Snow on the Backs of Animals. Letter to Dan from Centennial
by George Kalamaras
Because there is snow on the animal’s back, Dan. Snow on the backs of our tongues. Because our dogs are the backs of tongues. Our tongues. And the way we walk and pant and sleep. Whether a retriever at your side or a hound dog at mine, the Chinese poets of the T’ang held cats in their lap. Snow in the Chungnan Mountains is rain in the Sierra Nevadas. When it rains, it rains bats and frogs. The furry, reptilian parts of the heart. Here, take this tongue, I’d say, and you’d sense it all the way in California.
I’m in Centennial, an hour from Laramie, overlooking the Medicine Bows. We words, we timber, we wood. We shutter and mutter and splint. Wood-splints, I say, in the thick musky dusk. Remove the pituitary gland of a freshly fallen elk, and you can scent the many decades west. The road from Laramie to Centennial winds wide. And all the views of everything below is all we have lost. The heights. The dreads. Well-buckets raised from the cracked rib of an owl, when the night is long and starlit and minced.
I’m thinking of that fawn you wrote about, Dan, and the way the coyotes yoated midnight down the draw. I walked down near the Elkhorn last night, where bears den in the mist, and the wild dog howls sounded my heart.
Let’s say the Japanese tea ceremony included a mixture of monk hair, possum bone, and Kyoto mist. I’m serving you a cup of yourself, just in writing these words. There are at least two ways to pronounce Sumac, one of which sounds like the leather around our feet. What has died has died? What has died, Dan, to clothe and keep us warm? Unto what do we giveth our tongue when we say the right name through just the right slime? Snow. Snow on the backs of mammals. Their great lumbering is a Bactrian load all the way from the Gobi. There are jewels in my hand, jewels in my mouth. Spices and fires and teas. And east as west. Direction, a state of mind. If you misspell mouth, part of the word burns off into moths against the lamp. The way we walk and singe and sleep. Two retrievers—one on your left, one on your right. The hound dog in my heart howling all the way from Wyoming about the wrong way west. That fawn, Dan, and the way parts of us break off. Pray and die and flee. Here in Centennial, which—with rain at these heights—could be the Chungnan Mountains and the Chinese part of my heart. There, on the backs of our tongues, where we tender the names of our dogs, most loved, somehow holding what rain freezes into. Snow from the backs of all we might possibly be.
(for Dan Gerber)
About George Kalamaras:
George Kalamaras is former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.
Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.
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About Dan Gerber:
Two of Gerber's poems George recommends are "Often I Imagine the Earth" at The Poetry Foundation, and his gorgeous elegy for Jim Harrison (1937-2016), "To Jim from the River," featured on Poetry Daily. His most recent book of poetry, Particles: New and Selected Poems, was published in 2017 by Copper Canyon Press.
Visit The Los Angeles Review of Books for a deep-diving visit with Dan in "Grasped by What We Cannot Grasp: The Elemental Poems of Dan Gerber" by Dean Kuipers.
"Besides being the author of 10 volumes of poetry — including the new Particles: New and Selected Poems which came out in September 2017 — three novels, a book of short stories, and two books of nonfiction, Gerber was also an English teacher and a top race-car driver in the 1960s."
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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. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
“Snow on the Backs of Animals” appeared originally in Calibanonline, Issue 24, July 2016, pages 58-59. It is second in CutBank's series of letter-poems from George Kalamaras to poets he's known personally, or knows (perhaps as intimately) through their work. (Read George's previous letter to John Haines here.) Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us.