2014 Winter in Variations: Bill Holm Witness Poetry Contest Co-Winner, Jeanine Stevens
Jeanine Stevens studied poetry in the Creative Writing Program at U.C. Davis and has an MA in Anthropology. She is the recipient of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt, and a finalist for the William Stafford Award. She has other first place awards from Ekphrasis, The Bay Area Poet’s Coalition and Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference. Her work has appeared in Evansville Review, Poet Lore, North Dakota Review, Pearl, Sentinel Quarterly, Bardsong, and Cider Press Review. She is the author of Sailing on Milkweed, Cherry Grove Collections. Her latest chapbook, Needle in the Sea, was published by Tiger’s Eye Press. Besides writing, Jeanine enjoys collage, Tai Chi, Romanian folk dance, and hiking in the Sierras. She was raised in Indiana and now lives in Sacramento and Lake Tahoe with her husband, photographer Greg Czalpinski.
Snow Plant out of Season
Burning sandalwood incense,
I wonder when and where the first
keeper of the flame cherished
the tiny yellow pod so precious, so fine.
Born by accident, blood on the shaft,
a slip of comet indeed.
The rock face burns evidence—
early kindling splits tongue,
the book of heat on each fire-hardened spear.
Who can go back to the ancient of days,
first star in the sky, beacon misunderstood,
the star reigning fire, the beautiful singing.
I believe Neanderthal did more than hiss
and grunt. Charcoal outlines of hands,
some fingers missing, first crime.
Pinnacles roar red capes, sunrise
sunset congeal, cool and seal the wound.
Did these early makers predict which way
big game went by scapulomancy,
maps burned in bone?
From the core, observe the fleshy vermillion
snow plant out of season. Bulbs of light,
bulbs of seed, incubate and combust.
The keeper, integral to the tribe,
lives on a narrow wick, discourages
poachers, keeps the dragon fed.
The French named pomegranate, Le Grenade,
sulfur, mustard gas, morphine, cap guns,
evolution: Burn, Burn, Burn.
Summer residents have left the mountain,
windows boarded up, a scatter of remaining cabins,
folks who stay through the winter.
A walk before temps dip below freezing.
Pine needles a foot thick, slippery.
no birds, few squirrels. A smattering
of golden hearts shimmer in the aspen.
I round a corner where two men in heavy jackets
staple green boughs to giant wood circles,
holiday wreaths I imagine
for one of the casinos at Stateline.
All quiet, time seems to go backward.
What was this stand of forest like before?
Further on, darker, time to turn back, but just ahead
an orange crackle among the trees. I wonder: dancing elves,
winter gnome’s abode? Closer, the site looks festive.
Laughter and twinkle lights strung over
the make-shift bar, a TV hung under the eaves
(Notre Dame and Northwestern tied),
chairs set up around a sparking fire,
safely contained in iron mesh.
I’m invited to sit with three men, one
gets married tomorrow. He shakes my hand,
rough, a worker’s hand. They drink something brown
over ice. (“Women are inside cooking,” they say.)
Visiting from the Delta, river rats
they call themselves. I want to ask
their opinion on proposed tunnels to divert water.
One wears a cap with ear flaps,
a bachelor party, not the time for politics.
I consider walking home
to get the ½ bottle of Korbel.
The groom says his name is Cal, also his grandfather’s
name. A lot of men in his generation
are named Cal. He calls me Blondie, offers
his pipe, dark red, carved design
something like a dragon. Not my party.
I say no and thanks. He waits until I leave to lite up.
Many decades ago I circled
frozen air. The barricade
I moved to the narrow slot,
ducked under the footbridge, the ice
everywhere a dull monochrome,
not even a spot of sun.
Summer willows bent and hooked,
created snags on the surface, like eyelets
ready to fasten errant skaters.
The ice appeared thick.
If I fell through
no one would find me until spring.
They would all be sorry,
wouldn’t have to tolerate
my fidgeting, my gawkiness,
my breezy thoughts.
I wanted to keep on, maybe north
to Duluth, find a new family.
A downed tree blocked my path.
A scarlet cardinal, the only
color in all this parchment, fastened legs
tight to a spur, tilted his head,
and scolded me back
to the warming hut and frothy cocoa.
Now I wonder, how many
other times I’ve tested myself and if
it is true that willows
never forget how to be young?*
*A thought by William Stafford
Sycamore. Sykomoros: Sycomorous.
Mere saplings planted eons ago,
one to each plot near the water main.
Like aging goddesses they stand,
crotch wide enough for a chariot seat,
Diana’s daughters grown wise.
Vast bowers, these sisters
interlock arms, from the sky
appear a circlet of green.
In summer, leaves big as exotic fronds
protect mauve forest pansies from valley sun.
In July, they witness small children
parade the colors, led by a local
fire truck, honking like an old dragon.
In winter, coppery leaves,
dislodged by migrating finches,
quilt the ground. In fog, the same truck
broadcasts a Perry Como holiday
as it approaches the commons for hot cocoa.
Under their watch, as if ready for deep
draughts from subterranean fissures,
we all sleep a better sleep.
It was a sugar maple near the road—
with blackest trunk
five decades ago—beyond,
just alleyway. Refuse heaps
in bent trash receptacles.
I watched from the door:
late month. November
mums golden near split cement.
Did the maple, ever, or never,
drop leaves by my late birthday,
not that late month
after or before? Replacement
of the spoken
our aging, our resigning.
Replacement, a snapshot,
restless equinox. Now
I recognize this place,
the part the maple played from summer
to winter given
as a small voice, like the organ
rising from old North Church.
Roads. Sounds of river clams, dark wet.
Should I record imprints?
Now I see clearly, seasons,
early years, residue
of reconstructed thought.
In the alleyway, the rusty tin
tilts on its side,
retrieved for a last swift kick.
~after Louise Gluck
Before the First Snow,
I Think About Indiana
Fields all golden, crops in,
threshers gone home for the season.
Pumpkins, white squash and clacking
corn stalks decorate farm gates.
The straw man nods an airy head,
knows his journey will slow
when the rusting latched is locked
and the gate begins its slump
in the deep drifts of winter,
when wind shreds any attempt at tinsel.
I bend down to the bare streambed,
feel the heat gone out of stones.