Richard Wakefield is an American poet who teaches writing and American Literature at Tacoma Community College, the University of Washington-Tacoma, and The Evergreen
State College. He is also the poetry critic for the Seattle Times. His essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in American
Literature, Sewanee Review, Midwest Quarterly, Light, and many others. His poems have appeared in, among others, Light,
Seattle Review, Atlanta Review, Tampa Review, Neovictorian, Bellowing Ark, and Edge City Review. He lives with his wife and their
two daughters in Federal Way, a sprawling suburb wedged between the sprawling cities of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. He spends much of every
summer photographing wild flowers in the Cascade Mountains, utterly without tangible remuneration. He has written a dozen entries for the
Robert Frost Encyclopedia, and his essays on the poets Richard Hugo and David Wagoner and on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" appear
in a series of volumes published by Charles Scribner's Sons.
Petroglyphs above the John Day River
Setting up our camp at the foot
of the cliff, we were too busy to see
the figures drawn indelibly
in ink of berry juice and soot.
Or maybe the sunlight couldn't show
what fire and a sidelong glance
revealed, these shades returned to dance
in darkness again as long ago.
Around the fire it looked as if
phantoms who had silently stepped
out of the night now swayed and leapt,
their shadows thrown against the cliff.
A dance, or was it a hunting scene?
Among the dancers were pictured deer,
forebears of those that brought us here,
no doubt, to camp in this ravine.
Were they exulting overhead
or hunting—or both? We couldn't say.
Next morning the literal light of day
obscured them again, or perhaps they fled.
But as we were breaking camp I found
an arrowhead, a tangible fact,
that had been dropped to lie intact
for centuries in stony ground.
Chipped from volcanic glass and black
as night when held against the sun,
the sharp-edged piece of obsidian
darkly gave my image back.
A Boy's Work
(April 1946, Sherman County, Oregon)
They sent the boy to build a fire beneath
the steel watering trough after a week
of freezing fog had hung a hoary wreath
on every blighted bud along the creek.
His father was busy at the barn with new
calves, weak with cold. The boy must go.
He loaded stove-wood chunks, split in two,
until his shouldered rucksack bent him low.
With fifty strides the barn was lost and he stood,
confused with cloud and silence, more alone
than in the broad summer fields. He could
almost think he'd left the life he'd known.
He staggered along the frozen creek a mile,
he knew the way, but in that cloud it seemed
so strange he had to backtrack twice, and while
he tried to find his way he thought he'd dreamed
his life but now awoke cold and lost.
But then the looming rock crib marked his place
to turn, strange beneath its coat of frost.
He found the pasture trail a wispy trace.
With no more landmarks to help him find his way
he often knelt as if in prayer to see
if he had kept the trail, then from the gray
there rose the trough in solid certainty.
He found the water solid too, so made
his feeble fire and fed the growing flame,
saw how heat and light rose up and played
against the steel. And then the horses came.
From nothingness in single file appeared
the thirsty horses taking living form,
condensed from cloud, more real as they neared.
He stroked them as they drank, felt them warm
with inner fire that he had come to save.
Their breath plumed up, away, more gray unfurled
into the void, and as they drank they gave
a living focus to his fogbound world.
Inland wind in shock on shock
funnels down the gorge and beats
against his car, and jagged sheets
of river water, gray as rock
and harder, rip across the road.
He struggles with the steering wheel
and remembers how he used to feel
this wind behind him like a goad
pushing, pushing him away,
half a lifetime or more ago.
The wind—if it ever forgot to blow
in Sherman County, they used to say,
everyone would fall. Some joke.
It was never funny to him, but now,
as if the pushing wind somehow
could hear his thoughts, with a final stroke
that shakes the car the blowing drops
away so fast he almost veers
out of his lane. Recovered, he steers
to an unsigned muddy lane and stops.
Unmindful of his polished shoes,
his somber suit, the service set
to start, the mourners to be met
now growing restless in the pews
(they'll be there in their Sunday best,
pressed and polished and sweating, he knows
— it's years now since his Sunday clothes
were any different from the rest),
he follows a path into the trees,
ascending to an overview.
He feels almost as if he knew
where this would lead. This river he sees,
now wide and quiet after the squalls,
is where uprivering salmon swam
against the flow, before the dam,
through rocky rapids and waterfalls.
