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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Pamela Uschuk


Beyond Oxygen

Cheveaux, caballo, loshad, horse, each

muscle bunched, a boulder

of power bulging beneath sunhot skin.

 

Horse sees

the world nearly 360 degrees

through the largest eyes of any land mammal,

holds the history of love

and wounds

in her wide sight,

piercing our cerebral fear.

 

At full gallop, horse breathes shallow, the only

being who can run beyond oxygen,

miles before dropping of a burst heart.

Horse completes any landscape, tossing

beauty to the sky, mane and lush tail

tangling wild as she four steps

a waltz around her rearing mate.

 

Give me the huff of a thoroughbred, black

legs pumping through loose sod, hackles

collapsing the far track’s curve, ears

tucked back to her own lunging heartbeat,

dawn fog,

smelling of clover and sawdust, the steady chuff

of thunder hooves thudding into earth’s flesh

the sexual joy of speed, flexed shoulders

and thighs gleaming sweat, sweat,

sweat to please

the slight-boned rider clamped to her back.

 

Or a mustang galloping over lupine to a sandstone ridge

where he bucks, kicks thin air,

jerks his head clear of biting flies, the echo

of his stampede beating bedrock and dust

and dust lodging in his heaving lungs,

unsaddled by his lust.

He leads

his harem along cliff’s edge, past

a cougar den to sweet grass lining a creek.

 

Alone in high country after my sister died,

no longer able to breathe,

I stood at an unraveling barbwire fence

and watched a herd of quarter horses race straight at me,

eight horses outweighing me by thousands of pounds.

 

I did not leap away or scream. Go ahead,

I said,

Go ahead.

 

Their hooves, that could easily have split my ribcage

and skull, came to a stop inches away.

The mares stretched their necks

and sniffed me with nostrils soft as Chinese silk.

 

Feeding them grass, I scratched

the long bones of their faces

leaning into my jaw, my unbroken teeth.

Even the yearlings were careful not to bruise

my sandaled feet. Their unbearable

gentle muzzles broke

through the ulcerated curtain of long grief.

 

We’d known each other all our years.

Shooing flies from their eyes, I whispered

prayers in ears flicking against my cheeks

knew then gratitude with no expectation, love

pungent as rain

rivering gigantic flanks

that turned and sauntered into dusk dissolving the trees.


Letter to William Stafford Who Hand Copied a Poem for Me After Reading in Port Townsend

Dear Bill,

I remember the fountain pen’s scratch, the inky runes of scrawl climbing the Manilla sheet, your poem from memory salmon smart and wide as the Columbia River banks you and your wife Mary hitchhiked to the Pacific’s blue sexual churn.

Even though Mary lost her arm, you hitched the hiline’s shoulderless two lane berm, past Wolf Point, Browning, across the Blackfeet nation, splitting the wide forehead of Montana plains shaved by wind. Happy as dragonflies or chickadees, you owned only your clothes, no matching dishes or couch, no maple kitchen table, not even dental bills to nail you to duty. Wind and the diamond scalpels of stars scraped your hearts fresh each morning in land as vast as sky in a raven’s eye that recognizes no borders.

Bill, you learned to wait for others to speak first, kept that smile on a short leash except when you flung your arm around Mary’s shoulders as you walked between rides in freezing boots. Nothing but stars and wind and the Bear Paw Mountains accompanied you. Nothing but elk bugle and the occasional slide of a coyote into a barrow ditch as you promised each other to go anywhere you liked.

It was the end of the war to end all wars and sky was as clear as a deer’s conscience, the road open as your hearts in love. Was it then that your hand began to glow, picking up light from stars long dead, seeds of poems unborn, radioactive as atomic bomb tests you fled?

Bill, you taught us poetry was like fishing. Each morning cast your line into dawn’s watery soul. “Some people say I write too much. Lower your standards,” you said, “Not every day has to be an epic, just noticed.” I was just setting off down my own long highway, with a poet whose deep songs turned my heart to a flaming guitar as they taught me new chords.

Thousands of miles later, we met where the Strait of Juan de Fuca corners Puget Sound. You asked to see what I’d sketched. Near the head of my redwinged blackbird, you wrote out this poem—Mary’s moist smile, high prairie nights pocked with stars you could almost pick like frozen apples, the two lane highway on the Hiline where more Indians than you could count died in headons, run over by trains—where you walked, holding hands with beauty.

Decades I’ve carried this poem to homes from coast to coast to remind me that hitching rides under the hiss of meteors, leaning into the insistent wind you were as rich that night as any of us poets would ever need to be.

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Political activist and wilderness advocate, Pam Uschuk has howled out seven books of poems (six in the U.S, one in India), including Crazy Love, winner of a 2010 American Book Award, Finding Peaches In The Desert (Tucson/Pima Literature Award), and her most recent, Blood Flower, one of Book List’s Notable Books in 2015. Her new collection, Refugee, is due out on May 9th, 2022 from Red Hen Press. Translated into more than a dozen languages, her work appears in over three hundred journals and anthologies worldwide, including Poetry, Ploughshares, Agni Review, Parnassus Review, Gargoyle, etc. Among her awards are the War Poetry Prize from winningwriters.com, New Millennium Poetry Prize, Best of the Web, the Struga International Poetry Prize (for a theme poem), the Dorothy Daniels Writing Award from the National League of American PEN Women, the King’s English Poetry Prize and prizes from Ascent, Iris, and AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL. Editor-In-Chief of CUTTHROAT, A JOURNAL OF THE ARTS, and Black Earth Institute Fellow (2018–2022), Uschuk lives in Bayfield, Colorado and Tucson, Arizona. She edited the anthologies, Truth To Power: Writers Respond To The Rhetoric Of Hate And Fear, 2017, and Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century. Uschuk teaches at the University of Arizona Poetry Center and at Ghost Ranch. She was the John C. Hodges Visiting Writer at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She’s been awarded a writing residency retreat at Storyknife Women Writers Colony in Homer Alaska for the month of September 2022. Her work is featured in the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day series. She’s finishing a multi-genre book called HOPE’S CRAZY ANGELS: AN ODYSSEY THROUGH CANCER.

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