tiny stealing paws.
Sometimes, we discover a valley town
long deserted, gray splintered railroad ties
framing its gardens. Rust. Sepia autumn fields,
crosses as lonely as those at Little Big Horn,
a Philip Larkin church with its clapperless bell.
A woman will put a sprig of heal-all in her hair,
a man will break into a little song.
In such a town, in a mansion old as Moses,
I found glass-littered parlors, bannistered stairs,
cobweb curtains in its many rooms, dust, dust.
Blown lightbulbs, singed from inside,
hung over each bed, their light cords frayed.
Stained washbasins sat on splintered dressers.
Rotted clothes lay wadded in each corner.
I swung my lantern from the highest balcony
that could take my weight. I yelled
out into the fog, but no one answered,
all of us searching for ourselves, exploring
buildings we fancied. Here and there, I saw
other lanterns swaying in the dusk:
Richard Brautigan tales, the girl upon the bridge.
We have all lost someone. Last afternoon,
we skirted a waterfall; last evening, an owl
with its curious New Age face flew over us.
At night, swamped by the stateship bulk
of a dark mountain peak, someone whispered
a poem about pride. We are walking
from God knows where into God knows what
will befall us. Think of a shrouded world,
Think of how we overcome our fright,
grow weaker and weaker, footsore, our shortwave radios
useless this far down beneath the shadow.
Interference night and day. Sphere music
only coming through in a word or phrase,
ellipses, Sappho fragments, all transmission garbled.
Power lost. Useless telescopes. Tree markings
obscured by new growth. Vines grow heavier. We take
turns at the point. It’s all political
we sometimes believe. At other times, we praise
any who stand alone among the branches
hacking their way, amateurs who don’t give up,
sweating and cursing those whom we’d anointed
leaders and saints. Is anyone searching for us?
Is anyone up there on the cliffs? Is space
really as black as they say and stars as bright
in the tent that’s our reverse? Oh Jesus,
the wind and the rain. I feel my way
only by my hands and intuition
there will be an end to this I can accept.
But only the Valley remains. Even vultures
lose their sense in it. A ladybug
in its Stendhal red and black goes wandering
down the light green center of a dark green leaf
glowing in the mist and dew, and then
like a confetti dot is taken up
by a gust from the hidden pass we cannot find.
I will fear no Evil, we all said,
for Thou art with me. I will be comforted
by thy rod and thy staff. Yet no one warned us
it would be this hard. Lately, I’m remembering
too much for too long. When we stop for rest,
shapes in the mist grow more and more distinct.
If I close my eyes it might be I can touch them.
It might be. However, the log or rock
on which I’m sitting grows uncomfortable
or a blister requires care. In a few more hours
I’ll be bedded down beside dark embers,
dreaming of rapids. Now, I rise again,
trying to accept my lot, this life as it is,
the presence of my enemies, the oil and cup,
that the house of the Lord may not welcome me
with all of my doubts. If I could send
only one short message somehow back to you,
today, as we go lower, I keep constructing
what it would be. Images, I guess,
how we walk for ages with our faces set
or loosening, how many of us there were,
our bare arms, our knapsacks, the way
one of us whistles, one of us cries,
all of us stumble. Whether or not
there is a shepherd and we are his flock,
goodness and mercy, or hatred and revenge,
I’ve stood by glades where elk browse out of darkness,
I have wet my lips with anxious love,
and standing in a place of leaves and hail,
recited a Chinese poem as Pound rendered it
to empty forest land, the words themselves
falling and rising, the compass spinning, yet
held. We are here to witness. We are here
to trick our voices into praising God.
In Death’s shadow we have found our own.
© Dick Allen