Jason Fales was born in Grangeville, Idaho. He earned an MFA in Poetry from the University of Houston, where he was a C. Glen Cambor Fellow, studying with Edward Hirsch, Richard Howard and Phillip Levine. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, and Talking River Review. Currently he works for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), serving to protect the wild waters of Idaho.
On Getting There
For Angus Kennedy
By now his garden’s gone to frost
and Grandma’s canned the plum butter,
made pies from the pumpkins, fruit-leather
and jam from his grafted apples. He is
left with what he has to show inside
their old home: the pictures of family, his
Christmas cactus gone wild in fuchsia bloom,
Grandma’s paintings of horse and Indian princess,
and his whittling—the linked chains and creatures
his blade frees from white blocks of pine.
I am the towheaded boy he calls Clancy
and takes by the hand to the hardwood and glass case;
I point to the old sow and eight piglets,
one for each white teat. He lets me hold
a varnished bull bison and asks if I remember
Montana, the buffalo rolling clouds
of dust, and can I see that this bull
wants to roll? I ask him if I can
hold the goat and he says sheep, mountain sheep,
and old boy, see how the horns curl?
I carved him a long time ago, Clance,
when I worked on the road crew
and first started whittling. The horns
I got right, but the rest is wrong,
legs are too short and he stands stiff.
They don’t look like that, Clance.
But the bison are right, the big bull
and the calf. Just like the ones we saw
by Ronan, out on the Bison Range.
He is showing that boy the things he can
claim, teaching, in turns slow as the years
it takes for the boy’s hair to grow dark,
that a true life is a life spent making.
The curved links in his chains—large
as those if a tow chain or delicate
as jewelry—give only a hint of hours spent
pulling the blade through square stock.
No one can see which link might have made him
slip. If he wants he’ll show the scar
on his thumb or the stub of his finger
lost to the table saw. He’ll show
the hole he’s dug in the garden
for compost and replenishing rot
or wax for grafting young yellow delicious
limbs onto crabapple trees in spring,
though he knows what’s remembered—
pine links, garden rhubarb, apples and pies,
the arriving and not how you got there.
I am the man who would show him
how I listened and watched. I’d make
this the graft that sheds wax and heals, the one
limb blown with pink blossoms in a tree of white
or the corn come up strong and high tasseled
in straight rows from fertile loam,
a chain carved from impeccable pine
its link showing no signs of struggle.
Papa, I’ve made my mountain sheep
and wish this a bison bull, dust
settling on him like gold.
Snake River Pictograph
These hills green up in a week
of new sun, the river calmed, stretched out
like a boa content to digest stone.
I place a hand on a column of basalt
and ask it what it wants to be,
then dip a finger in ochre and trace
a red line, two lines, a horn with seven tines
and a neck thick from the rut.
Its nostrils take air from rock,
head tilted back in a bugle.
And a hunter, yes the rock wants
a hunter who waits through this spring
and a thousand more, ask elk if it’s time
and hears the wind ask rock what it wants to be.
I make a circle that will watch
the river rise and recede, watch storms
come, sun come, eagles dive,
catch trout or miss and talon water.
It is a circle—the sun
or moon or earth, the reddened end
of a finger, the dark centers
of eyes and flights of eagles—
The finishing, the beginning, the going on.
Papa used spin reels
and homemade wooden bobbers,
hand-tied whitetail hair
and peacock feather flies—
gray hackles bagged the most
rainbow from where ripples met
of holes on the far side.
No wasted motion or clumsy
uptake, no slack line,
no mechanical ratchet-click
clatter from the Orvis reel.
He’d flip the bail and wrist-cast
bobber to ripple’s edge, fly
settling soft and trailing
lifelike through the hole.
Sometimes a fin rose
or a tail side-slapped behind,
sometimes the bobber simply dove
and, once, a trout hit
on the way up and out
as though the river had wanted
to take wing and hover above
in the sun that burned it silver.
We had poles of our own and creels,
but we watched from the bank
while Papa placed each cast
from the flat of a granite boulder.
He’d reel rainbows in to us
and we’d glean them from the line,
no blood from trout jaw or gill
as Jimmy backed the barb out.
Maybe it was wrong to trick them
with such easy magic
to solve the full mystery
of those impossible pools
and pull them to the burning air.
So Jimmy gave them back,
worked their gills underwater
till they flashed from his hands.
He knew the sweetness
of remission—baseball cap
covering a new duff of stubble,
color flashing back into
his eyes. It had been enough
to watch them dance across
white rapids, to cheer their jumping,
the plunge into fire.
Is it true Papa,
did I tell it right?
can you still hear us
above the din of all
the other boy’s voices,
your sons and younger brothers,
the Scout troop of ghosts
trying to out-shout the rapids?
Do you remember how Jimmy lost
that first, fattest trout—
gripped it so hard it shot
from his hands like greased ice—
and the two of us ducked our chins,
like guilty men? Remember laughing,
a fish on the next cast,
a day no harm was done?
I barely hear the river,
passing cars are a wash of white noise
and long-haul trucks make the only wind
on this freeway. In the rush
of the scene coming back I caught
his laugh and you laughing.
A river song. Three voices, one
clear and high ebbing.