Poetry from Robert Hill Long

followed by Q&A

Robert Hill Long.jpg

Retired Logger

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.

 

 

Seventieth Autumn

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&A

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.