John Morgan: The Arctic Herd

Copyright © 1984 by John Morgan.

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for Nancy, Jeffrey, and Benjamin


The Tower, Oquossoc, Maine: Aug. 6, 1979
The Killing of Anton Webern
The Arctic Herd
Her Ecstasy
Cabin on the Yukon
At Lindbergh's Grave
The Snake-Hunt: Gallup, New Mexico
The Endless Fall: El Moro, 1958
The Slingshot


Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska: A Suite


Arizona Highways
Chekhov Variation
Expedition North
Second Son
The End
After Innocence
The Behaviorist
The Fugitive


Her Injury: For Nancy
Modern Times
The Psychoanalysis of Fire
The Inlet:
I Paint My Face Blue
Two Old Men in Hats: A Photograph
Saint-Cloud in Mist
The Reef
The Moving Out
The Buck


The Tower, Oquossoc, Maine: Aug. 6, 1979

"It seemed as if a load of sickle-senna
seed had been dropped along with the bomb." -John Hersey
No act so elemental: to climb
in silence, watching the cloudy distance
gather the waters into an accumulation
like thunder. Sky flowers
at this altitude of summer, while below,
at the base of the tower, Jeffrey,
age three, knows very well how
at the center of things he is (but
he can't see this arc of lakes and mountains).

Were this another kind of tower
the sparks which pass between son
and father could set the blackest sheets
of fire cutting toward the hills.
Such a device burns prints of the shadows
cast by its own light in granite
and concrete, marks skin with a red
tracery of flowers where dark
kimono dyes transmit the heat.

When I was a kid, each time we
crossed the Whitestone Bridge and saw
Manhattan's towers, I knew the fear
of the bomb. Few in Hiroshima
remembered any noise. At Asona Park
that night, explosions from fuel tanks,
mirrored in the dark bay like fountains,
excited the grieving children, cheered them:
this, the fatal saving grace --

to perceive amid wreckage the momentarily
beautiful. No one cried out
though wounds and burns were general.
One old man, haunted by whiteness,
an egg-like fluid melting down
his cheeks, asks politely for water.
A month later, radiation sickness
taints their blood, while
in the ashes wild flowers bloom.


Winter keeps us inside. My wife
tells me she is terrified
of death: how everything vanishes
and nothing you do can change this.
Then today, warm weather. In a
friend's four-seater, we fly
north to Rampart, a village
on the Yukon, a ghostly airstrip, cabins,

dark chips against the snow;
banking, heading south along the
pipeline, I ask for the controls
and find my fear of the ground
taking us higher, up
to cloud-level, where, in luminous mist
I yield, easing us back toward
rolling ridges of spruce, thousands
of black-barbed brush-strokes on white paper.

Suddenly Jeffrey leaps from his seat:
"Hey ... Hey!" -- knowing first flight.
At home again I say the shape a
life can take can make the end
less terrible. She says the
thought of dying brings a shock
to her body so bad she can't
sustain it, if you could hold

it steady in your mind you'd go mad.

The Killing of Anton Webern

15th September 1945
Sickened by the recent loss of his son
strafed to death on a train,
he'd traveled west from Vienna.
Mittersill, Austria under U.S. occupation,
and Webern, just past sixty,
a small man with a precise
concern for order, thoughtful,
religious, minutely alone: beyond

the determinate chaos of his age
-- dazed armies dragging themselves
away from defeat -- he struggled to
slow things down by making them
happen quickly and be over,
as if the violence he'd never
witnessed pressed upon some black
future no one could long for.

At the home of his brother-in-law,
a man he did not know well,
likely a Nazi, whom two GI's
that night had come to arrest, the composer
stepped outside to smoke and walk about the yard.
And as they marched Herr Martel out the door,
a scuffle on the steps, one jittery kid
bumps into Webern, shoots him through the chest.

Like the retrograde motion of a film --
steel bouncing around his lungs, a fuming
cloud sucked backward into a beaker -- an
infant numbness spreads about the will.
To age slowly in the perfecting of your skills
takes the kind of luck I'd wish for you, friend-
reader, if you'll pray for me. Ten years later
the kid who'd shot him drank himself to death.

Tied to the self a man can never shed
such terrors, but listen: along a shady path
which winds about this formal garden,
bushes tamed, flowers beautifully affixed
to rich dark soil, where even the pebbles
we walk on, fragile chips of comfort, whisper
his colors -- in this muted hollow our harshest step
evokes the dissonant flush of cinnamon from the earth.