He should be making up lost time,
he thinks, whatever that can mean,
but stands unmoving, recalling this scene
where years ago the fish would climb
among the swirl of water on stone
and sometimes pause as the river's speed
counterbalanced their homing need.
Now stilled by dams, the river's grown
as placid as a dead man's face —
and he recalls who brought him then,
years ago, and who again
has brought him to this standing place.
He sees the wind is rising fast
upriver, bringing blinding spray.
He's in his car and on his way
before he feels its wracking blast.
These two were lovers, one of those weekend slips
you hear about. They shared a room, undressed:
he liked the way she stroked his swimmer's chest;
she craved the way he praised her breasts and hips.
Oh, years ago, a lapse the young commit.
His sagging pecs distend his starched white shirt;
her thinness barely swells her blouse and skirt.
Each wonders if the other thinks of it.
These days they meet up unexpectedly
in social settings once or twice a year
and share a room as strangers, and share the fear
that if they catch each other's
eyes they'll see
the selves they were reflected from afar —
unbearably — compared with what they are.
On the Ascent
The stairs get steeper every year and more
and more he finds himself at rest between
the first and second floor, wondering
again what he was climbing up there for
and if that ghostly "what" is worth the climb,
and if he'll recall before he turns again.
He jokes his only exercise is when
he makes these fruitless quests, but every
he laughs he knows it's at his own expense.
He sees himself confused and resting there
not wholly of the earth nor of the air.
He ponders what the image represents,
and after all his climbing, year by year,
he's left uncertain where he goes from here.
He's home a sunny autumn afternoon
to do the chores his mother, living alone
in the failing house where he grew up, has grown
too frail to do, though he'll be fifty soon
and today he feels the weight he's putting on,
trudging up the squeaky front porch stair
(the cry of another thing that needs repair)
after he's sweated through mowing the lawn.
But something turns him, lifting the weight away:
the scent of new-cut grass, the warming sun?
He calls the dog that years ago would run
behind him up this stair a summer day.
He nearly falls beneath the weight he
to see there's nothing nipping at his heels.
Though Pfizer first cured the condition
of the flaccid who failed at coition,
now more firms are selling
and the market is swelling
—an example of stiff competition.
A Rooster Refugee
A rooster loose among suburban houses
is loudly singing matins. His crowing rouses
the bleary-eyed suburbanites unused
to solar time who, half-asleep, confused,
must squint to read their glowing bedside clocks:
a quarter of five! But what do strutting cocks
concede to those whose lives run clock-unwise?
Without his song the sun would fail to rise,
he thinks, this self-important chanticleer
whose days obey the contours of the year.
Before the graders flattened out his farm
the beasts awoke each day at his alarm.
The fields are now a parking lot; the land
is smooth and paved, as featureless and bland
as days that do not wax and wane year-round.
This rooster refugee is losing ground
but keeps on crowing, keeping time without
a thought for how his time is running out.
I fumble dumbly with my coffee cup;
outside the rooster calls, Wake up, wake up!
In a Poetry Workshop
Let us begin with the basics of modern verse.
Meter, of course, is forbidden, and lines must be,
like life, broken arbitrarily
lest anyone mistake us for budding Wordsworths
(don't be alarmed if you've never heard of him).
Rhyme is allowed, but only in moderation
and preferably very slant. Alliteration
and assonance must only be used at whim
so the reader doesn't think we're playing God
by sneaking in a pattern of sounds and echoes.
As for subjects, the modern poet knows
that modern readers prefer the decidedly odd,
so flowers, except for weeds, are out, and love,
except the very weed-like, is also out.
So thistles and incest are fine to write about
but roses and happy marriage get the shove
into the editor's outbox with hardly a glance.
Now note that language matters, so "I" must be
in lower case, thus "i," to show that we
don't put on airs despite our government grants.
This also shows we've read our Marx and know
the self is a bourgeois fiction. We understand
the common speech, and so the ampersand,
pronounced "uhn," replaces "and," although
judicious use of allusions to classical thought
will keep the great unwashed from getting our drift,
while those outside of Plato's cave will lift
a knowing eyebrow, declaring our work "well-wrought."
And speaking of work, this is not a "class:"
We modern poets roll up our sleeves and write
our verse in "workshops," no place for sissies, we fight
to find "a voice," and only the fittest pass.
I've summarized these rules in a convenient list,
it's wallet-sized, laminated,
it handy, use it, recite it in your sleep.
First poems are due tomorrow. You're dismissed.