ContentsPutah and Cache: Cold Canyon

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Path Through a Few Things that Must Be Said for Putah Creek, at the Foot of Monticello Dam

Sandra McPherson

Before we know we are spun,
between the dam's spilled staircase
and dismaying face (a Venetian
blind holding back
an ocean)

and a violence
waiting for our trust
to turn its way,
we track down the old yellow canyon
of pipevine swallowtails,

pitch essence and effusions of anise,
and watch pines escalade out
from the flowing pathway:
The creek is governed. Violaceous Brodiaea
kicked high here, last month. Now, fennel

feathers low open places, bluegreen
etherous plumes surrounding
last year's silvery, or stannic, ghosts
of cellulose
like baskets of antique pens

saved for the half sentence of ink
left in each.
Buckeye's maybe-toxic clusters foam,
votive stadiums moot to bees.
Saw-toothed toyon blooms, bees

and variations all over it.
It fills in the gaunt rut
of the canyon.
Honeybees, toe-fat, tapshoe-shape,
test the waters and taste. They need

to recover the wet composition
of their bodies—
and species-memory: Like the dry
overland flight of a bee
across Saint

Helen's devastation,
miles between shrubs,
hours between dew,
how low it flew over the ashes
without landings.

These bees go to the slaking ground
in its lapped, liquid, fast honey state.
As they lift away
from human impressions in the sand,
late morning light in the shallows

outlines a water strider's shadow-
the way a longhaired cat
nimbuses, searching a dirt road at dusk,
or a buck's backlit antler velvet
glows as he lowers, foraging

on a lupine hummock in the foredune.
Two skippers contact
and separate—six coal ovals
(as after theatrical lack of sleep, under eyes),
twelve, then six and six—

to the faint chaos of a sequence
of brief bell-like water-sounds,
like one-line piano compositions
by Donald Justice
(or one-line poems

in an inch-high issue
of Dragonfly, 1972).
The water is the churned green
of my birthfather's last cup
of morphine

as I saw it two
days later through his door.
And the current is cold
below its sun burnt top-water.
If over this slow-sided, fast-centered creek flying

insects graph a transparent map,
faster still a swallow's life
consists in devouring the backroads,
the dashed ones,
off that map

one route at a time.
Orbit consuming byway.
Flight-paths almost become visible:
pointed-winged parabolas
like a hook

full of thin years of belts
falling to the closet floor.
The swallows move on; the tangle
stays in the eyes.
And as we come out of the canyon,

away and on,
somehow in this time,
in the minutes we lost,
someone has abandoned

a stolen Mazda
and ripped parts from it,
not closed the doors
or trunk,
has undone the tires,

left the car
its idling trembles,
gone. They pass into me.

I am antique with fear,
recoiling from but mulling
branched lines of the fractured windshield,
headlights and reflectors,
their light beaten

out of them, crumpled.
The scene is not stranger than the way
one visionary schizophrenic ruins
a holy city painting
with jealous ravings

or beloved Jeffers jolts
every sublime
seascape with rage.
I don't know what will take
the car's carcass over,

my terrified incomprehension
I don't know how we end up feeling
better from worse
when the mechanism's gone—

but we leave,
cross the bridge
(and its county line sign)
above the suspended pueblo
of the cliff swallows,

the gates of their adobe
abodes made of creek-water,
grit, and mud of dust
from which fennel fledges herb-winged
and pine ascends, nourished.

Dominion—death has it, beauty has it,
water has it, drought
has it. Within the cells of peace
war is jailed or escapes,
violent with thieves.

And, their barium chloride
fireworks backs
dazzling us even in memory,
the violet-green
swallows fly up, up,

to take over the woodpecker holes.

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