The Arctic Herd

Together we stare at the map,
a land so vast whole herds can
vanish; each lake a lung. Angry,
he is my father and my other

self: his face comes forward
with its three days' stubble.
By night, the differences are harsh
layers of cloth between us. We

sit in the darkened cabin, pass
a jug, and put the stain of
wine upon our lips. Thirty years
a wife and son are missing:

how fragile my disinterest
in such matters. Caribou -- come
dissonant reports from
far-off valleys. Cartridges and

thunder. We men without holdings
have to follow over the blue --
and orange-flowered tundra, crossing
borders, urgent into what future?

At dawn on a farther ridge they
reappear in thousands like a mist
whose eyes sprout crystal
lichen, small buds and blooms of whiteness.

That night I dream: between his ribs,
translucent like stretched rawhide,
the heart too is a map. A scar-line
like barbed wire rides across

one nipple. He stands beside
his tethered dogs. The herd's dry
bones excite a fine white
ash above his moss-packed roof.

Her Ecstasy

The boy on the beach, maybe
ten, watches the waves come in.

He was there before us, we've
been here an hour, and it makes me
remember Kansas. There's not much to do in
Kansas, so you learn to be patient,

to sit there and look at the sky
till it answers back with your name.

Then the day takes you into its
vast impersonal mill. The wind
blows over you and the fields
listen, until life fills you up.

What you glean at that age
has no name, but it stays.

So, today, in Mexico, I can sit and watch the
boy watching the waves, the changing
light, and nothing is happening -- a tern,
a lolloping gull-and out there beyond
the sky, the spider spinning and spinning

the life which is here inside,
and you just have to wait for it!

Cabin on the Yukon

A tiny black square on the map
with greenhouse tomatoes growing
among the weeds, and children's
drawings tacked to every wall.
My friend and I sacked
out and held each other close
in the partial dark.

Dozing, I remembered that for years
there'd hung above my bed
a delicate brown wash in sun
and shade: Bacchus and Pan, a small
girl's dream of summer. Bouncing
and bouncing till the springs
complained, I played among them
rising and falling, my gusty self
awash in wind and rain.

Ghosts, and the promise of a sea
long since departed, relics
in the mirror as I speed away.

And then I slept and dreamt the world
had come and gone,
and came to where Pan's candied
pipes were playing. There,
a little girl in pigtails, rising,
falling under his sweet spell
until she tumbled in a heap,
dropping on soft pillows into sleep.

How do I know the abandoned house
is me, the breeze within the dream
carrying ash, the clash of a screen
door shutting? Spooked out of
the settling cabin, I remember running
back to the river, back to our canoe,
a vacant swing still swinging,
loose voices singing in the storm.

At Lindbergh's Grave

"I took to the wings of the morning..."
Now that we're here I can't
believe I wanted to come: his
stone-covered ground at the
Christ-windowed church by the trunk-
rooted tree near the sister pools
on this rainforest coast of
Maui -- Christmas '78 --
our thirteenth anniversary.

Superstitious? ... No angel hovers
near the spot, just a white
horse in the next field Jeffrey
wants to ride -- no way -- and his
disappointment seals our day.
Quickly we pack back into the car,
Messiah fading from the radio,
tourists in this life and the next:

What do I know? I know
a child of his was stolen once
and once he mapped the whole of
Yucatan by air. Well ... I've
been there. Whatever we hold
of the past is passing. Mist
and rain, and beyond the
crumbling sugar mill's remains

the still volcano rising.

The Snake-Hunt: Gallup, New Mexico

for John Milius
The light six inches up
hovered like an aura.

Rising before dawn, you
pinned a five-foot serpent

with a shovel, I
chopped its head off.

Dead skin and rattles salvaged,
the meat we fried in butter.

We said, "It tastes like chicken."
Some stories never end.

Last night a plastic replica
unfolded into life in a dresser drawer.

I felt its muscular
fanged pressure bearing down.

Now, bolder and more primitive,
I'm coming back to what I once believed:

this whole vast world extending
through space is nothing,

just a bubble on a stream, wash
after wash of matter dissipating.

Lifting the poisonous visage on my
shovel, I fling it off among cacti:

loop over loop a headless
body writhing in the dirt.

The Endless Fall: El Moro, 1958

Stuck on a sandstone ledge
where -- god knows -- I should never
have been, I remember starting
to slip. For three days lost
to my body, I sank toward the
bottom of a pool where gray shapes
splashed around me near the center
of a fierce design. Deeper down
the pool became a room:

did the mind exude that eerie
soft blue flame by which
the walls could be read,
here a bone, a shell, there
an odd repeating element
like the sun. Meanwhile my body
lay -- skull cracked, face crusted,
front teeth gone, male nurses
adjusting the needles taped

to my veins -- unconscious, away
where Christ's bloody effigy sagged
on St. Joseph's wall. And as the last
light started to vacate that hole
I met another self, there at the
center: he drifted under my skin,
breathed through my lungs and dreamed
himself into my wounds. Like brother
assassins, meeting and parting,

we float in this vacuum forever.

