Bill Tremblay is a poet and novelist. His work has appeared in nine full-length volumes including Crying in the Cheap Seats (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971), The Anarchist Heart (New York: New Rivers Press, 1977). Home Front (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 1978), Second Sun: New & Selected Poems (L’Epervier Press, 1985), Duhamel: Ideas of Order in Little Canada (BOA Editions, 2016), Rainstorm Over the Alphabet (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2011), Shooting Script: Door of Fire (Cheney, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2003) which won the Colorado Book Award, as wells as Magician’s Hat: Poems on the Life and Art of David Alfaro Siqueiros (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2013), and most recently Walks Along the Ditch: Poems (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2016).
He has received fellowships and awards from the NEA, the NEH, the Fulbright Commission, and the Corporation at Yaddo. His work has been featured in many anthologies, including Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and Poets of the New American West. He directed the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Colorado State University, founded the Colorado Review and served as its chief editor for fifteen years. He received the John F. Stern Distinguished Professor Award in 2004. He is the author of a novel, The June Rise (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1994/Fulcrum Publishing, 2002), which received a star review on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” A video of him reading poetry with Yusef Komunyakaa is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir2c5r0XRP0.
Janis Joplin & the Invention of Barbed Wire
All morning gray flints of wind shoot
down from the foothills across the horse pasture
behind my house. Tumbleweed hard as coral
bangs against the lapboard, scratching at window-panes
with the quilled fingers of caged men.
I see them on porches after supper
listening to wind pour over the grasslands,
their minds spinning and creaking like windmills
drawing waters up from underground.
This range full of unsettling music
and they, bright wingtips of sinful kisses,
sagebrush burning on lips of prairie night
waiting for avenging thunderheads.
They will string wire on cottonwood stakes,
draw squares on the land’s pure curve
and at dusk return, asking nothing of their wives
but to bank fires and lay down in cactus beds
while they go dying, meteors in the whiskey town.
A woman stomps rhythm there in gold shoes
shouting ‘get it while you can’ through the fence
that owns her voice. She dies giving birth,
flowers of Texas darkness still pinned to her dress.
I pluck barbed wire, singing with the wind.
Clouds rush by like herds of ghost buffalo.
First published in Delirium # 1 (Spring, 1976); subsequently in The Anarchist Heart (New York: New Rivers Press, 1977).
THE LOST BOY
Across the Poudre River bridge
stands a stone monument to a lost boy.
Carved words fix the mystery. Did
he wander off, or was he carried off
by tooth or talon? Family, friends,
searched the mountainside calling his
name. The weather turned. Sleet, wind,
snow in slants across the ponderosas.
He blacked out under the canyon’s
Milky Way. I hear his cries in
echoing arroyos. Though his bones
mouldered in cold drizzle he comes
crashing through wild plum thickets
clutching at my shirt, asking where I was
in his sagebrush hours. Through his
ripped jacket a flash of bone. I dare not
touch his skeletal shoulder. He’s forgotten
how to be alive. The climb is no relief,
his weight dogs my knees. Breezes
sough through purple yarrow aspen groves,
dry waterfalls. I reach the cloud meadows,
hairpin switchback until Mount
Grayrock juts its granite forehead into
one hard thought: what remains unfinished
in the soul keeps doubling back
until earth and sky are balanced aches
like the cliff swallow’s swift flight.
First published in Luna #4; subsequently in Best American Poems: 2003, Ed. Yusef Komunyakaa (New York: Scribner, 2003). Collected in Rainstorm Over the Alphabet (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2001).
To be a street lamp
giving off a globe of cold
cadmium light to a cul-de-sac
is to make an opening in the sleepless dark
through which comfort pours
like a fountain, inviting those who enter
to imagine underground cables
connecting to the Rawhide Flats power plant
twenty miles north which turns
black coal into this sentinel
that only wants to shine
on the flat brows of houses
held in the winter murk of what passers-by
feel is locked, yet promising,
a dream that leaves them
reaching into the tense within,
that lets them go past this made
thing of glass and incandescing
wire, this tree of light
with the face of a small god
standing between dusk and dawn,
weary from making another false
day, blotting out the stars
and the spindrift darkness inside.
