Helen Frost: Skin of a Fish, Bones of a Bird

Winner of the 1993 Women Poets Series Competition

Copyright © 1993 by Helen Frost

For permission to reprint contact the author at helenfrost@comcast.net.

To our ancestors and our descendants
our parents, our children
To you, Chad
To our love

Look, it stands to reason
that everything we need
can be obtained from the river.
It drains the jungles; it draws
from trees and plants and rocks
from half around the world,
it draws from the very heart
of the earth the remedy
for each of the diseases --
one just has to know how to find it.

-Elizabeth Bishop, "The Riverman"

Crown of joy
Out of the Ground Like This
Wandering Around, Getting Nowhere
Whiteness in Dark Water
Two Sides of the Horizon
Between the Church and its Mountain
Sharing What Warmth We Have
In the Boat, On the River
Bird Month
When Sun Burns Holes
Heartache, that Muscle
Mud, Sticks, Food
Trees and Hands in Prayer
Eyes of the Bird
Valentine's Day, 6th Grade
No Cow So Stupid
Bouncing on the Bed
Rest Here
Green Stem Bends and Straightens
Small Bird with a Chest of Red
Do You Like the Name Iris?
Kissing, Sucking, Pulling Free
Lawn Mower
What We See and Don't See
Our Eyes in the Middle
We Gather to Scatter
Even Fire Has Water Within It

Crown of Joy

Based on the life of Helen Caroline Frost, 1896-1986 Missionary in Alaska, 1926-1961

1910  No Choice But to Believe
To a girl fourteen in 19 10,
no doctor could prepare, nor father
console. Her mother couldn't really
speak to her from heaven.
No choice but to believe
the gentle, kindly men.
"Lie down here. Breathe this."
She woke to an absence
ever after present. One breast
growing on alone, into, she must
have felt, no chance of marriage.
How could she speak of this
to any man? How could she not?
God and her father would love her.
1926  The Tangled Voices Stretched
God and her father would love her
but how could she unbraid their voices?
Father, in the pulpit, all her life
the voice of God. To picture
God: a fearsome, loving father.
Then, a third strand, too --
the voice of her desire, stronger, clear.
When the letter came, "You are needed
in Alaska." "Do you want to go?"
the tangled voices stretched
and all sang "Yes" together.
Father said, remember, Jesus said
"Lo, I am with you always,
Even unto the end of the world."
1927  Before She Knew Her Home
"Even unto the end of the world"
her father said, not knowing how close
he was to death. When the letter
came to her, by train, by boat, by dog-team,
that first year, she sat alone, months
since he was buried, she not knowing.
Months before she knew her home
was here, her love, her work.
That world could have fractured then
like spring ice, sent her floating
off alone in freezing water, no land in sight.
But people there were watchful, wanted her
to stay. They reached, she held --
days, weeks, seasons, years.
1975  A Yellow Flower
Days, weeks, seasons, years of love and labor --
she remembered them to Maury, his love
a gift she'd not had time to dream of.
Out together, walking, taking pictures,
a yellow flower would make her think of Shishmaref.
"As soon as there were patches of dry ground
we'd take our picnic out. One year, I made
seventy-four doughnuts." Evenings, playing scrabble,
she might put down "gangrene," tell about the man
whose leg she'd saved, the beaded mukluks
his wife made for her, to thank her.
She'd show pictures. "This dog-team took us
five hundred miles." "Seal-pokes store the frozen berries."
Maury smiled, touched her shoulder. Oh, my.
1979  Softly Breaking at the Edges
She smiled and touched his shoulder. "Oh, Maury
listen. My niece went to Shishmaref, They made
this tape..." Organ music filled two rooms.
In one, the harmony of someone cooking hotcakes,
dogs outside, a baby. She knew this time of year
that sea was freezing into silence, while here
she heard its liquid rhythm all year round
softly breaking at the edges of this room.
Maury's room. She could use his tape recorder
any time she liked. "Listen to him play that organ.
He must be as old as we are. I taught him how,
and think of that, he still remembers."
"There is a green hill far away," she hummed along,
climbing to the top and gazing out.
As the Ship Went Out
Climbing to the top and gazing out
from the mission to the freighter
coming in each year, she never knew
what it would bring. She knew what she
had ordered and she liked to see that, stacked
against the winter. Then, as the ship went out
she sorted through the unexpected gifts --
coats and sweaters, stuffed toys, mittens.
Once a furnace for the orphanage,
radiators, pipes, and all the fittings.
Sometimes something odd, you wouldret know
what it was for, but someone always
found a use for everything. So much
thought and human goodness, so much love.
To All of Us
She thought of all the love and human goodness
and about the question someone asked,
"Did you ever think you might be interfering,
destroying what you didn't understand?" Yes,
she wondered about that sometimes.
You do what seems right,
but you never know. Maybe it was like the doctors
doing the best they could to save
her life, so long ago. Today, they wouldn't
do that, they know more. But life refuses
to be diminished by our limitations.
It takes whatever we can give
and gives back more. To all of us, as
to a girl fourteen in 1910.