The Slingshot

Skimming the Saronic Gulf on jets
of air the Flying Dolphin glides
beneath the Temple of Aphaia, high
above the miraculous bay. Yul Brynner
and his poodles -- or their doubles -- occupy
a row, another strange conjunction which
diverts us from our watered retsina and cheese.

At last we are in Greece. And we have
met by chance after ten years of friendship
lapsed. What powers have the dead
to look and leap! I think of your bald head,
flush, on the farm you rented where we tramped
a circuit of black walnuts, found
the family graves of Utz, one mother

dead in childbirth and her child beside.
How brash, how confident we were then
of our talent! Remember the pumpkin pies
your then-wife baked? I hear that she
went wild, debouched in San Francisco with a
male impersonator. You travel with another.
So do I. In Delphi yesterday I stood

before the stiff bronze charioteer and stared
into his cold glazed eyes of shell.
My heart pulled back and suddenly,
a child myself, I crouched behind a hedge,
holding a slingshot forked like a "V"
in my hands, and launched against a passing
stream of cars onslaughts of lethal wires.

Again and again they pinged against
the windshields going by, till one got through
and cut a driver's face. I saw the blood.
I saw him wince and wrench the wheel
and pile into a tree. This all
took thirty seconds to transpire. I saw
the car explode, saw his body boil!

Old travelers know the earth's
remote transparency. My ancient friend
and rival, say what's new -- do Hera's
myths and mysteries still apply?
Each decade has its war. Athens
and Sparta, Romans, Medes.
All governments are liars.

And that young boy from Macedonia --
what do I hear? New expeditions
against Troy? It flames, it flames:
the sun flames through the wine. Dear friend,
the book you wrote that year
may be your best. Don't tell me what you
think my work has come to. Come, let's drink.


Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska: A Suite

1. Dead Walrus on the Beach
The Cessna that flew me in
skimming the coast
banked around those
rocky points of land and
moved in close
where a dead one was
its flesh thrown up
by the sea. We'd
hoped for tusks
but this bulk without a head
a white suffused with brown
too much to move, too dead
to eat -- what's to be
done with it?
                   Like a compact
car, you can't tell
front from back. Seagulls
probe for entry
into its rotting entrails
and I am appalled by the smell.
2. Zip Code
At Wales, to the west of the weather
the islands crowd toward tomorrow.
My Eskimo host, the
postmaster, sports a digital
watch and smokes as he talks:
"I collect records. You
pick up the phone, call
Anchorage and have the
albums you want within six days."
At the tarpaper shack
where he works an arrow on the wall
pointing west says, "Russia
30 Miles." He wears a
wispy beard, a black moustache,
black shoulder-length hair like me:
Wales, Alaska-99783.
3. Subsistence
Seal for dinner, and after
when cranes in a lopsided "V"
honk over, someone
runs outside and takes a shot.
4. B.I.A. Housing
Eight calendars on the walls, no
plumbing. The bathtub stocked
with laundry, Pampers, a rusted
two-gallon can, towels, rags, Friskies,
and that fancy oval makeup box:
"Cardin." Here you sit
on the plastic "Honey-pot" above
a disposable plastic bag; but
there are amenities: two stoves
in the kitchen, radio,
CB. For reading, National
Geographic, Ski-Mobile, Newsweek,
or the current catalog from Sears.
Outside, the kids play soccer,
basketball, climb on the
roofs. Inside, the Eagles gloat
"The Greeks Don't Want No
Freaks" on the hi-fi.
5. A Village Littered with Bones
Walrus, whale, and seal
vertebrae and ribs -- bones of all
sizes going back
to the sand. 130 people
on a spit of land
in an arctic sea: how
elemental it must
be when winter closes in.
But August's dull, a rainy
fall. Come January: dogsleds,
skiing, skating, snow-
machines. Chop a hole
in the ice and drop
a line. Vent
a snow-tunnel out to the street.
No fragile enterprise
under cold, shifting skies: snow
is the Eskimo's element.
6. Neighbors: Gossip
In the next town, Shish-
maref, some sixty miles off
you hear they bought a truck, paid
double the purchase price
to ship it in. Then
just last week the son
of the village mayor
who didn't know about gears crashed
into the town hall -- bad luck.
This winter flying up
to Shish from Nome, Walter's
cousin went down in the hills: half
a dozen people killed, never
found her body or her
baby's. There's a lady
in that town, dug in the
mound behind the village, found
carved fossil ivory
worth fifty thousand bucks.
7. Privilege
I find my moods are
jagged as the rocks. Today I climb
through tundra to the ridge
two hours toward the sun. A blessing
on you snowbirds, arctic hare. There
on a farther ridge -- radar --
a disc of silver rivaling the
sun, staring at its double
like a loaded gun across the strait.
On a boulder I sit and muse.
Away to the north a lagoon
lies flat and gray. Those
water-borne cliffs to the west:
Siberia. Awed by this place
the top of my head comes loose
and tears assault my eyes. Hairy
with impending ice-ages
I see the past arriving at
our shore: mammoths, mastodons,
and man. All
times are crowded into this
small village, its
magic, my privilege.
8. To Fish Camp
I stand by a tractor
hitched to a flat-bed
truck. On it a boat
and in the boat brown
plastic bags full of gear.
Four people sit on the bags,
two wearing holstered guns
and one of them is White:
someone who stayed. A large tan
dog is hoisted up
shivering with excitement
at his luck
as they drive off to camp.
9. What to Bring Away?
I can name it: behind
the Weyapuks' house, discarded
among sand-grass, a large
whale vertebra from that
bowhead they got last spring.
It must be
twenty inches across the beam,
a rich and creamy brown and
nobody seems to claim it.
10. The Frame
Next day, wind and mist.
I lug my suitcase, sleeping
bag, my whale bone
to the air-strip. I seem
to need another hand
for this. Alone in the sheet-metal
hangar I stand and wait
listening through fog
for the buzz of my plane
two hours late. I love it
here but I can't stay.
My trip takes on a frame.
I feel it going deeper
like a dream, its
salt in my pores. Flo Weyapuk said
when I asked about that
bone, a bit puzzled, a bit
amused: "You found it. It's yours."


