Five Poems

Oliver de la Paz

Self Portrait as the Burning Plains of Eastern Oregon

Let me start with fire. A little blaze lit to clear back the scrub brush
brought by the winter storms. Let the air ting with each leaf pop
as the ash of prairie grasses rise skyward.

And let that fire grow with each gust
shot straight out of the Cascades far to the west.
The curlicues of smoke fill a sky, void of mountains,

while the corralled horses several hundred yards away
pace nervously back and forth.
I’m trying to remember how everything settles down

after a fire. How the outcroppings of rock stand out farther
in those charred, moonish surfaces. I’m trying to remember
the nonchalance of a boy used to such things.

How the seasonal burnings turned the sky umber
and how each wind seemed to fill our houses with soot.
Springtime meant that everything would burn

and so, I too would torch my name into every picnic bench,
every combustible. A book of matches and a boy was never
an accident. Nor was the little recourse I had in those days.

Boredom was an arrow shot straight into the ground. But I’m here now.
My name is not a fire. My name is not a story of fire.
I’ve got nothing in common with that element, save contempt

for the place of my youth and a hunger for air.
I’m watching the horses closely—how they’re starting to canter
in circles as the heat from the brush blurs the atmosphere,

makes everything look like its underwater.
There’s beauty in their fear, like the stun of a hushed landscape
after a catastrophe. And there’s beauty in a boy,

shameless in his need for moments to explode.
That hunger? If you hold your breath long enough, you can feel
the weight of the horses as they run in faster and faster circles

but really, they’re in no mortal danger. They’ll settle down
to a trot, then rub their sides against the fence posts to feel warmth.
Time takes air and fuel and in the end what’s left is smoke.

A blacked out soda can. Maybe a plastic lid fused to stone. A refusal
to forget childhood’s scald. But also a kind of forgiveness. Really,
there’s nowhere to run, save in ever-widening arcs.

In that broad expanse of charred land, the wind moves
without impediment like a boy grown used to his name. And what’s left
of the brush crumbles to the touch.


Autumn Scene as Lullaby

In my nighttime, everything that moves loves
and is afraid—the white tufts of the hares veering
from the patchwork lattice in the garden,

your mother’s incidental kiss on your lips,
the moon, the rooks, the tires on the bluing roads
to where the hellions in the rail yard adapt

their pitches to the winds and sidearm
rocks at the passing grain-cars in the dark.
They cheer the spark of the stones

against their speeding metal.
And in the absence of the trains, the world
returns to the heavenly bodies, the cold

dependable light of childhood. Son,
I have closed the windows letting moths
fight for all I have custody over—the lamps,

the books—cities of my own making.
Alder leaves fall and rise with the breezes
and the train sounds like a witness from a past century.

I would kill for you. I would be killed for you.
Despite all the pathos love’s door invites, the purpose
of nights like these is to ask the questions

and fail to understand. To listen intently to the trains
hurtling past all promise. To know
there are mysteries more merciful than the dark.


Autumn Songs in Four Variations

Stellar’s Jays

There’s one of them, beak upright
and crown, black as a demon’s eye.

There’s another on the branch above, a lookout.

He’s singing to her as the forked alders
sway like sea grass. Meanwhile

the birds barely settle, their blue wings

rising this way and that for balance.
It is November, love, and the Jays are hungry.

Winds have knocked over the feeders

and I’ve stopped setting out suet but still they come—
like little nudges, little threads tied to my thumb.

Soon the mountain passes will fill with snow

and my diligence with the seed will matter
just as these hours with you matter.

How can I keep you safe, knowing

each wayward tree could fall?
Where each evening’s breeze rattles the panes?

Where a Stellar’s Jay calling to the horizon means everything?

The Scarf of Maria Callas

Your night lullabies are the songs
of Callas from my youth.

She was beautiful and nearly blind.

Fall in the city was dangerous, but I still wandered
to clear my head past the bums picking up spent butts

and fingering the mouths of wine bottles.

The pavement stuck to my shoes and trash
stopped up the gutters. I’d pause awhile

near the alley of a restaurant where I’d hear

her albums spin nightly. She’d be singing
Rossini operas as the busboys

clattered the dishes into the steam washer.

You should have seen the housecats
from the neighboring apartments clustering in that back alley,

swishing their tails as they waited to lick the plates

clean while Callas sang. They’d mewl
over leftovers in time to each note.

Then the crescendo of the orchestra

would drown out the city and I imagined
Callas on stage, draped by an orange scarf,

her eyes on some familiar ghost.