Out of the Ground Like This

Shishmaref, Alaska

1. The Old Village Site
When the old woman greets you,
her eyes sparkle, but she hides
her hands, dirty from digging.
Asked what she's found, she'll show you:
an ivory comb, a harpoon's point,
a mastodon tooth. Not much,
but you should see
what her son's daughter found!

Later, you do: the jade axe head,
cool green weight, sharp edge,
stories. Holding it
for a moment as it is passed
around the room, you are included.
2. 1955  Christmas Eve
When I was six years old
this doll curved to fit my hand,
a girl my age with black hair,
red lips embroidered on soft leather.
Her parka would come off,
but I was careful. She
had come so far to sleep
with me, the soft fur
around her face against my face.
3. 1979 - Visiting
Emma is washing her family's socks,
stopping to hold the school teacher's baby.
"This baby always want to be held,"
she tells me. As we look out her window
at the boats, coming from hunting, fishing,
her tears enter our silence. Her children
come in and out from school,
forgotten homework, money for pop.

We talk. Her husband enters the room we are in
without breaking it. He is carving
a fish from the rib of a whale,
looks up to make the baby smile, tells me
what he can do: fix snowmachines --
"Somebody had to know, that first winter
they came here, so I learned."
and what he can't do: read, write.
"You might not have learned
to fix snowmachines if you could read, " I offer.
"But it makes you feel bad."

He talks of dreams for his children
as if it's all one dream:
"They should learn enough in school
to be a secretary. We should all go back
to Ikpek and start the village again."
Emma dreams that Jesus is coming back.
"Pretty soon now. So many people have died.
It used to be TB. Now it's that cancer."

The fish emerges
from the bone: swimming
tail curved, head raised,
the weight a fish would be
if it could be held
in motion.
4. Herb's Eskimo Store
I am leaving, and want to take something with me.
Herbert wants to give me more than money can buy,
because my name is Helen Frost, and I remind him of her.

While he sells shrewdly
to someone else, he watches me
with the other side of eyes trained to see
what someone wants more than anything.

I touch the smooth ivory seals and white bears,
the rough bone sculptures of motion:
Eskimo dancer, face to the sky,
feet solid on frozen ground.
I touch the smooth faces
of women, their parkas,
babies between fur and skin.
I touch the babies'
ivory noses. Herbert is watching.

"I want to show you
something they found in the digging."

He opens a safe in the corner,
finds something small, well-wrapped.
Unwrapped, in my hand, it shines
golden, unchipped, not the gold
of today's sun, too brilliant
to stare at -- a gently aged ivory.
The image has no hands, no hair.
She has two eyes, a mouth,
the rounded form of a child
soon to be born, to glow
in its own time, in our time.

"Did the person who found her polish her up?"
"No. She came out of the ground like this.

I go back, through the image,
through my father's sister
who lived in this place and was loved,
through the people who loved her, the parents
who loved them ... the old village glows, and dies.

The sea threatens.
Sand buries the village.
Ice buries the sand.
In another winter,
in a distant place,
the smooth carved woman
comes out of the ground
like this:
                  Hold me, she says
                  and you will be blessed.

Wandering Around, Getting Nowhere

It used to be your hands
I'd think of when my body was alone
at night, or in the middle of a meal,
wanting you to taste the bread
I'd kneaded, baked. The smell
of baking bread has filled the house

like another person's pillow. What house
do you live in now? My hands
are so far from knowing your smell
I don't even know where you live, alone
pretending you like to slice bread,
some cheese, maybe a few potatoes, and call that a meal.

There is no such thing as a meal
when one person lives in a house.
"Give us this day our daily bread,"
we prayed when I was a child, hands
folded, heads bowed. And now, those words alone
bring to this room that familiar smell:

diapers, split pea soup, the smell
of parents in love with each other, each meal
a feast of joy. They were never alone.
They could move ten kids from one house
to another. We'd hold up two hands
to strangers' questioning glances. A loaf of bread
might last one meal -- oatmeal bread
our grandmother baked. That smell
filled her house when her hands
looked too tired to lift a meal
to her mouth. She stayed in her house
till she died. I never thought she was alone.

But perhaps she was. Maybe alone
is something that happens like air fills bread,
warm air that will rise to the roof of a house
and then out, carrying all that smell
of love, fear of death, plans for the next meal.
All this has led me far from your hands.

It is like this that living alone in the hands
of circumstance has led, one meal at a time, one house
to another, too far to return. You don't smell this bread.

Whiteness in Dark Water

On the lake a swan moves, brilliant, then hidden
in shadows, trees hanging over the edge of the lake's only island.
Three girls watch me watch the swan,
hear how I call it "he." We see him swim alone,
white on the wide, deep lake.