First published in The Ohio Review (Spring 1992); subsequently in Rainstorm Over the Alphabet (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2001).
I crunch through crusted snow
west on snowshoes along the ditch.
Winged clouds stand pearl white above
the foothills ridged in lodge pole pine
that summers ago blazed orange
in swirling dragons from tree to tree.
The sky shifts from silence to chartreuse.
A breeze in flocked box elders shimmers
flakes down on a hump of crystal, a frosted
apparition the size of a yearling sheep.
We look at one another a long moment.
I can’t tell if she’s afraid or hungry. What
do I look like to her? A walking stump?
I turn east where the ditch divides into
stubble cornfields. A minute passes
before her black nose sticks out from
a juniper bush. She must’ve crossed ice,
run behind and past me, quiet as fog,
calm yet curious about another animal
abroad in the same winter hunting
different sustenance. She and I fade inside
blizzard / winds so cold my lips crack.
She writes herself in my breath. I hold
her like part of myself I hardly ever see.
First published in Stringtown (Spring 2016); subsequently in Walks Along the Ditch: Poems. (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press:, 2016).
The Larimer-Weld Ditch
You hand in your keys, and it’s over.
Thirty-three years and a gold watch.
You walk outside and all is green shade
against the immense wrinkles of foothills
crowned with blue reflected in water,
an hour-glass running out so smooth
you wonder if there’s time to clear your
soul of debris before the ditch rider lowers
the sluice-gate to release the spring flow.
A narrow sparkling in sun and moon split
off into a canal that runs on like a sentence
to rolling plains, yet pooled where black
clouds of catfish spawn shift shape like
a bluebird flock into peaches or whales,
flexing and relaxing its soft current caressed
by dragonflies in July with Japanese fans
serenaded on a mother-of-pearl concertina
in the hands of a poet flush with warm beer.
It can be walked along and sat beside
and read as its surface gets clawed by bear|
clouds that make muscles bloom, sinews
stretch, the world and the earth it lives on.
No breeze in still August yet the water
is dimpled with swirling whirlpools like a long
row of Sufis spinning light from their balance.
Time to open up and let heaven through.
You are alone with your memories carrying
every regret you don’t forgive yourself for beside
this water course that curves in wildflower banks.
You walk all afternoon watching darkness
rise to devour the trees and things go on—
cities of people, their flashes and flaws,
the many things they make that own them,
the burden of what comes next. Nail-guns fasten;
wrecking balls swing. Nations find provocations
for drums. It’s a miracle you don’t stumble
down a banking into the drink.
You imagine yourself drawn through a flaming
womb, a coffee can filled with your ashes buried by
an apple tree with the Medal of Worthy Owls
you lusted for stamped on your memorial bench
posthumously, but you are beyond victory
or defeat. You are flecks of carbon settling on
branches and leaves, lifting and falling in
the dark beside a soft trickling from low falls,
the ditch as tongue, as film stock, as Milky Way.
Time to ponder what is of the earth, what is
of the world, what is of heaven. Perhaps
the Sumerians learned to write from trenching
ditches in the earth with picks and shovels
and white-lathered horses, the song of it
a struck tuning-fork in the mind that reminds us
that change is hard, change takes time.
Walks Along the Ditch: Poems (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2016).
Sitting in an afternoon mountain meadow,
rabbit brush at my feet, floating in a lake of
purple bee balm, 6000 feet. I’m reading
the syntax of wild plum bushes, angel-wing
cactus opening canary-yellow waxed flowers,
white asters. 86 June 1st degrees.
These waters are not for telling the future.
They are for plumbing the deep silence,
except for three Stellar-jays calling,
keeping touch across a deep arroyo
tumbling down to a five-mile reservoir
blue as a piece of sky fallen between the hogbacks.
Like a long white streak on a mask
the creek bubbles down to where a rattlesnake
lisps on its banks. Water is life for snakes to sip.
They know every animal must go there
not just to drink. A spirit lives there.
I spell out words to the pool, stones and trees.