Arizona Highways

for Jon and Bodi Anderson
Climbing the ridge among cactus
we watch the gritty town and gumball
tourist cars. A man in that jail
for a buck will give you a thrill,
lurching from his cell
with a drawn gun and a scowl.

But my friend's young son, afraid
of this tilted ground -- timid lamb --
holds out his stricken hands
and shakes. Remember, Jon,
that long unsettled night
five years ago: we drank and talked --

what's friendship for? To move
beyond the self. I felt
you were a dying man. At four a.m.
through empty streets I drove you home,
and by the curb you held me hard
and cried; unblessed by bourbon

knowing that it was too late
for sleep. Now it's your sweet
blond diabetic son moves me
toward tears, his frail-boned beauty
like another of your heart-wrung
poems, blood on a dusty street

where the ghosts of men
who could not name their fears
so shot, each other down
watch as the sun turns red and round
and the cactus casts its thorny
darkness to the ground.


    in my scraggly beard and the first
sweat of the day glistening on my arms,
I lay on a canvas cot, thinking of you
and of another woman too raw for that land.

Burnt flakes of shale, jeweled peppergrains
of moletooth, limbbones packed in stone,
a fence, a track through sagebrush, colors
mute, regions of advanced decay: these
inarticulate, inhuman cries are somehow mine.

That August, back in the Village,
an intimate catastrophe:
your pale, cream-colored buttocks, lady.
All the years haven't taken away
what that day turned up missing.

Given a life to spend, a bank of bones,
two bodies tough as any blossoms, we
took each other in hand. So this
is what it means to live on earth:

pressing warm skin within your skin, not
tentative, not innocent, not knowing

that would come later.

Chekhov Variation

Chekhov, here's one story you
didn't write: on a banker's
estate, locked
in one room without
company, a man
while outside
the peasants grumble and debauch,
the master gambles his fortune away,
and so much blood is spilled
the snow falls red
all over Eastern Europe.

                                  For years
this continues: he reads
the systematic philosophers, popular
novelists of other centuries,
lyric poets. Now the man
is reading about beautiful women.
He undresses and strides naked
about the room, and as we watch
he seems to age. His neat goatee
lengthens, grizzles, his broad chest
narrows, his face wrinkles,
and his eyes grow round and hollow.
Is this the parable:
a man alone in a cell
reading, while outside
chalks up another debacle?

Fifteen years later
bitter with what he's foreseen
he renounces all claim
and climbs out the window.
Peasants are lined against the wall
of the estate, and just as he hits the ground
he notes a squad of soldiers aiming their guns.
Crouching, he scrambles for cover.
Now he stutters and falls, now
he is crawling into the earth. I assume
he had something else in mind.
So many have died, are dying
there are not enough stories to name them
and those who are left could care less about such tales.