Elizabeth, sick last year, now better,
looks down at her shirt
where two small nipples show. She wants to know
"What if one side grows more than the other?"
I tell her the other side may catch up and if not
it won't matter so much when they're larger.
My breasts, round but innocent still of the hunger
infants cry out from, cannot quiet
their own hunger for tiny mouths.

Emma has never told me why she was sobbing
alone in a corner that rain-driven day. Today she asks
"How can you keep your life from going wrong?"
and we talk of lives we know, gone somehow wrong.
I hold her question as I could not hold her. "What's wrong
can lead to what's right. What seems right
sometimes goes wrong. Don't blame anyone.
Let's go swimming."
We stay close to shore, shade our eyes to look for the swan.

Mary has been accused (more than once) of seeing too much.
She looks at me, looks at the shores which outline this lake,
asks "Could you swim from here to that island?"
"It looks hard, but yes, I think so."
Evening, we all look together across the dark water,
no swan in sight. "Shall I try?"
I ask, and the girls answer "Yes."

I step to deep water, swim easily
across moonlight, straight to the island,
into shadows of fallen branches, living trees,
shadows the swan has moved through. I touch
stones at the island's edge, stand, wave to the girls
who wave back. Moon sends her wide beam down
through cold air between us.

Swimming back, I see the girls point but can!t hear what they shout.
I swim hard, they wave harder, so I turn and see
the swan, black, move across white. Beak hard,
wings folded, he makes and holds the distance he wants
between us. I know the strength of his wings,
powerful webs of his feet. I hear the girls shout --
when I turn, they are not where they should be -- no -- I am not
where I should be. A current is pulling me, harder than I can swim.

The girls start to sing. I hold their voices,
swim backwards against the current, away from the swan,
now white against dark, beautiful eyes, muscular neck. I pull
underwater, glide without splashing, pull as hard as I can, harder.
Elizabeth, Emma and Mary keep singing.
Their song pulls me back, until I can hear each voice
distinct, the trio together, fire behind them behind me.
The swan turns and I step out of the water,
receive from the girls a towel, a blanket, hot soup.
We are quiet. The swan swims back to shadows.

We sleep and wake, sun warms us.
I walk alone along the shore. That current,
where is its source?
Here, a channel where it flows away.
Tall grasses wave, I move among them.
When I find it, I know I've been seeking
these grasses, feathers, mud -- this tumultuous circle,
wider one side to the other than my arms could reach.

A swan swims up the channel. She
steps into her nest, arranges
her wings beside her,
settles to warm her egg or eggs.
I sit on a sun-warm rock, watch until he comes home.

When I return, I tell the girls what I have seen.
Elizabeth has slept all afternoon, woken clear.
She cups the egg she hears in her two hands.
Emma has walked around the lake, dragging back
a log for firewood, and now she rests upon it.
Mary looks wide at the water,
sees the swan swim near, gathers him into our circle.
"Look at our eyes." she says. "our eyes are different."

Two Sides of the Horizon

Based on a story told by Barbara Nikolai
Translated from the Athabascan by her son, Steven Nikolai
Telida, Alaska

1. The Shape of Every Tree
About fifty miles he took her, from home
because he wanted a woman, and she was young,
beautiful, strong. They walked this land
across the low-slung mountains, the only horizon
she knew, and on into the darkening
weather. Further, further. She kept her eyes open,
remembering the shape of every tree.

While she was there with him, her daughter
came to the world. But the woman did not like
the man she was with. She set her eyes
on the mountain she had to cross, started
walking, child on her back. She knew the rivers,
ponds, the tracks beside them. No people
had built their houses along the way.

She heard sticks breaking behind her, not
the sound of a charging moose, not a circle of wolves,
not a lynx nor a wolverine. Her husband's brother
followed her like a dark cloud she couldn't
outrun. He cut her head with his knife
and she fell there. She didn't see or hear
when he turned and left her bleeding.

It was springtime. The sound of crying attracts
the hungry ones, just coming out of their dens.
The child was hungry too. Her mother lay there, barely
breathing, unable to feed or quiet her daughter.
But the animals left them alone. She found herself
living. She knew where she was and she knew
the steps she must take to get home.

The child carried a seed of her own
daughter, the woman who speaks to us now,
whose son, grandchildren, great-grandchildren
listen and know by their listening, her grandmother
had to survive. We want her to stand,
take the steps she must take, and she takes them,
alone, and she carries us, and we pull her along.
2. Love Goes Out and Out, Keeps Tending
When she is taken from them, her family
holds her, in mind, those seasons.

Bitter winter, they dream her a caribou blanket,
pray the animals take it to her.

Springtime, they need fish, they travel
the river channel, put out their nets.

Steadfast, they leave a stick
pointing the way they have gone.

