LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: To Hugo from Cowdry; Big Timber

 Richard Hugo

Richard Hugo

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. Visit our online submissions page for details.

Letter to Hugo from Cowdry

by George Kalamaras

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

                   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

by George Kalamaras

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
George Kalamaras

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.