John Morgan
Above The Tanana: For Jim Simmerman (1952-2006)
         “Landscape is an after-thought, like hope.”—J.S.


Sun ratchets off a fish-wheel like machine-
gun spray. An airboat blasts upriver

flaunting the rack of a dismantled moose.
An island like a coffin floats off-shore,

and black spruce grow from it, green rockets
questing skyward like the piquant vows I’ve made

while sitting on this shelf—to trust in life,
not death. Two months ago you put an end

to pain though I just heard today. Grief takes
my skull, noon spins toward dusk, dim lights on

water, murky shapes, dissolving branches,
slime the river carries as your corpse decays.

Oh, Jim! I’ve sifted the peevish facts—two
hip replacements failed, your last pooch given

away, a recent love estranged—you’d been
to hell and back—and so on whiskey and

what else you pulled the curtain, left us
here to plumb the tale. This was the summer

of yellow-jackets, of wasps and fatal stings.
A whale got beached and rotted sixty

miles from here, six hundred from the coast.
These aberrations clustered round your death.

And paging through your letters (back when
we wrote such things) I found a sly request

for “one of those river poems.” No urgency
I’d figured, figured we’d grow old together

in the craft, mellow like two peppers in
a pot, or like some aging boy band, you

on bass and me on uke. Four days you lay
alone, four days. I hold my breath and

see that jaunty walk and cheeky grin
shut down. You’d seemed a buoyant optimist,

an army brat, black belt and softball buff,
but under those riffs a darker music

thrummed. I heard it louder the last time
we met, as, antsy, less in focus on

your meds, you pulsed a hunger to be
somewhere else, to step outside your pain.

The pain I couldn’t see. I see it now,
that slough in which the self begins to drown.




At The Farmhouse In West Branch (1965)
        for Bob Grenier


Your guests had to wade through
a pig-sty, so you’d greet us at the gate
and prod those massive porkers out of the way
with the handle of a broom.

In back of the rented house, we strolled
in the shade of walnuts and mused on
our trade, while you bagged the fallen fruit—
which wasn’t like stealing, you said,

since they’d only rot on the ground.
Inside, you laid out the treasures
you’d picked up last summer at Groliers,
the latest Ashbery teasers and another

little-known poet whose bare-boned
fluted quatrains, cold
as the Minnesota sky, you’d squint
and cackle at. You read the world

like that—through the eyes
of poetry—until sky and piglets and
walnuts (which Emily baked into pies)
unshackled my bookish soul

and my love began to unfurl
the first acceptable stanzas
I ever wrote, while Emily,
as her pregnancy advanced,

jotted on greasy napkins,
God knows how, the knock-out
poem of the year in the bitchy
fastidious voice of a mother sow.