Expedition North

Its ice-cap, milky green, confirmed the name.
Three volcanic cones leaned northwest
from our camp. Soon we'd begun to dig
and not long after reached stone.
Here were plants, the fine impression of leaf,
and the bones of cats. A strange animal
culture baked in basalt.

Higher apes had inhabited the island
before musk ox, polar bears, and ice.
Compasses began to spin.
Two of our party went temporarily blind.
One lost his mind for good.
And lost on a glacier, looking for its source,
presumed dead, our eldest son.

That magnetic land, like nothing
on the map, surnmerlong southern light
glaring across its flatter regions.
We brought a dozen
frozen mammal specimens
and minerals back to the coast,
boarded an ice-breaker
and crossed to Halifax.

Second Son

Last night, in fear, my breathing
lost its rhythm. My lungs loose sacks,
I lay among my ruin -- the yesterday
of what we call "events" -- and saw
myself, my wife and sons, this house
blown terribly apart: the seeds
of joy dry powder on the sheets.

But when I woke, the look of things
that change had changed, some magic
in me boiling up again. I saw
my room as a boy, the shelves
of books, rocks, model planes.
The smell of glue -- a strange delight,
a sweet exuberant music filling my head.

Not trusting happiness, my sleep's
a laboratory with the scent of ash.
Oh, Ben, your cries latch onto my breast,
your silence attaches my heart.
Because small parts can vanish
in the night, the family is a chest
of drawers I tuck my demons into.

Three months ago, through gasps of pain,
I watched your mother push you home.
Awash with light, you blinked into
this final state. You'd fallen
through the ice, a simple corpuscle,
agog with the palpable day, and wet
with the dark inner life of the world.


A light with the richness
of cream pours over the bar.
Slack night. I sip a glass
of beer remembering who I think
I am and then forgetting.
"Killing's more direct than talk,"

he says, says he could do it still
but what's the use? His breath's
a heavy metal stink about like dirt
or the wide circles
of waiting he pledged allegiance to
before his birth.

Camped in the Asian dark,
sick on his first patrol,
he tells me how they wouldn't
talk to him, his alien platoon
that first night out. Then
something like a finger beckoning.

He turns, hears in his middle ear
a bird's frail tune,
thick eons shouldering over oceans of recall.
With hardly time to think
he's off his stool, rolling
in a fit of peanut shells and drool.

The mind at war
has got its reasons. Plunging
in a sink of need,
he's there as well as here
hands tensed around his snub-nosed,
sharp-toothed pet,

and suddenly I could do
with one less beer. Tomorrow
if he lives he'll
burn a village, be a vet.
All wars are fought by country
boys used to this long road.

The End

One gray animal walked to the edge of morning.
The moon was behind it and the road
wound north, an infinite hill.
And as there was simply no
reason to proceed
with the project it had set out on
days before, it sat down.

are all I see of its gray face
staring into the morning
chilled past all desire
having at last come to the end.

After Innocence

for Jody Stewart
He holds round her waist, and runs
past cream-white columns, down
marble steps, this man who means
nothing to her except escape. Her bones
bend softly, her tongue a speckled leaf.
Bright lumina surround her body
like a sheet. Blood oozes from a V-shaped
wound in her abductor's foot. Too wise
to fight and too discreet, she
watches it clot. And then a gap
in the dream and years go by a blank.


White sun invades a lazy afternoon
as the tale resumes: the younger wife
of an important magistrate
she's stunned by the soldier's return
who carried her off -- the stupid
physical lout. Of course she's grown,
of course he won't approach her
on his own, but there can be no doubt
(that V-shaped scar on his foot)
and she finds she must have the man
though it may mean her life.


A smell of disinfectant over leaves
where one sad girl has settled
turning her body to the impossible
earth. Molecules of air like mice
come nibbling at her pores. Jody,
we've never met, but I hold your
book, its marvelous poems borrowed
from grief. They whisper inside seeds
where shadows are and know the universe
which struggles to be free
ends with the breaking of a single law.

The Behaviorist

The angles of his face tend toward dispersion,
his ways are diffident, cold, unendearing,

and you wonder about his childhood:
how early this graceless scion of the gentry
knowing that only his brains would carry him
began to perceive those
gestures and responses by which other people
meet and get acquainted, gestures
which he must study in order to know.

It puzzles you how he managed to court his wife
and what attracted her, whether
it was despair
or the thought that she (more fluent in gesture
and in relationships) would eventually
gain mastership in their house; or was it love?

Probably it was love, and that thought
makes you look again,
noticing the cleavages in his face
unable to soften themselves in any way.

Would she say, "He is not easy to know
but once you know him ... "?

