The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 6, Number 3, Pages 10-13
Summer, 1981

Poems and Praise

by James J. McAuley

James McAuley, poet in residence and professor of English in Creative Writing at EWU, presents these poems on the region. He also presents pieces from Praise, a theatre piece for orchestra, chorus, and tenor soloist, music by Professor Wendallones of EWU's music department. James McAuley has published books of poetry: Draft Balance Sheet and After The Blizzard.


Before I offer the wood,
I whet the knife on a stone
With simple strokes, back and forth,
Thus. I disown these hands,
Empowered by laws that hold
Moon and tide to their pledge.
Steel and stone, flesh and bone,
The blade's light song repeats.
I test its edge on the stony
Heel of a hand before
I offer the tender wood.

I learn again to take pains
With simple things: to take
The knife in my better hand, thus:
And the driftwood, already worn
By the steely waves to a shape
I recognize, as if dreamt
While I rocked in those waves myself
The wood in this hand, so.
The mask of one I recognize
Stares up from the wood. I begin.



The Plane Crash: Four Lakes, Washington, Memorial Day, 1981

This hour before sundown, martins are tippling the air
Over Meadow Lake. The setter pup
Has followed his nose out of sight. Binoculars
And camera will make something more of this

Than exercise alone. The dirt-road climbs
Between these absolutes for field and sky,
Green and blue lying together in rugged
Harmony: a native painter's vision.

Larksong carries on the evening haze,
Heavy with lilac and jasmine. Startled, a quail
Churns from its grassy hide-out - the happy pup,
All coppery flailing, after. Then great calm.

Rest, rest. I train the binoculars
On the ridge beyond, where the plane from Moses Lake
Lifted a black plume out of the tamaracks
Into such a peace as this, three months ago.

Seven Dead in Fiery Crash, they called,
The headlines, loud as prophecy. I sweep
The glasses down the ghosted hill: no mark,
No path to trace the plane from sky to field.

Mystery of death on the hillside - list!
They say the pilot, flying blind, could hear
A false signal in the fog, and followed
Down the tearing pines, the black ground. Oh, list!

My father died so. Is that why I kept
The glasses focused there? The sun goes to ground;
One cloud is cast in bronze. Lost light: too late
For photographs. No - a prurient fear

Feasts on this hill as on the evening screen
The flaming corpse in the street, the blanketed shape
Wheeled off - I put these things from me. Night comes:
The weary pup wags back downhill; I follow.



There's a certain way to do this, right or wrong.
Crossing your legs can be a matter of taste.
Plenty of seats in front - but watch your tongue!

Who listens to a naked woman's song?
Playing Brahms or Verdi, do you feel chaste?
There are certain ways to do this, right or wrong.

The metronome, the tuning-fork's keen prong
Nothing you do with passion is a waste.
Plenty of seats in front - but hold your tongue!

Don't assume your beloved knows how long
It's been since you sat down at last and faced
The certain way to do this, right or wrong.

And Petrarch, in the chapel at Avignon:
Could he have seen Laura pray while she graced
The seat in front of him, and held his tongue?

There's plain water to drink at every feast;
And jewels adorn, whether real diamonds or paste.
How you feel is neither right nor wrong:
Plenty of seats in front - if you hold your tongue!

(from Praise! - a theatre piece for orchestra, chorus and tenor soloist; music by Wendal Jones)


Spring: Turnbull Wildlife Refuge near Cheney, Washington

A dry creekbed slashes a sudden rift
Into a cheatgrass field on basalt scabland:
Brown porous rock, a cobbled artery
Crossing a scene that shrivels hope - except
For a day or two in March, when run-off sweeps
Like shattered glass through the tawny weeds, and drops
Straight from a clifftop, craving to be air.
Then dry brown rocks scar the field again,
and below the cliff a grimy pool stares up
At heaven. But before that cascade vanished,
Primavera called the rare swans to witness
Her return; they nest where the azure sky
Rests in quiet water by the yellow reeds.


I will walk in the day you have made for me.
Look, how the locust blooms on its thorny branch!

I will grow this day in your light. See,
How the speckled hawk circles over the frightened wren!

Bear me, wise father, through this day.
My house will fill with air and light,
For I know how the sun blazes behind the cloud.

Father of life, I raise my cup. How easy
The breath that brings to these lips your praise.
Teach me to go without fear in your creation.

(From Praise! - a theatre piece for orchestra, chorus and soloist; music by Wendal Jones)