And my recurring dream? It’s sepia-toned
of my first night as a paramedic—my first call.

The spiraling lights of our ambulance made the man,

dying, look ghoulish, like a funhouse clown.
I couldn’t bear to look at his face as the chest compressions

made him jerk like an inflatable cushion

while the engine’s idling motor kept time with us.
It was a kind of song and dance, my hands on his ribcage

and the deep breath from the Ambu bag into his,

whistling back into my face with each push.
The way you’re breathing now in your sleep.

Reprise: A Prayer for What Remains to Be Said

The maples are slightly green and the sun

eats through the sheers. Here we are,
on a carpet with the world of toys splayed before us.

I’m reciting the alphabet and your eyes

are wandering to the window where Stellar’s Jays
are tearing at a squirrel’s corpse in a tree branch.

There are things that you do not yet understand:

how Stellar’s Jays look after each other—
which is a kind of love, that there can be song

in a city eating itself from the inside, that memory

is what remains to be said but it cannot be set
to the strings of an orchestra or passed

from one mouth to the next like a breath.

There is no space wider than that of grief,
there is no universe like that which bleeds.

May you never inhabit that universe. May you have

the world of toys. And may you hear, in these letters
I sing to you, the rustle of leaves and the possibility of opera,

softly over the tumult of everything.

In Defense of Small Towns

When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there. September,
once filled with animal deaths and toughened hay. And the smells

of Fall were boiled down beets and potatoes
or the farmhands’ breeches smeared with oil and diesel

as they rode into town, dusty and pissed. The radio station
split time between metal and Tejano, and the only action

happened on Friday nights where the high school football team
gave everyone a chance at forgiveness. The town left no room

for novelty or change. The sheriff knew everyone’s son and despite that,
we’d cruise up and down the avenues, switching between

brake and gearshift. We’d fight and spit chew into Big Gulp cups
and have our hearts broken nightly. In that town I learned

to fire a shotgun at nine and wring a chicken’s neck
with one hand by twirling the bird and whipping it straight like a towel.

But I loved the place once. Everything was blonde and cracked
and the irrigation ditches stretched to the end of the earth. You could

ride on a bicycle and see clearly, the outline of every leaf
or catch on the streets, each word of a neighbor’s argument.

Nothing could happen there and if I willed it, the place would have me
slipping over its rocks into the river with the sugar plant’s steam

or signing papers at a storefront army desk, buttoned up
with medallions and a crew cut, eyeing the next recruits.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I could be anywhere,
staring at a hunk of asphalt or listening to the clap of billiard balls

against each other in a bar and hear my name. Indifference now?
Some. I shook loose, but that isn’t the whole story. The fact is

I’m still in love. And when I wake up, I watch my son yawn
and my mind turns his upswept hair into cornstalks

at the edge of a field. Stillness is an acre, and his body
idles, deep like heavy machinery. I want to take him back there,

to the small town of my youth and hold the book of wildflowers
open for him, and look. I want him to know the colors of horses,

to run with a cattail in his hand and watch as its seeds
fly weightless as though nothing mattered, as though

the little things we tell ourselves about our pasts stay there,
rising slightly and just out of reach.


The Boy with the Fiddle in the Crowded Square

The young are so talented, my father says to me
as he palms a bill to drop into the boy’s violin case.
Early, and the market is a riot with greens. Each stand
parades its wares while other parents cart by

with children in their strollers. My son is not listening
to the music—he’s off somewhere in his dreaming mind
where anything can be hidden and people are ghosts.
I drop a dollar at the musician’s feet and he gives a light nod,

the market traffic weaving around us like luminous boats.
In my head, I’m writing a letter to my father, explaining
how every mistake I’ve made is palpable now,
the way the clouds take on human flaws with the wind.

I’m telling him the long fly balls I missed in little league
are dropping, one by one, at my feet. I’m penning
the collapse of each of my coliseums because right now,
son-hood is a promise of ruination and this violin song,

the hymn of its republic. Tonight, I will write a real letter
to my son. It will reveal footprints on each proving ground
and halve every distance I’ve traveled. The earthen line
of my pen will hum as my son’s eyes read each line.

He will know each disappointment is a note like the wind
passing through the cable of a bridge. Each song
will rise, and hold the people in this market above
ragged waters. They will know how to listen. To parse

each other’s hearts by bending forward as my father does now,
smiling at the fiddle player, then at my son. Slowly,
the soloist’s notes thin into sliced apples—the crowd’s
polite applause surging, then gone.