Now they have moved to Australia,
and have left behind a cat ("Tiger Lily,"
mother of eight, who has moved into your house
and keeps to herself where the warm air gathers
on the attic stairs). Because of her
you have recalled
the isolation he must live with at every moment
which the rest of us submerge in mere "relationships"
until that time
when charm and spontaneity can do us no more good
and we must cast off, along with our confusions,
the concinnity of features that was our mask.

The Fugitive

Scouting the derelict station
under Webster Avenue, the boy,
just nine, enters a blind alcove, once
the ladies' room, toilets and sinks
removed. Soft boned and squirrel

toothed, he thrusts his thin legs
down through cracked concrete, twists
into that honied clutch of blackness,
rips a knee, grips at his arms'
full length and dangles, then

drops to the dank below. The flap
of something venomous whirrs off
into a corner. His eyes approach
a thousand dead-end eyes and cut
away. A giant crab from someone else's

dream and all the shiftlessness of
broken glass. -- Can't catch his breath.
Hour after hour he watches the evening wane
while trains sluggishly rumble their tedious
freight of skeptical learning to the city.

Past midnight, half asleep he asks
for water and sees the hand of his mother
reaching out a cup, which slips, falls free
between them, wets his jeans. He curls
around the stain, an utter fugitive.

Straining into the dark, his
eyes discern a series of points
in space, a curving grid on which
the world is hung. It seems to him
that everything else is false --

what they say in school, at home. He feels
older, almost grown, hears in his inner
ear a vivid blues-tune rising. A sultry
vibraphone plays moody runs
as if that song is what he is

when everything else is gone. Come dawn,
he glistens with the wetness of
that place and knows he must
pile stones to make a stair. There
on the ground beside him a silver

dollar catches his eye, but he
doesn't believe in money, won't
take it up though it might get him home.
This beautiful mischance has left him
a finished thing. He starts to pile stones.


Her Injury: For Nancy

Glass from our broken car,
and troopers taking it down. My
bruised wife taken in by eager
men, white coats under their parkas.

Jeffrey leans beside me in the
cab, his tiny hand in my hand,
and, dazed and shaken, I'm
surrounded by creatures from another

time: three years ago, a
continent away her labor carried
deeper into pain than I could
follow, her bleeding sat me dizzy

on a stool. An inch of
skull crossed with the black
hatchings of his hair
stood me up again, and then

a face. Slowly his shoulders
edging through a crack which
opened from a prior space. These
his first acts: he

pees in his mouth, cries,
then lying on his mother's
breast unsqueezes into life
his dark-accustomed eyes.

An ugly green liquid seethes
along the pavement. Now
husband and son together
in the patient lobby, furled

upon themselves, hands of a
clock without the clock, waiting:
I'm afraid it will glow like
this at the end of the world.

Modern Times

The impulse to mourn wakes me up like a clock
and before I've taken thought, I'm out of bed
squinting into the sun and full of minor worries,
lacking a coherent plan
to get through the coming day without disaster,
a day already begun on the wrong foot
    under which a luminous chasm opens up,
-- or is this the continuation of a dream
still taking place and am I still asleep?

Across a continent of evil, asphalt, twisted metal,
a military train plunges into a tunnel, kaackety-kaack,
each car separate and distinct, each
linked to a master plan and moving west
into a landscape of baited terror. Meanwhile
the trembling underfoot may cause a rash excitement
verging on affirmation. -- We've
passed the introduction
to a structure capable of shifting definition
as it unrolls into a temporary present.

His face red in the glare, Hemingway on a balcony
watches the fiery splash of bombs. Madrid.
"'sbeautiful as hell."

The photos age and fade.
Only a vague light on the spleen remains,
affirms the possibility of damage,
the dignity eternal pain confers.
Our weapons lose their edge
and in this book, The Picture History of a War,
the dates are noted and the bodies tallied
as if it all had ended, turning into what we are.

The Psychoanalysis of Fire

Evenings, a roach of light scrabbling through
the walls of an hieratic solitude
as the frantic child imagines in procession
twelve cauled and swaying men,
    ghost-like, their torches
spiraling into the cavernous
moss-ridden vaults of the mind.

And by dawn the autumn landscape holds in perspective
flats and vectors, irreconcilable distances
from which the spark of flint is never absent.
The boy gathers leaves, desiring
a paradise of ashes, while from the brow of the sky
a pulsing threatening eye looks down upon the earth
as on a dangerous son.

Toying with matches -- see the magnificent havoc,
the wrestling bright bodies of the flame.
Look, as an ember surges and darkens, at the terrible
filial fear of the boy.
    And when the cooling ash dies out of his reverie
his skin's as dry as a snake's, his fingernails singed --
alone and afraid, his darkness shifts under the house.

