Jason Fales

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.


Day 1:

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.


Day 2:

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.


Day 3: 

Rainbow Remission



 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

the green-going-gold

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.


Day 4:

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.
James Wright, “A Blessing” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.Copyright 1990 by James Wright. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.