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.



Sullivan’s Pond


Many decades ago I circled

frozen air. The barricade

upstream collapsed.

I moved to the narrow slot,

ducked under the footbridge, the ice

un-groomed, pebbly,

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.



Imprint: Indiana                                                                                             

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.