Tall weeds with nine yellow mullein stalks
rock in a breeze local as shadows from passing clouds
with grey sandals, sunlight, the holy thistle fields.
What does not come with the air?
It stretches the ponderosas into its cycle,
dropping seeds, the seam between seasons.
Whoever eats these seeds inherits the earth.
Walks Along the Ditch: Poems (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2016).
What I Learned About Wyoming
That a broken robin’s egg contains
more archeology than a petroglyph.
That nurses learn to tell which relative
won’t let the dying die. That when
the lake surface is the same color
as the sky is the right time to fish.
That thunderstorms iron dusty roads.
That deer know when it’s hunting season.
That as we kill off species we name
streets after them. That living in Wyoming
in winter is a form of meditation.
That its open steppes give everywhere
to run and nowhere to hide from the things
we do when cabin fever drives us loopy.
That clouds reflected in a horse’s eyes
are like smoke boiling from a borrow-pit fire.
That everything you need to know is
right there out your back kitchen window.
That blood and death are the sun’s two eyes.
That love is a kind of fear when night skies
bleed over rooftops like octopus ink.
That the reintroduction of wolves has
stirred the wildness of married women.
First published in Louisiana Review (Summer 2005). Subsequently in Walks Along the Ditch: Poems (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2016).
Evening brings news of families
turned to dust by something called a drone.
We see it speed through air from its point-of-view—
people dancing at an open-air wedding—
a quick, final slip and then the black plume.
I walk along the ditch trying to divine
what tempts a man to trigger such a weapon.
Small eddies dimple the water’s clear depths.
Sharp rocks litter the bottom and make these
swirls into bomb craters where once a wedding
party danced. Mirrored on this surface, shark-
toothed clouds linger over the invisible line where
foothills spring into hogbacks, bristling with pine.
On the bank a goose stands sentinel.
He has seen me before I him.
Another, half-way down the banking strips
grass seed, one eye peeled for crouching foxes.
A flotilla of Canada geese drifts east where dark comes first,
masters of the ditch in whose wings six fuzzy yellow
goslings float, one of whom,
caught in current, is far wide of the flock.
Three mothers pump webbed feet until they form a line
past which the prodigal cannot go.
All tolled maybe forty geese.
Forty years. Maybe forty days. No matter
the dispensation, they are stars in the dark rift.
First published in Walks Along the Ditch: Poems (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2016). Subsequently in Relative Wild, Ed. Arron A. Abeyta (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).
A Day Without Ambition
Gray-white gulls, green-necked mallards.
armadas of Canada geese bob in the swells,
then wing their dozens into blue skies
above Long Pond, each to its mission
among bare cottonwoods or turquoise water.
My eye traces the horizon down Bonner Peak.
Everything visible and invisible, each moment
passing through me.
Must I give up
ambition to align myself with this radiance?
Can I hollow myself out so heaven can charge
through my body? And what if I should be
deluding myself? A rising breeze ripples my surface.
The soul lives in everything that sees us as fact.
Nothing lacking, no props needed on such a day.
Sure, the freight train horn is horrid
as it slams northward toward Cheyenne,
but a sumac’s crimson fruit hangs above
the water’s face like someone leaning down
from sky to kiss me. Shadows re-knit what
is broken. I don’t need to get somewhere.
I need to stay awhile and watch birds launch
themselves out of my chest into the air.
First published in Walks Along the Ditch: Poems (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2016).
Where The Ashes Go
Gold light enters through a line of cottonwoods
winking as leaves shiver in rising breezes.
Snow that frosted Long’s Peak this morning
has disappeared from mid-October sun
just as now a sunset darkening shadow
turns the ditch water the color of wild plums.
A boy on a bicycle pumps along the dirt road,
his red dog wags its tail, and soon they pass
out of sight heading east toward coming
moonrise, the heron’s slow wings lifting it
west where along the trail to Arthur’s Rock
a meadow of blown bee balm waits for me.
First published in New Poets of the American West, ed. Lowell Jaegar. (Kalispel, MT: Many Voices Press, 2010). Subsequently in Walks Along the Ditch: Poems (Spokane, WA: Lynx House Press, 2016).
Copyright 2018 by Bill Tremblay