Each day and evening, their ears are open.
Slap of a beaver. Splash, a fish jumps.

It is evening. There is a fire, beaver tail crackling.
Her brother hunts the river's edge

for muskrat's soft ripple. Someone
is crying in the woods.

He tells the others. They cross the river.
They bring her back.

Someone is feeding the child.
Someone is making a mild broth.

Someone is warming water.
The water is warm, to wash her hair.

The water is reddish brown.
She sleeps, she sleeps, they care for the child.

Between the Church and its Mountain

This field in summer had always been
rich with blueberries, hands to pick them.
On one side, the church, graves.
On the other, wetland, cranes.
Far off, not to be gazed at, not to be named,
the mountain.

Then airplanes came, needing a place to land.

The Cat rolled round metal toes
through forests of living trees,
forests of burned trees, around swamp,
around lakes. It came to the people,
four houses and the church. Children
ran to watch the Cat roll
over and over the berries, over and over,
so airplanes could land,
between the church and its mountain.

They did land.
They do land. They bring
flour, sugar, coffee, diapers, tea,
school, radio, Pilot Bread, doctors,
money, Spam, batteries, blankets,
boots, guns, telephones, teachers,
apples, lettuce, priests, propane,
beer, whiskey, fur buyers, frying pans,
cigarettes, Blazo, snowmachines,
game warden, teakettles, parkas,
mattresses, band-aids, tv., potatoes,
shampoo, Oil of Olay. Almost daily now
the airplanes land. We meet them.

The church holds its ground.
A splash of berries edges the runway.
This earth has eyes.

Sharing What Warmth We Have

For Small Grandma
Telida, Alaska
You are cold at night,
your blood not moving so fast.
Who am I? Dropped out of the sky
one day, not carried back, can't speak
any words of your world.

I give you my hot water bottle,
small container of warmth
I was too far away to give
when my own grandmothers
faded back into their beds.
You have seen plenty
to cause you to wonder
where my grandparents are.

You take my gift
in both hands.
You shake it.
You smile. Our eyes meet,
blue eggs, brown nest.

In the Boat, on the River

I was neither hunter nor his wife
nor mother, child, cousin.
But with them, learning
quiet as I could,
what every child on the river
knows as deep as breathing.

Where beaver keeps his winter food.
Whose blood this is, otter or the fish he ate.
How long ago these tracks were left, how large
they were to start with, how they spread
and lose their shape, but keep their rhythm.
How our sleep and waking moves with theirs.

I relaxed against the boat -- strength of metal
at my back, motor and its gas, men
to guide the boat, watching woods and water.
With the women, but without a child,
I could watch the sky, blue,
cloudless over yellow trees..

One eagle, high,
spiraling wide,

A sound beside me. My hand flew
before I knew I heard.
I hit the hunter's arm as my voice
hit me. "That's a Bald Eagle!"
Gunshot to the heart
of all that seemed to hold me

"Don't cry. It didn't fall down."
Kindness, gentle teasing, faces without
anger. I tried to find my place again.
Motor working against water.
Eagle soaring. Amanda needs her jacket zipped.
Grandma's busy with the babies.

Going home, we stopped to see the eagle's nest
at the top of a tall, flat-topped spruce.
The hunter lifted his hand
skyward to his friend, a Golden Eagle.
The day softened. Children gathered stones
on the sandbar. Mothers watched for tracks.

That evening, women in the steambath
spoke in English, led me
to understand he hadn't meant
to kill it, just scare it away.
Bones are found, under eagles' nests.
Sheep, bigger than the children.

They may have known how I would someday
watch my baby sleep, arms spread,
his crib an open sky.
How I'd cover him, treasure the warmth
of his heart beating
in the heart of all that holds.

Bird Month

Now we see and hear daily
what the empty winter skies
were ready to receive.
Dolmoya, Tugaga', Tomo. Their cries
lift our eyes. Their necks
stretch forward, wings
push air towards us. We breathe
the end of snow.
That quiet glow of sun on the horizon
which held us close, lifts
higher and wider each day. We watch
knowing the river
will break and flow.

The bird names mean goose, duck, and swan
in Dinak'i, the Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan language.

When Sun Burns Holes

When sun burns holes in snow
around trees, around the church
drops of red appear:
cranberries in moss,
left from fall, fermented.
Easy food! A bird
can eat too many, fly crazed,
kill itself before its nest is finished.

Heartache, that Muscle

For Deacon Nikolai, 1948-1986
Heart muscle
Its knowledge
To every cell
Of our body

The moose
He shot, the meat
He gave me
My hunger

That night, that moose
My leg, the calf
Of my leg, awake
My right leg, the calf
Of my right leg, an ache

A humming, wind
Around velvet, hanging
From antlers

Next day, the story:
"We saw that moose running.
My Dad shot it
Right here." Hand
On the calf
Of his right leg

Three years later
Three thousand
Miles distant
That wakening
His wife, death
Beside her
Like a husband
Here that morning
Before I moved
A muscle

Hand to hand
The news, the words
"He burned up
When his house
Burned down."

