Ash and Silt
Another Oregon November and I’m barreling down
Old Wagon Road again, the night waters of Isthmus Slough
winding through the dark. I gear down the three-in-the-tree Chevy
as Tonya’s leg pushes against me. She says, Think you’ll leave this place
when you’re dead? She’s come to believe we’ll return
as the stray dogs at the boat basin, screech owls and dusty moths,
that we’ll be recycled from our wrong and horrible selves
into the lives of flight, flame, and pack.
If you took this road twenty years ago
you’d have found my father and me at mile-marker four
bucking timber at a washed-out logging site,
the bone-picking privilege the companies grant to scavengers
to cut time with slash-piles. That morning I stood
at the back of his room and asked him to sign my Cub Scout handbook
next to the box Does your father believe in the Bible
and the kingdom of God? He was wet with bathwater,
blind without glasses, and told me he never read anything
that wasn’t real—which explained his stack of magazines:
Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend, Car and Driver,
J.C. Whitney’s newsprint catalogue
filled with line drawings of knock-off auto parts.
He said, Find your work gloves and get in the truck.
Tonya wants to talk about reincarnation but I go on
about the gravel quarry, the pallets I stole from the marina,
the menthols we snatched from her mother’s purse.
The stars from east to west fail me tonight,
and whatever she believes she can have. She can shed her husk
and soar above everything with the red-shouldered hawks
until all of Coos Bay reveals itself as a grid of service-roads, a net
stretched over thousands of acres of Douglas fir. From that height
it must be clear our days ahead and behind are one,
that everything we touch clings to its own ghost.
When my father kicked two cords of bucked timber
down the gully for me to stack in the truck
he meant, I’m the hands above, you’re the hands below.
There was no mystery: we collected enough wood
to heat the house for months. When we returned
we found our rooms filled with the same air
where God had died for a pair of work gloves
and the smell of orange peels and cinnamon
rose from the iron kettle atop our Fisher stove
burning the ends of last year’s
shed-cured firewood. My father lathering my little head
with shortening to work out the pine pitch,
how he unthreaded a tick from my thigh
under the cold half-light of our pantry.
On nights like this I close my eyes and feel
the Chevy’s radial tires hug the fog-line,
can tell when I drop below sea level
and the dike rises at my side. The slough swells
as the moon pulls salt into water. I hear the creek running
beside the road, the way it pours
under the logging bridge my grandfather built,
the muck emptying into a sinkhole filled with cow bones
and old tires. I feel the unbearable weight
of the log rafts at low tide and think of the boy
who once lived on this corner, how one night he shimmied from
raft to raft, slipped between the logs and never came back.
Tomorrow I’ll wake in the back of the Chevy,
in Tonya’s arms, in my father’s bedroom,
to another voice begging for the light to return,
to the wail of a Homelite chainsaw, to my thieving hand.
I’ll wake to the story of my life and enter
this same god-dead town again and again
until I vanish inside my own voice, until my body is ash
and I’m taken away in the rising water-table,
drift into the slough, and enter, as silt, whatever’s left
of that missing boy’s mouth.
I’ll stay with my own under that filthy water
that sucks light from all the stars.
Ash and Silt first appeared in Willow Springs, Spring 2006.
Poem, copyright © Michael McGriff, 2005
Appearing on the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2006, From the Fishouse