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Poetry by SEan Prentiss
At Twenty-Six I Retreat
In the last year I have lived
in two countries & three states,
in a shed, a cabin, an apartment,
& a car—running & running.
The city where my lover lives is
an assemblage of noise, a factory
of waste & the racket of rush hour,
noosing a knot within my chest.
I’m tired of temp work, of washing
dishes, of answering the phone,
Santa Fe Community College.
How may I help you?
The Northwest Youth Corps ad
claims a hundred & fifty sleeps
in a tent, a crew to lead, building trails,
dawn-early mornings & fatigued muscles.
Though I have never handled a trail
tool & have only backpacked once,
I accept the moment the job is offered.
For Jeff Parker, Daryl Kaiser, & Billy Scrafford
These nights, shivering inside white wall tents, we repeat—
like an echo—the trail terms Woods Boss teaches us:
Rehab rehab rehab
Angle of repose angle of repose
Sideslope sideslope sideslope
Check dam check dam
These terms hymns we sing during this week-long Coastal
Mountains training of digging trail through forest.
Waterbars Waterbars Waterbars
Hinge Hinge Hinge
Turnpike Turnpike Turnpike
We, future Northwest Youth Corps leaders, quiz each other
over what these terms mean in the forests of our future lives.
Armoring Armoring Armoring
Borrow pit Borrow pit Borrow pit
Backslope Backslope Backslope
Woods Boss preaches, so it is our trail crew gospel.
Check dam Check dam Check dam
Gabion Gabion Gabion
Bench Bench Bench
During sleep, these hands, calloused and nicked,
instinctively curl, as if still clutching tools, as if those new
tools are the only thing our fingers have ever loved.
Dreaming, we mumble the names of these tools we learn.
Pulaski crosscut saw hazel hoe
McLeod hog hoe rock bar
Pole saw pick-adz lopper
The last dawn of training, as we feed oatmeal into ravenous
mouths, Woods Boss circles us up to teach us the Northwest
Youth Corps slogan.
Do the impossible, he growls.
We repeat quietly into a breaking morning.
Do it with nothing, he says, voice louder.
We repeat toward the dawning.
Woods Boss, smiling, caws, Do it with style.
If there is a song, it is sung by the metrical pull of the crosscut
itself through the pallid heart of wood, the heft of a hazel hoe
dinging a chime
against rock, a pick-adz manning itself into the rock-ribbed earth,
a Pulaski head wounding
hardwood, a sleeting of brittle bark. It’s like learning language
through the song
of some new land, a song I attempt to hum each of these first
a song sung by muscle arcing metal & metal cutting mineral soil.
but I trip
over the chorus as each new tool joins this wild cacophony.
After a Ten Hour Day in the Middle Santiam Wilderness
For Sarah Eve
After hours swinging the heavy burden of the pick-adz’s
my trapezius, deltoids, & pectoralis majors sing
a tired, lowly song.
My abdominals, triceps brachii, & latissimus dorsi
quaver from time spent
drawing the crosscut, haling teeth through dead
& down western
hemlock. My gastrocnemius & soleus muscles
cramp & knot
from six miles hiking to Iron Mountain at dawn
those feet-weary miles along Gray Wolf River
each afternoon. The workday now
done, I yawn into the deep embrace of this western
white pine’s spine,
my head hushing against rivering bark & move
not one muscle.
These clothes were once wool of
sheep, boll of cotton,
until sewing machines overlocked
these fabrics together.
Workpants mature into holes shined
into knees by the kiss of dirt,
colored by rainbowed chainsaw oil
& the dark bite of gasoline.
This hickory tailored by rivulets of
sweat, logger boots treaded
by dirt, leathered by calloused hands.
These garments wear now like
fur upon the bull of the woods.
The Things We Will Miss Once We Leave Wilderness in a Week
Waking before sky ever imagines it can be other than
a shatter of stars, a nightsong over forest & crew.
A crew rivuleting sweat down dust-darkened faces
as we portage rocks & dead-&-downs,
fatiguing wilderness to trails.
A fire licking back duskiness & transforming a dabble
of water, flour, & oil to golden, then we lift
cast iron lid to bring bread to rapacious mouths.
With wind lying down wherever wind sleeps, we coo
’Night as we crawl into the tents of our lives.
After five months returning to primitive,
we remember that there is no
truth except all things move
from balance to imbalance.
One day [today] we realize that this morning walk
is our last, eight more hours of throwing
soil, a final tool count, later, a final bastard
file worn across a Pulaski’s cheek;
let the edge grow dull tomorrow.
A long list of lasts & finals until we sling
no more dirt, until we birth no more
trail, until we—known for so long only as
family—become you & you & you & me.
Sean Prentiss is the award-winning author of Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, a memoir about Edward Abbey and the search for home. Finding Abbey won the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography, the Utah Book Award for Nonfiction, and the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Biography. It was also a Vermont Book Award and Colorado Book Award finalist.
Prentiss is the series editor for the Bloomsbury Publishing Writers Guide Series. This textbook line includes a variety of forthcoming textbooks all focused around creative writing. Two books, Environmental and Nature Writing: A Craft Guide and Anthology (written by Prentiss) and Poetry: A Craft Guide and Anthology are currently in print and three books are under contract, including Prentiss’s Advanced Creative Nonfiction.
Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (Michigan State University Press), a creative nonfiction craft anthology, and the co-editor of the forthcoming book, The Science of Story: The Brain Behind Creative Nonfiction (Bloomsbury Press).
He and his family live on a small lake in northern Vermont, and he serves as an associate professor at Norwich University and is a faculty member in the M.F.A. Writing and Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Get to know Sean by checking out our exclusive interview with him over on the Orson’s Publishing blog.