Towels, they need
Comfort, heart
To hand.

Mud, Sticks, Food

Somewhere a house is empty of these lives,
the mother beaver dead, the pups not born.
Our hands caress the loss. Our thought contrives

to name the brown and violet parts, as if, in naming, it revives
the heart, makes loops and curves and folds less torn.
Somewhere a house is empty of these lives.

We lift the liquid cradles, cut them loose with knives.
Water breaks on fur, feet, tail. Watching, we forget to mourn.
Our hands caress the loss. Our thought contrives

their birth. We wrap the pups in plastic, hang them high in leaves
of willows by the river, to protect their perfect form.
Somewhere a house is empty of these lives.

We clean the inside of the mother's skin. All we do deprives
her house of mud, sticks, food -- leaves her mate forlorn.
Our hands caress the loss. Our thought contrives

to find an exit. The living beaver slaps his tail and dives.
We are enclosed in widening rings of scorn.
Somewhere a house is empty of these lives.
Our hands caress the loss our thought contrives.


In Memory of Carl Seseui

Man's Hands on Tree's Bark
In order to choose, he has to know
All the trees, their age and strength,
How each wood will bend and float, each twist
Of the Swift Fork of the Kuskokwim.
He travels by boat to these trees, to this.
Knowledge to Muscle to Knife to Wood
Pulling, pulling, arm's length to chest,
Mosquito net over face, but not hands,
He makes lumber, bone smooth, almost as white.
Thin as a fingertip, wide as a thumb is long,
Boards take their shape in summer's long light.
Skin of a Fish, Bones of a Bird
Canoe, man, paddle, need all their strength
From winter to summer, home to home.
Fish eggs splash from belly to belly there.
Full of meat, dried salmon, whitefish, berries,
It carries him back to winter like gliding on air.
In Dirt and Air between Trees and Water
Fireweed, grass, the edge of the bank --
"Look here --" Hand-polished wood of the bowpiece
Arcs towards a tree standing vigil above like a widow.
She seasons its grave with her roots, her seeds,
While the river keeps on swallowing dirt below.
Home to Home
When the bank collapses, the frame
Is freed of its weight, and rides
The river, past where the man is buried,
Past Medfra, McGrath, to Bethel, the sea.
It meets itself gliding upriver with all it carried.

Trees and Hands in Prayer

Log by log
when people moved
they moved the church
layer by layer
log by log.

Among the trees
they built a replica
to hold the sacred place.
It stands, still,
hidden, among the graves
among the trees.

Like a vein
the river holds the moving
between two places
where spire, onion dome, and cross
rise above the logs
like a vein.

Eyes of the Bird

A boy, age 14
The eyes of the bird I buried
look up from the dirt.
The girls ran away because
I buried the bird
that way.

At a wedding
everyone smiles. My mother
smiles at my brother. She smiles
at his bride. But looking at me
she can't seem to see me
before what ever is wrong
was wrong. She can't see
a wife at my side.

                       I bury
the wings of the bird I held
carefully, let its eyes
stare at the sun. The girls,
when I'm not there,
bring each other to look
at the thing I have done.

Valentine's Day-Sixth Grade

For Mr. Henry's Class
Yesterday, snow was coming down, big flakes,
and you were writing "Love is like snow"
how it comes down so soft, one day,
but the next day it blocks you in, or it is gone.
Some of you left it newfallen, tender,
how it should be, I thought, sixth grade love should --
then I remembered sixth grade, how all the girls
wanted a valentine from Steven. He gave us
each one, and we compared them. Two sizes.
Charmagne, of course, got a big one, mine was small,
and when Jane said "Let's see
your Valentine from Steven," I said "No."
Then, at the bottom of the pile, a big white envelope,
my name, a second card from Steven Deane.
He was watching me open it. We both knew
I wasn't pretty, he should like Charmagne, would
go on being her boyfriend. But there was
that moment, and yes, it was something like snow.
Its memory blesses me now like your poems,
their honest endings, melting away to nothing,
or turning -- Angie's puppy, to care for like love,
Damon's "Love is like football.
I hope I will have a 100 yard run."

No Cow So Stupid

There probably was no dead cow
rotting in the cistern, or maybe
a jumble of bones. Who
could have put it there?
Did it die first, or did they
push it in alive, hear the echoes
moo all day and night,
quieter, quieter, silent? No --
edges too high, circle too small,
no cow so stupid. Probably
not even true, just wood
scraps, that headless doll,
the part of the broom you can't hang
dresses on, the part of the Christmas tree
that wouldn't fit. Probably
no dead cow, no bones.

But big kids told little kids.

I half believed, then heartily
told, until I more than half
believed. And the telling
kept the cover on, kept us
alive to tell the tale.

