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Published: Thu Apr 15 1999
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
from Earthway


If you want to change your life
_          burn down your house
_     _ Before we left for the beach

Ronna took off her rings
_           _placing them on the basin
_     _ with the rest of her possessions

the hot offshore winds
_           _meant it was warm and cool
_     _ as we waded on the wet sand

through the agitated air
_           _a day that was just right
_     _ Ronna rehearsing her solemn

procession up the aisle
_           _one arm crooked up
_     _ on her imaginary father’s

the other with an imaginary bouquet
_           _surrounded by frisbees
_     _ a day happy enough

to forgive one’s own karma
_           _forget that of others
_     _ under a blue sky

which as we returned
_           _over the Devil’s Slide
_     _ was divided like a flag

half blue half ominous black
_           _the dense smoke a message
_     _ to speed home

over the Bay Bridge
_           _to the miles-wide storm cloud
_     _ fringed with dots of flame

increasing in darkness
_           _until it was almost night
_     _ headlights the flashing emergency

warning our freeway was CLOSED
_           _towards the house where
_     _ (we did not yet know this)

Cherry our unsuspecting
_           _house-mate from Taiwan
_     _ had just narrowly escaped

through a burning rain
_           _of eucalyptus leaves
_     _ with no more than her stuffed bear

and a few yards up the street
_           _eight people burned to death
_     _ rivulets of metal

from their melted cars
_           _over the burned asphalt
      We were the last to make it through

we heard from one survivor
_           _who had jumped in the back
_     _ of a stranger’s pick-up

in the hushed exchanges
_           _as we waited for coffee
_     _ next morning at the bed-and-breakfast

with nothing to do that day
_           but to tell our tales
_      (the woman two doors down

had loaded her car to the roof
          and now it was too late
     to go back inside

and find her car keys)
_           _that were only fragments
_     _ The fourth afternoon

we were taken there
_           _in an Oakland police car
_     _ a wreath where our neighbor died

and the thick layer of ash
_           (Could this be all our books?
     the stove? the refrigerator?_

the two sets of china?)
_           _as unpossessed
_     _ as the Huron potsherds

in the black corner of an autumn field
_           _the burnt tiles of that Roman villa —
_     _ impossible to explain this

hard just to keep in mind
_           _that we all must die
_     _ In a bravura gesture

of letting-go
_           _Ronna took out her key
_     _ and threw it back to the Devas

we were driven away
_           _the three of us crying
_     _ like ancient warriors

or pre-adolescents
_           _dry sobs that since
_     _ have come back in therapy

divorce my mother’s death
_           _choked us that week
_     _ at each glimpse of the naked hillside

as labile as children
_           who have not yet the illusion
_      we are in control

dazzled and shattered in turn
_           _by the ominous beauty
_     _ of say a sunset under rainclouds

from which it was a relief
_           to go back to teaching
_      Pound’s tears at Pisa

watching the spider at work
          the tent-peg’s moving shadow
     the moon through laundry

to the nine-through-fiveness
_           _of a twentieth century
_     _ the unassailable defenses

of a presentational self
_           _as if in one week
_     _ we had lived two different ages

two habits of living
_           _irreconcilable
_     _ except when caught off guard

my cheek unexpectedly wet
_           _from reading in the Chronicle
_     _ of Tibetan prayer wheels

on the hillside
planted where homes had been

See what's inside AGNI 49

Peter Dale Scott is a writer, researcher, and emeritus English Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Crossing Borders: Selected Shorter Poems appeared in November 1994. Together with Czesław Miłosz, he has translated the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. (1999)

“An Interview with Peter Dale Scott” by David Gewanter appeared in AGNI 31/32.

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