And this deceitful beautiful reticence of fire
that wavers deeply into the drowsing night
as a cool blue mist, like the prodigious feat of will
that, in the outlying suburbs of the present, can recall
those ancient burning fields, that lurid sky
where the moon, a calm and loving face,
first went up in flames --

faster and faster, the long abyss of fire
while in his arbitrary fury
-- because in the end we are all
lost, all
dancing into ash -- he beats against the finiteness
and infancy of time: the child, my dark-eyed son,
may he never be born.

The Inlet:

Dozens of swans and geese
launched on its tar-black surface.
Sixteen tiny jellyfish
slosh against the breakwater: these
are all the vacations of
my life I didn't know how to use.

Behind me on the rise
my wife and child
move into sunlight,
disappear. And in the South China
Sea, all those thousands of
bodies going to the bottom...!

I am a way of looking
up out of a mask
encrusted with seaweed. One swan
chases another for fifteen,
twenty yards. A goose flaps and
flaps, filling her

wings with joy, but does not rise.

I Paint My Face Blue

And when I grew furious and lashed out
   at my wife in front of my young
   son, it was myself I savaged:
these things stare at me from the mirror
   like the pale-skin legend
   of a fall many years ago
from a cliff. For three days Christ
   on the wall hovered over me as I
   lay on the ward. Friends said
my personality then changed: I want it
   to change again! Oh spinning parts
   of what I am, machinery
accountable to pain, whatever time
   has written on the flesh
   these pigments made of neon are
dispersing. I have reached the age
   of anger, temper me. I smell
   myself a dying animal ...
Everyone wants the colors of change
   to fade. Since childhood I've felt
   that distance in me: a hilly lawn
a boy of three spins down, bright
   health and sunlight rarely
   tasted since. Later, at the fenced-
in corner of a neighbor-yard, fierce
   bushes and the dirt I'd
   fallen into dizzy and upset.
And so by means of craft I'd hoped
   to restore lost sanctions, forgotten
   blandishments. What else can I
look for in this life? There is a
   mountain in my mind I am climbing
   pathless, rocky, a wildness of sky
leaping from the earth like a fountain
   I walk into naked, at once
   exalted and depressed: what a colorful
absconding! all in an instant as I
   fall asleep and wake, die
   and am reborn, and I can barely
remember the mountain with its teeth
   of salt and I have climbed it,
   what was earth, now air.

Two Old Men in Hats: A Photograph

(Paul Strand used various devices to appear to be focusing his camera in one direction while actually aiming it in another.)
Sunlight, shouts, and the incalculable
odor of dew. If we could just forget
the Portuguese men who catch

fish, the farmers in Jersey
turning out cabbages, if the
cobbles were softer than pillows,

it would be beautiful to be a
Jew, if we could eat rust, if the
rivers disgorged their findings, and those

women in silk were our sisters.
Not the accidental spilling of a
pushcart, or that sly gentleman

in the alley pointing his dummy
lens at kids while he focuses a
hidden copper plate at this bench

where we sit, reviewing into his prism
the brittle figures that dance behind
our eyes. Lies. lies. And this perfect

disarrangement of our thoughts re the
unrecorded incidents in Egypt
give cogency to what has not been said

about the sunlight flashing off those
girders, whose angular soft
shadows lodge on our faces like glyphs.

Saint-Cloud in Mist

Ghosts of our parents when we were young,
the love we owed them has been paid back:
their beauty, brittle but luminous,
like a Monet when the lights
in the museum dim and the single guard
sits on a corner stool and reads
in the evening news of a girl
missing from home these past ten days.

Stolen? Fled? But he is thinking
of his daughter, grown
away from him now, living in another
city where her husband, the ineffectual one,
sells shoes in a shopping mall, and thinking
of his grandson, five, too big and awkward yet
to learn to ride a bike: so in her latest
his childish daughter complains.

His smile half regret, as he
puts down the paper, strolls
over to where in the dim
light the reasoned canvas
seems to mirror back the eye's own
aging. Into what? Not immortality, but
something better, harder, some set
matrix of located color which, refocusing,

invites us out to luncheon on the lawn.

The Reef

Blistering repetitions, flowers of indeterminacy...
Sun going down, and its orange
out of the west smothered the purple water --
odors of spring and change until we couldn't bear it,
until as we looked down it faded like an echo
of all that we had ever thought to do.

Aqualungs, fins forgotten, along with the urge to dive.
No desire to forgive the porpoises, the past,
their casual alien games, irredeemably offshore,
laughably, touchingly cruel.
So all precautions proved useless, even the stars:

we might just as well have stayed home. Always
we stumbled, we fell on our own sweet wounds,
could never get straight the facts of growing up.
Too young we saw too much and understood only
there are so many ways to bleed.