Bouncing on the Bed

For Chad
Yes, I also feel we have already kissed,
like we say our letters cross
as if there is an intersection
we don't know is there, until
the evidence arrives for each hand to hold.

Each afternoon before my father came home
my mother changed her dress, touched her cheeks with rouge.
Fingertip by fingertip, each little scalloped jar
would last for months, window swinging open
on its golden pin, each afternoon, year after year.

Bouncing on their bed, I argued with my sisters --
whose turn to have the little butterfly,
closing its wings; the monocle;
the bed box-elder bugs could sleep in.

Eyes on its center, I watched a speck of ivory widen
widen each day until the rouge was an untouchable ring.
There was a day I held it warm in my hand
when he came home, when they embraced. That moment of their own
we circled round but did not enter.

Warm in my hand through all these years
through these recent months
thinking of you, towards
this certainty I haven't known
I carried with me.

Rest Here

on your old green couch
like summer's warmest grass
                        "rest here"

I slept
and woke, and opened
my eyes.        Across the room
you opened yours.        Everything
opened.            Children
were there.       Good.

Green Stem Bends and Straightens

Someone may chew on your joy
like a slug on a daffodil,
their hunger and weight
bowing your head to the earth.

When they have eaten their fill
they will be where they want to be,
won't have to back down your green stem
the way they got up. Nourished,
they'll slide off into the dirt, and you
will lift your new lace to the sun.

Small Bird with a Chest of Red

Fever has made him transparent --
he sheds his layers of school,
Cub Scouts, kids on the bus,
and lies on the couch, hot to my touch,
but "Mom, I'm so cold" under the quilt.
The fire I make in the woodstove, he claims
for his own, "You're making it just for me,"
and that seems to warm him.

The window, the time to look through it,
grace of the trees, snow weight on branches.
Small red glow of a bird, settling
flying, lending its weight to the changing
colors of one, no two, sharp points
of light in the snow, on the tree.
"If you get right here, and look, you can see them."

So I do, and I see. The air holds
like that, all day, gathers inside
when the curtains are closed. Supper
seems to have some of that light
shifting its colors between us. Mom, Dad,
Brother, and Baby.   But something
hotter than birds, heavy as snow,
weights our branches   landing
leaving   landing again.

"If you two ever fight, don't just break apart."
"We won't." "We won't."
"But Dad, you and my Mom. How
did it happen before?"
"We weren't right for each other. We were too different."

"But me," he claims, looks to his brother,
"and Glen -- we're just alike. If we were babies together
you'd have to put arrows above us that say 'Lloyd' and'Glen.'
We're not too different."

No, we nod, yes
you are right, you are not
too different. And then
just that moment, the light
lifts the weight. We are all
in flight, undulating
from tree to sky.

Do You Like the Name Iris?

Three times since your daughter was born
you have welcomed your second child,
only to grieve when the child turned back,
while still your secret. Telephone cords
have carried the weight of those years --
sister to mother, to sisters, brothers.
And now, we've stopped asking.
(Have we grown up, not to be trying
to ferret out every secret like candy
stashed in an underwear drawer?)

Today, your family is visiting mine.
We go for a walk, start remembering
how we coaxed each other across
that slippery log behind the blue house
to get to the grassy place we'd take our dolls,
balancing, too, their Sunkist orange box beds.
I am careful not to mention real babies,
though my son is not yet two. He walks
eight blocks with us, and I admire (silently)
his sturdy little legs. I speak of your five-year-old's
beauty, as if perhaps you should be satisfied.

Trying so hard not to say "baby," I hardly hear
how you are naming every flower we see. "Peony"
"Pansy" "Zinnia" "Iris." And then you pass your hand
across the curve I haven't noticed in your faded sweatshirt.
"Look at this." Your voice so quiet, the gesture
born half-living.     I look.
Then, startled, look again:

Four years ago, my first Alaskan winter, I skied
three hours one afternoon, through ragged birch
and gray-green spruce, the ground a messy confusion --
rabbits' tracks on top of squirrels'on top of snowmachines'.
The sky was gray with waiting, and I longed for home,
or summer, or the brush of a ptarmigan's wing on clean snow.

I skied back to all the home I had.
Snow on the roofs of houses, nine
houses made of weather-colored logs,
the same dulled yellow as the circles
marking the lengths of dogs' chains,
dogs the color of dirty snow.

And then blue.
Truly I saw blue that day,
curling its way into the heavy sky.
I stopped to stare and I saw
steam, rising from a steambath.
The steam was blue.

Now, as you speak, our walk brings us home.
Glen tugs at my legs, and I lift him,
my sky today so clear, expansive.
You say you can't hope, you just can't,
but I tell you:
the tapestry your grief has spread
can be what lets you see
this child. Tiny ears,
even now, are curling around our words.

