Sierra Lament

And Peter said, let us erect three tents here on the mountain… Mt: 17:4

Again, a shrine of elements is taking shape
on the sideboard: a scarlet columbine’s Fibonacci
of petals and spurs pokes from a lodge pole cone;
wolf lichen on a bleached bone of juniper 
` fresh-cut redwood joists
a construction crew breaks
for lunch

The naturalist’s phrases reprise like pillow talk
until, with incense cedar and sagebrush, pungent willow
and heated pine sap, they thread my dreams:

the fruiting bodies of mushroom          hypha fusing in the mycorrhiza

first up:
a mountain chickadee

Intoxication accompanies desire
in the realtor’s brochure:
“mountain elegance:
vaulted ceilings, great rooms
could be yours” … on short sale

Observe and learn about your neighbor. If a mountain lion comes into town,
don’t panic. If you’re watching him, he’s just watching you.

Green-leaf manzanita trades the plenitude
of this season’s fruit to store root energy for the next.
Each species must solve the riddle.

white spruce saplings      twist
toward the sun

Some architect’s eye angled these cedar-timbered temples,
in among the A-frames, each wall of windows
more spectacular than the last

What must the Washoe have felt descending
from Donner each summer into such abundance:
harvesting bilberries, fish runs plentiful as aspen;
their horses may have foaled where the golf course
has overrun the old trails….

How to measure this imposition
of appetite against

remnant tundra under the soil
waiting for the next Ice Age

eight-fingered lupine the                   raceme’s inflorescence

the advanced cultural memory of ravens …
August aspen
two Steller’s jays
ward off the crows

The poem “Sierra Lament” was selected by Connecticut Poet Laureate Margaraet Gibson as the First Place Winner in the Connecticut Poetry Society/ Connecticut River Review Contest in October, 2020.

Ms Gibson’s  comments on the poem:  

“Sierra Lament” demonstrates how a persuasive intelligence and a passionate mind can employ sensitivity to language, a storehouse of acquired knowledge, and the skill of poetic craft to make a poem of remarkable unity and clarity.  The poem is constructed around a pattern of contrasts that begins right away with the title and epigraph: lament, offset by moments of transfiguration so glorious that one wants to memorialize that moment. To memorialize the moment, this poet constructs a shrine on the sideboard of natural objects:  a combination of scarlet columbine flowers and a lodge pole pinecone.  As she salvages and memorializes beauty from the natural world, outside there is a construction crew that is building with recently sawn redwood.   Respect and awe, the poet’s responses to natural beauty, contrast with the appetite to take and use unsparingly.  The poem continues to show us a clash of creativities—the architect’s eye that makes an A-frame into a spectacular secular temple is contrasted with the imagined response of the Washoe, an indigenous people who did not set themselves apart from nature but lived at home within its strictures.  Using striking and salient examples, the poem reveals that natural world is not separate from the sacred.  It has its own intelligence and patience, its strategies for survival.  By implied contrast in the final stanza, humans do not.  The final image—two Stellar jays warding off crows—gives us a subtle warning.  Keep away from what threatens your nest.  Preservation is a form of natural creativity and continuation.  This poem is a balanced, subtle argument that is grounded and quietly passionate. I applaud what it says and how it says it.

O’Toole’s visionary poems explore the boundaries between light and dark, past and present, life and death.”

—Michael Simms

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