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Michael McGriff




I was wrong about oblivion then,
          summer mornings we walked the logging roads
north of Laverne, the gypo trucks leaving miles of gravel dust
          eddying around us.  You were the Queen of Iron
and I, the servant Barcelona
.  The slash-pile
          we tunneled through was the Whale’s Mouth,
our kingdom.  Jake-brakes sounded the death-cries
          of approaching armies as they screamed over the ridge
where we held our little breaths and each other,
          passing the spell of invisibility between us. 
Five years later, you brought your father’s
          hunting knife to school and stabbed Danielle Carson
in the hip and I never saw you again.
          I could say I left town for both of us, that I drove I-5 South
until I reached the aqueducts of California,
          and for the first time felt illuminated before the sight
of water as it rushed beneath the massive turbines
          spinning on the beige and dusty hills, powering a distant city
that would set me free.  I could say
          after your father covered the plastic bladder
of his waterbed with baby oil and wrestled you to it,
          that in those days after your pregnancy I made plans
to drive a claw hammer into his skull.  But I never left,
          and when I moved it was only as far as the county line.
If my life has been a series of inadequacies, at least I know
          by these great whirls of dust how beauty
and oblivion never ask permission of anyone.
          In the book I read before bed, God lowers himself
through the dark and funnels his blueprints into the ear
          of a woman who asked for nothing.  Tomorrow night
she’ll lead armies, in a few more she’ll burn at the stake
          and silver birds will rise from her mouth.  This is the book
of the universe, where iron is the last element 
          of a star’s collapse and the moon retreats each moment
into oblivion.  My blood fills with so much iron I’m pulled
          to a place in the hard earth where the wind
grinds over the ridge bearing the wheels of tanker trucks
          oiling the access roads, where deer ruin the last of the plums,
where the sloughs shrink back to their deepest channels,
          and I can turn away from nothing.

Ash and Silt 


Another Oregon November and I’m barreling down
Old Wagon Road again, the night waters of Isthmus Slough


winding through the dark.  I gear down the three-in-the-tree Chevy
as Tonya’s leg pushes against me.  She says, Think you’ll leave this place


when you’re dead?  She’s come to believe we’ll return
as the stray dogs at the boat basin, screech owls and dusty moths,


that we’ll be recycled from our wrong and horrible selves
into the lives of flight, flame, and pack.



If you took this road twenty years ago
you’d have found my father and me at mile-marker four


bucking timber at a washed-out logging site,
the bone-picking privilege the companies grant to scavengers


to cut time with slash-piles.  That morning I stood
at the back of his room and asked him to sign my Cub Scout handbook


next to the box Does your father believe in the Bible
and the kingdom of God?  He was wet with bathwater,


blind without glasses, and told me he never read anything
that wasn’t real—which explained his stack of magazines:


Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend, Car and Driver,
J.C. Whitney’s newsprint catalogue


filled with line drawings of knock-off auto parts.
He said, Find your work gloves and get in the truck.



Tonya wants to talk about reincarnation but I go on
about the gravel quarry, the pallets I stole from the marina,


the menthols we snatched from her mother’s purse.
The stars from east to west fail me tonight,


and whatever she believes she can have.  She can shed her husk
and soar above everything with the red-shouldered hawks


until all of Coos Bay reveals itself as a grid of service-roads, a net
stretched over thousands of acres of Douglas fir.  From that height


it must be clear our days ahead and behind are one,
that everything we touch clings to its own ghost. 




When my father kicked two cords of bucked timber
down the gully for me to stack in the truck


he meant, I’m the hands above, you’re the hands below. 
There was no mystery: we collected enough wood


to heat the house for months.  When we returned
we found our rooms filled with the same air


where God had died for a pair of work gloves
and the smell of orange peels and cinnamon


rose from the iron kettle atop our Fisher stove
burning the ends of last year’s


shed-cured firewood.  My father lathering my little head
with shortening to work out the pine pitch,


how he unthreaded a tick from my thigh
under the cold half-light of our pantry. 




On nights like this I close my eyes and feel
the Chevy’s radial tires hug the fog-line,


can tell when I drop below sea level
and the dike rises at my side. The slough swells


as the moon pulls salt into water.  I hear the creek running
beside the road, the way it pours


under the logging bridge my grandfather built,
the muck emptying into a sinkhole filled with cow bones


and old tires.  I feel the unbearable weight
of the log rafts at low tide and think of the boy


who once lived on this corner, how one night he shimmied from
raft to raft, slipped between the logs and never came back.


Tomorrow I’ll wake in the back of the Chevy,
in Tonya’s arms, in my father’s bedroom,


to another voice begging for the light to return,
to the wail of a Homelite chainsaw, to my thieving hand.


I’ll wake to the story of my life and enter
this same god-dead town again and again


until I vanish inside my own voice, until my body is ash
and I’m taken away in the rising water-table,


drift into the slough, and enter, as silt, whatever’s left
of that missing boy’s mouth. 


I’ll stay with my own under that filthy water
that sucks light from all the stars.   


Coos Bay


          The World’s Largest Lumber Port,
the yellow hulk of Cats winding bayfront chip yards,
          betting on high school football

at the Elks Lodge, bargemen,

          abandoned Army barracks,
Japanese glass floats, cranberry bogs,


          mooring lines, salmon roe, 
swing shifts, green chain, millwrights
          passing each other like black paper cranes


from one impermanence to the next, 
          phosphorescent bay water, two tons
of oyster shells, seagulls, beach glass


          tumbled smooth in the surf, weigh stations,
off-bearing, front loading, cargo nets,
          longshoremen, scabs,


the Indian casino marquee promising
          continental breakfast, star-crowned animals
stitched to blue heavens


          behind the fog, log booms,
choker setters, gypo outfits, acetylene sparks
          falling from the Coast Guard cutter Citrus,


dredging units, gravel       quarries, clear cuts,
          scotchbroom taking over the dunes,
smokestacks pocked with peep shows


          of flame and soot, the year-round
nativity scene and one-armed Santa
          in J.C. Penney’s alley window,


my grandmother dying just over the ridge,
          mother-of-pearl, sea lion calls
in the dark, low tide at Charleston Harbor,


          the sound of calk boots
in gravel parking lots, salmon sheen hosed
          onto the street, the arch


of a big rig’s empty trailer, sand
          in all the moving parts,
floodlights, tie-downs, ridge beacons,


          great blue herons whispering through
the hollow reeds, Howard Cosell Speaking of Sports;
          the anecdotes of Paul Harvey, wishes of good day,


Patsy Cline going to pieces, my father’s arm
          almost around me as we drive 101, 
the cat piss smell of a charred meth lab


          between the V.F.W. hall
and pioneer newspaper museum,
          the rusted scrapyard and tank-farm.


At the stoplight before the drawbridge
          we laugh at the women from the bank
falling out of their heels


          over the truck-grooved crosswalk—
the bridge spans forgotten coal bunkers,
          buried fingerprints of Chinese laborers,


rope-riders and mule bones.
          Back home we’ll huddle around
the oil drum burn barrel,


          a few weeks of newspapers
and wood scrap, trapped angels under the wire mesh
          my father and machinist neighbor


dying of cancer warm their hands over.
          The great heave of the Southern Pacific,
sturgeon like river cogs,


barnacle wreckage, cattle-guards. 

          The last of the daylight,
a broken trellis falling into the bay.


                        -from Dismantling The Hills

Click here to listen to "Iron" at Fishousepoems.org