Kissing, Sucking, Pulling Free

Sand and water mixed and sucked
our boots like mouths. The children
touched anemones, for that same pleasure,
something sucking, sweet, the little kiss
it makes when we pull free.

I was showing that to Glen, "Look --
it's like a small green rock. But if you watch
awhile, it starts to wave its arms. It's o.k.
to reach in and touch it."
                                        Just that long,
the time it takes to say that, I'd turned
from my sister, her son on her hip,
then turned again when she said, "Helen,
take Paul." Quietly, like Mom might
take a hotdish from the oven, "Put this
on the table. Be careful. It's hot."
"Be careful," she was saying as I turned
away from my child, to reach for hers, held
up from sand and water, sucking
to her knees, her thighs, her hips.
"It happened so fast, " we'd say later, over
and over, safe inside all the "what ifs."
Her husband (barely within earshot)
couldn't pull her out, but could
plant his legs, hard, on firm ground
so she could pull herself.

That's what she did. We didn't tremble
until after she had showered. We held our tea,
watched through a window as the tide came in,
the child in her lap repeating,
"Mommy. Dirt. Coat."

Lawn Mower

His voice was in my hair, his legs
tight around my waist.
His hands a knot
behind my neck, his eyes
closed, in my hair. My eyes
were open, my ears
open wide: Something was coming.
Bigger than people. Noisy.

It didn't knock us down.
It turned away. But turned again
and, noisy, came towards us.
I kept saying It's o.k."
I keep saying It's o.k." Eyes
open, ears -- open wide.
Bigger than people. Noisy.
It doesn't knock us down. It turns
away. Turns again, keeps on
coming towards us.

What We See and Don't See

Weeks ago, her deer-smell left her body,
left her skin torn open
weighted by her bones. Four legs leap.
Two legs cannot follow. Barbs,
wire she barely sees, catch her hair, slice
her skin, hold her in her struggle.

If we had seen her then, no struggle
of our own could have heaved her body
back into the snow it came from. Each slice
already deep into her belly, open.
Her blood mixing with blood barbs
would draw from our hands, lifting to her leap.

We didn't see her, didn't reach to give that leap
its extra muscle, extra inches. Your struggle
heavy one, belongs to you.
But these barbs
were placed here, by someone paid to place them. The body
of the thought that holds her open
says "It's my land. I bought it. I can slice

it through with fences anywhere I care to slice.
If deer, or anyone, can leap
my fence, I'll build it higher." We open
our eyes to the length of that fence, struggle
to remember the stretch of this land's body
before any wires tautened their barbs

across it. Like an alphabet, this strand of barbs
leads to the mountains, offers us a slice
of what we wanted whole...Sangre de Cristo..."The body
of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ..."The leap
of light that makes these hills his blood. Struggle
coloring the deer. We see her open

heart offering this earth blood for its open
wounds, holes drilled for posts to hold the barbs.
Her gift is in her struggle
not to give it. We stare at the slice
her blood's warmth cut through snow below her leap
from her dying to the living body,

Earth. I pull my open jacket closed around my body,
follow these barbs away from the deer's leap,
struggle, with my brother, home, slice by slice.

Our Eyes in the Middle

                              The last days with my father, like the first
                              days with my son, held us who labored
                              towards them in tenderness in tenderness.

Deer came to the salt my father had set out,
licked it and looked toward the window
where he sat, looking too. Chickadees and finches ate their seeds.

                                   That first night, his hair
                                   smelled of cinnamon. Is this the scent
                                   of the inside of my body?

Two owls came. One in the pinyon pine,
one on the roof. My mother heard its voice,
saw its shadow on the roofline, on the snow.

                                   Would I love my stepson less
                                   than the baby? The birth
                                   gathered us all into a circle.

My sister flew out the day I arrived.
When I left, my brother stayed. We saw
bobcat tracks outside the house.

                                   I tried to step out of my dreams
                                   at the first small cry, to let my husband sleep.
                                   I slept during the daytime, with the baby.

His hands were warm. They felt strong
even when his strength was almost gone.
His eyes were full of love and jokes and sorrow.

                               While I fed him, the aurora crossed the sky,
                               green, red, silver, white curtains shimmering, leaving
                               the sky dark, above snow.

When he said goodbye, he stroked my hair.
His heart was beating, he was breathing. He stroked my hands.
I probably won't see you again."

                              At first, he cried a lot. One book said, "Maybe
                              they're just sad to be here." Then he got interested.
                              Little fingers tangling in our hair. A smile.

We Gather To Scatter

Because a man has finished, we gather to scatter
his ashes and the small chunks fire could not return
to ashes. A breeze lifts a strand of his wife's white hair
lets it fall to her cheek as her hand lifts and lets fall
grey streaks of what was her husband.

