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Letter to Hugo from Cowdry
Okay, Dick, I’m obsessed. John told me don’t start a poem but with an image stunning disease. I’m going for conversation. The way you dreamed. Each Montana town, a porridge of origin left burning the stove. We’re driving through Cowdry—Mary Ann and Bootsie and me—as if all twelve houses were lanterns in the thatch. Only Grizzly Liquors and the post office have a name. There’s a photo of a hanged man in an Ogallala motel I’d rather forget. My modification is mixed, fixed as it is on always wanting things both ways at once. You’re alive, Dick, but dead. There is aching in my friend, Andy, and it is gone. And Muncie, Indiana, will never be dropped, doe-heavy, during deer season. Red Cloud’s War was the only one Native Peoples ever won against the troops. And all the sandhill cranes lay eggs that contain not the bloody Bozeman Trail but linguistic salve that hurts.
Okay, I’m obsessed with saying things Dick. Commas transparent, my modification keeps incubating me. Making me Kalispell. Making me Missoula. Give me liberty or give me depth. Allow the sound of my said-wrongs to give girth to all thinning. Air is air in Cowdry, the old-timer leaned into his own face. A morning shave is a way to get things close. Enough, I might scream, about donkeys and plows pressuring the prairie. The plains extend beyond Cowdry as if a dead Colorado town can no longer kill the scent of manure long in rain.
Let me put it this way: if a honey badger bled broken plates of moon I’d know each den from Steamboat Springs to Laramie, the cows of Cowdry dropping milk that won’t flow. This town is so small Wikipedia won’t give the precise number of milking pails or population. Sanity measured in zip codes and whiskey. And 80434 is not the number of bottles on the shelf but words of hurt families of love speak in winter desperation.
Okay, John told me don’t. Never begin a poem I could not die. The poem starts here, he might say. My verbs nixed. My nouns pronounced as this loud and that. Mountain curve and perpetual plain. Colorado and cloudy conversation. I’m going for Dick. The spaces you fell. Places you tendered and toughed into tongue. Real or imagined, I saw the fox five times in a week. He was crossing the road in Cowdry. She was crossing the road out as a safe place to den. Home is where the start is—a word in a poem, a disease that heals. The tonguing thrush of so much wingèd bleed decomposing corpse to corpse in the large intestine of a turkey buzzard nailed to the hollow of a trunk. All things are possibly driving through Cowdry, through the center of what’s gone. Absence makes the heart grow fodder. Divine provender to intercede. What’s gone is the idea that a word spoken just so might finally make it right. I was crossing she was crossing it was word-spur and blur. Noun the verb. Mine the shaft, Dick. North Park. Woods Landing. West Laramie. I bring Cowdry to you to disrupt the bear-tear of words. To say you’re not alone on the drive from this ache to that. To dispel the loud of lonely lovely in your gut.
What Thou Lovest Well. Letter to Hugo from Big Timber
Once more, I’m tasting the animal. What Thou Lovest Well Remains Dead. Actually, you said American, Dick, not Dead, but America and death mostly agree. I’ve been to places you tried to keep, even as you gave yourself away. The Afghani cameleer bags on the walls of the only coffeehouse in a grain and railroad town like Livingston. Why, afterwards, were all the train cars suddenly Bactrian in their rumbling back-ache strain? I said copper. I said coal. I said the Big Timber sheep ranch I lived on never lost its stench of damp wool. Even when sold and converted to cabins. You try losing your Indiana hound-dog roots in the snowfields of the Crazies and see if you, too, will beg to be shot at the wall, the glare of the glaciers making you inane.
Wait. You did lose your Seattle roots—that house on West Marginal Way—though searched them out in the yeasty grain of lives fermenting on barstools. Your fellow Montana drunks. How many would lose a lung, if they looked ahead years beyond the painting of that bloody elk bellowing the wood above the bar, like you? Any picture on the shelf above the booze might mean hope, even if that hope was learning how to die just right. You felt marginal because a street named you, just in the way it kept you as a child from the world? I can’t say I’m whole. So much of me keeps flaking off into coy dog scat and their yoating down the draw. My neighbor is once again practicing skeet, and it’s me that flies out, a clay pigeon, bulls-eye wide, each time I hear the command to pull.
Honestly, Dick. I tasted the animal as it dropped to its knee. My grandfather from Greece loved bullfights because things won and lost on t.v. each Saturday night, live from Mexico City. And stakes were high, driven into the poor beast’s neck. I tasted the animal in the garter snake I killed with a hoe. I will never forget the tiny eggs at seven and vowing my life. Tasted my father’s downward glance during Sunday visitation when, in 1959, divorce meant a forehead scored by a year of ash, as if we got glanders from the nose cavity of a horse’s infected breath. Tasted it in my first woman’s trembling I cried to touch, touching myself in her joy-clenched face.
Things get abstract fast. You urged we risk the sentimental. I can only eat so much damp wool before the bleating shears me. There is life and there is life. I’ve said so little of Big Timber I’m a brute. I see you in Red Lodge, in Dillon, in Butte, among the copper mothers of the world. So many sons have given over to the mines. So many lungs, like yours, opting out of difficult breathing ways. I found a wounded rattler on the gravel four weeks back and could not take the car back over it to complete the kill. It seemed to beg. Maybe we’re all dying a little, pleading out our red-quick tongue for the tires to make it right? I tasted the animal in the way I love even you, even after years our bodies never met. Our animal selves left on a shelf to bellow above bottles of whiskey about to break a life. Or a shelf of books we write and few if any ever read. What Thou Lovest Well Remains Dead, Dick. Whatever we love, whatever we fear, we somehow kill and must love well.
George Kalamaras, Poet Laureate of Indiana, lived many years in Colorado. He is the author of seven full-length books of poetry and seven chapbooks, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth, winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM chapbook award (2012), Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck, winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Prize (2011), and The Theory and Function of Mangoes, winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series (2000). He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.