Warm nights on the reef, vast as the strange is lovely.
Now Paris and calculus fade into
green eyes one had forgotten, once no doubt essential,
a stubbornness along the pulse we cannot quite dismiss,
cool in this rippled backwash of the absolute.

So when dawn surprised us again in the usual way
the fishes nibbling our toes made us laugh; but now,
while a plague of twelve-pointed starfish
sucks at the lives of the reef
and the venomous face of the stonefish drops into shadow,

at last we begin to see: it is as if
the whole past rose up within us calling our names
and our loves are each a small and perfect coral animal
feeding itself to the water. Together they form
a thousand mile reef, endlessly alive on the pastel corpse

of uncountable coral dead.

The Moving Out

After sunset when the grieving
move further into their grief
and the stars are revealed by their master, the darkness,
I have left the cities of the blind
along tracks straight and cold as the north.

Here I sit listening on the shore
of a white and glacial distance.
The voice of a girl like an opening flower
begins to curl forth from the inner shell of the mind.
So many nights I have waited.

In cities the darkness gobbled me up and spat me out,
my fears scuttled back and forth outside the door.
Now the first birds waken and peck among fresh snow.
The light begins to open
with a pink and icy whisper along her cheek.

The Buck

Over meals the summer we were ten
you spoke about a defect in your bones:
how you knew you were going to die,
just not when. Sitting at those
long tables, skidding a half-filled
salt-shaker fitfully down the boards, I
knew the difference between us:
I could never die.

In Maine again years later
I row toward the yellow lilies
among pale cress, remembering how
at camp the summer after, you
were an absence like the deer
which soon may enter these waters
shyly, not yet seeing the stranger
silhouetted in his boat. I asked
another kid from Philly where you were.
You were dead. But how could that be
when I could see you so clearly in my head?

Few friendships last. For this
the elders gather in dark-brown churches
to make their peace. Now
I can't remember your face at all.
Still, on the tongue of each lily
staring, dazed in the humid heat, a fly,
and out of the deeper silence
I sense that in a moment
a buck will break from those trees
and splash into the lake.

Astonishing, his size,
the surge of his ruddy hide
as he flees the hush of my voice
back into the woods, an antler and a leap.

Copyright © 1984 by
The University of Alabama Press
University, Alabama 35486
All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America

Thanks to the Fine Arts Work Center (Provincetown, Massachusetts) and the Alaska State Council on the Arts for grants under which some of these poems were written.

Photo on title page by David R. Klein of the Alaska Cooperative Wild- life Research Unit of the University of Alaska.


Poems in this collection have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

The Alaska Journal: "Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska: A Suite"
The Alaska Quarterly Review: "Two Old Men in Hats: A Photograph"
The American Poetry Review: "The Killing of Anton Webern" and "Modern Times"
The Ardis Anthology of New American Poetry: "The Psychoanalysis of Fire"
The Black Warrior Review: "The Arctic Herd," "Expedition North," and "The Snake-Hunt: Gallup, New Mexico"
Finding the Boundaries (anthology): "Barnstorming," "The Killing of Anton Webern," and "The Snake-Hunt: Gallup, New Mexico"
The Iowa Review: "Chekhov Variation," "The Moving Out," and "The Psychoanalysis of Fire"
The Massachusetts Review: "Barnstorming" (Reprinted from The Massachusetts Review, © 1983 The Massachusetts Review, Inc.)
The Montana Review: "Saint-Cloud in Mist"
The New Yorker: "The End" (Reprinted by permission; © 1977 The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.)
The North American Review: "The Behaviorist" and "Cabin on the Yukon"
The Paris Review: "The Inlet:"
Peccary: "The Endless Fall: El Moro, 1958" and "The Fugitive"
Permafrost: "Dust"
Poetry: "Her Ecstasy"
Poetry Northwest: "I Paint My Face Blue" and "The Reef"
Poetry Now: "At Lindbergh's Grave," "The Slingshot," and "The Buck"
Shankpainter: "Two Old Men in Hats: A Photograph" and "Dust"
TriQuarterly: "Ambush"
The Young American Poets: "Expedition North" (From THE YOUNG AMERICAN POETS, edited by Paul Carroll. Copyright © 1968 by Follett Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission of Allyn and Bacon, Inc.)

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Morgan, John, 1943-
The Arctic herd.

(Alabama poetry series)
I. Title. II. Series.
PS3563.0863A89 1984
ISBN 0-8173-0195-x
ISBN 0-8173-0194-I (pbk.)

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