One fragment settles beside a saguaro. Rib?
Finger? Knee? A light brown mouse, unafraid,
approaches, finds, in the small bone, food -- white dust
it gnaws and swallows. Leaving tooth-tracks,
it goes home, we suppose, as we go home.

We eat together, sit outdoors as evening darkens.
An owl swoops, and when we see it rise,
we hear short, then longer trills duet
across the desert. The owl we see carries -- a mouse?
The mouse we saw? To its nest? To its young?

Even Fire Has Water Within It

Seventeen miles downriver, no phone, I said, "I wonder
how you found out what happened. Radio?" "No,"
he answered, "Black Bear told us." And to the question
in my glance, he added, "Came right up to the house.
Dad had to shoot it. And that same day a tree
fell down, just like someone shot it, right across the river."

So, when a tree falls down across our driveway, river
stories, that and others, come all day. I wonder
if Aunt Helen might be leaving us. Could a tree
here in Fairbanks speak to trees in California? No,
I tell myself, until the phone call fills the house.
"She died this morning, quiet, as she slept." Each question

opening, gathers to a larger question.
Not just like a raindrop finds a river,
finds the sea, becomes the water in this house,
blood in our bodies -- actual water in the actual wonder.
Wood, skin, thought, all made of water, and no
boundaries hold. We cut, for firewood, the fallen birch tree.

Chopping, in fury, the base of a spruce tree
squirrels climb -- to hole, to rafters -- no question
of "who was here first," no
thought of the river
of knowledge between us, no wonder --
This is our house!

But that night, dreaming, deep in the house,
brown bear, open-mouthed growl, beside the tree,
sends me out, early morning, in wonder
to speak words of healing, to question
the tree, to hear how my roaring river
of anger rushed through it. There are no

squirrels. Not in the tree, on the roof, no
sound of squirrels anywhere. The house
and all around it is silent. As if a river
had stopped its motion. This tree
has taken the blows of my axe, each question
I didn't stop to think. It holds them. I wonder.

I wonder if all the squirrels are forever gone.          No.
Three weeks later, like the best question, they're back. The house
is quiet; the tree is alive, holding its voices, its river.

About the author:

Helen Frost was born in South Dakota in 1949, the fifth daughter in a family of eight girls and two boys. She studied at Syracuse University, graduating in 1971. Since then she has lived in Scotland, Vermont, Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, California, and Indiana, where she now lives with her husband Chad Thompson and their children, Lloyd and Glen. Many of her poems in this collection draw from her experiences living in Telida, Alaska, a small Athabascan village near Mt. McKinley. She is the editor of the anthology, Season of Dead Water (Breitenbush, 1990), and her poems have appeared in numerous magazines, including Calliope, Calyx and The Fiddlehead. She is the 1993 recipient of the Poetry Society of America's Robert H. Winner Memorial Award.


I gratefully acknowledge the editors and publishers of the following publications in which these poems first appeared:

A Chant a Mile Long: (California Poets in-the-Schools Statewide Anthology): "Valentine's Day, 6th Grade"
Calliope: "Our Eyes in the Middle," "Lawn Mower"
The Fiddlehead: "Mud, Sticks, Food"
Gaia: "Between the Church and Its Mountain"
Grasslands Review: "Small Bird with a Chest of Red"
Heartland: "Bird Month"
The Malahat Review: "Wandering Around, Getting Nowhere"
Pacifica (Lane Literary Awards): "Out of the Ground Like This," "Heart- ache, that Muscle," "What We See and Don't See"
Sri Chinmoy Awards Poster Anthology: "Even Fire Has Water Within It"
The Sky's Own Light: Poems from Alaska: "Canoe"

"Two Sides of the Horizon" reprinted from CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Vol. 13, #12, Summer, 1991.

Excerpt from "The Riverman" from The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.

"Crown of joy" received The Poetry Society of America's 1993 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award.

I thank Nancy Skinner Nordhoff and others whose vision and labor created Cottages at Hedgebrook where this book was completed. Thanks also to early teachers, Vivian Little, Robert Foster, Philip Booth; and to family and friends, too many to name.

composition and design by Ampersand Press
cover design by Merce Wilczek
whalebone fish carved by Elliot Olanna
photographed by Chee Heng Yeong

Text from back cover:

The human character revealed in these poems is so remarkably, almost grandly strong that one feels drawn to the voice as to a great painting, a great music ... These are poems of our ordinary responsibility -- to parents, children, the past, the earth, to those mysteries we need continually to touch if we mean to live with ourselves, to have selves we can live with.
-Dave Smith

Generously open, intensely quiet, Helen Frost's poems inhabit frontiers that she knows as heartlands. Her embrace is wide, her wisdoms are deeply earned.
-Philip Booth

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number:

ISBN 0-935331-15-8

first printing August 1993
second printing April 1995
Printed in U.S.A.
Recycled paper and soy ink

Published by Ampersand Press, Creative Writing Program, Roger Williams University. Bristol. RI 02809
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