Poetry from Robert Hill Long
followed by Q&A
Body vibrating like a tuning fork,
he was what the chainsaw sang: smoke and perfume
of fir chips ricocheted off his jeans, two-stroke
engine gunning him to the foregone resolution—
spine-crack and whump of a massive body
to earth, old as Nimrod, a balsam-fragrant
giant who speared light on a million barbs
of green, and fed vole and raven. How many
useful monsters did he lay low? Never kept count.
Delimbed, chokeset, dozered downhill, trucked
away. Like the years. How many?
He touches the fir post of his rotted fence to say,
I was immortal when I pulled that trigger
and you fell. Believe me, it took forever.
Dry evenings the firepit says, Feed me. He culls
bracken, spruce cones, duff, tops it
with cedar boughs for incense, attentive
as a mother or nurse until the pulse
of flame is so constant his eyes water
ten feet away. Throws on fir that burns
faster than maple or oak, though its altar
requires equal care. It takes off his growing chill,
though fire wants to devour everything at once—
staring at him, it sees fuel, not a father. “Not yet,”
he says. If birds were fire they’d alight
on each tree and torch apocalypse, he thinks.
Ash-wings fly over his house. He’s not so old
he can’t enjoy the indignant hiss of pissed-on coals.
* * * *
How swiftly it burns, fir, red core
crying Let me out now! Next day’s breeze
rouses a familiar pungence from the pit, odor
of coastal nights long since converted to song.
What is the song? How one is reduced: pennant
torn and faded and limp, stature and structure
collapsing like sand cliffs the waves devour
grain by grain. If today warms, he’ll hike the beach
and listen underfoot to sand mouthing Goodbye
to every footprint that contains his name.
He’ll study the tideline like an EKG
that cannot predict where or why
the body will fall, only how hard.
A robin sings in what he once called his back yard.
* * * *
Some nights in the flames a voice makes
herself known. Among the evergreens, a flicker,
permitting him to understand not what she says,
which is fire-murmur, but how she is the tower
and root of the earth, taller than the waste and pall
of smoke. Once he has heard, he hears
the chickadees at his window-feeder echo her,
and the sleety wind off the Pacific, and the fall
of rain and snow on his zinc roof, and he accepts
winter’s angled interiors. In woodstove and oven,
the candle by bath and bed, she whispers precepts
he holds like the pillow between his knees.
When he snuffs the candle, she condenses all at once
on the window—seed pearls, frog eggs, fetal moons.
Robert Hill Long is author of the flash fiction collection The Effigies (Plinth Books) and four books of poems, most recently The Kilim Dreaming (Bear Star Press) and The Wire Garden (Arlo Press). Raised and educated in North Carolina, he was the founding director of North Carolina Writers Network in 1984. He has lived in western Oregon since 1991. His work has appeared in Zyzzyva, Sentence, Poetry, Manoa, Del Sol Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review, The Prose Poem, and Seneca Review. In 2010 he won the Dorothy Brunsman Prize (for a collection by a poet living west of the Rockies).
Q: What was your inspiration for these poems?
A: I’m working on a collection of poems set mostly on the Oregon coast. One section consists of portraits of women; another consists of portraits of men. The women live along the coastline, the men live in the hills—and a number of the aging men I’ve portrayed are loggers and loners who are more comfortable alone in the woods than among other human beings. These two poems are portraits of men with different sorts of regrets about their younger years. Many of their logger-forebears came from the Carolinas to log old growth in the Pacific NW.
Q: Of all the trees you’ve cut and burned, which type was the most rewarding and why?
A: A little half-dead longleaf pine I chopped down for a campfire with friends when I was 12-13, camping out less than a mile from home. (A really little tree.) I do currently have what’s left of a girthy bigleaf maple curing in my woodsheds, but all I did was split the cut-down log cylinders with a hammer and wedge. Satisfying pop and split when you hit it correctly.
Q: What survival skills would you pass along to someone lost in the woods?
A: Being able to read a GPS, plus with a powerful cellphone/radio, a dry map tube full of relevant topo maps, my old compass and my worn copy of “Staying Alive in the Woods.” Seriously, many people in the PNW are getting lost along with their GPS + cellphones, and though most of them manage to reach emergency services, others pay the ultimate price for believing that satellite technology will guarantee safe wandering, though they are not otherwise prepared with warm (dry) gear, water filtration, waterproof fire starters, and a sense of what they can safely eat to keep. I know edible mushrooms and wild greens well enough not to poison myself, so that’s probably the only specific skill I could pass along.
Q: You’ve gone from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast …. What effect has that had on your writing?
A: I still write about people in the South, though only two books (The Effigies and The Wire Garden) are pointedly Southern or set entirely there. Another MSS, The Republic of Robinson, is about a jazz guitarist based on the Carolina coast, though he travels a lot outside NC; some of the work I’ve written since the Iraq war began (about victims, survivors, veterans) portrays people who live in the South. Otherwise the main effect of living in Oregon for 20 years is that it has become home for us and our children (well, including California for our daughter); it’s where I plan to be buried (in a pioneer cemetery two blocks from my house). The rest of my family remains in NC and SC, along with my oldest friends, and I do very happily visit them and love that country and culture. The culture I’m in out here—Cascadia, the university-town and metro-area cultures between Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver BC—is more socially and politically liberal in its mainstream than in the Carolinas, although we were part of a similar Chapel Hill/Durham culture when we last lived in NC. Still, I prefer Oregon’s politics and policies to North Carolina’s, though I wish they were not 3,000 miles apart.