Cover art: Meadowlark
Artist: Christopher Shotola-Hardt
I’ve been to Oregon one time; I only saw the bookstores and restaurants of one city. Which is to say, Harney and Columbia Counties and Hebo aren’t places I’ve known, and yet Idiom: The Oregon Poems fully captures my attention with its vivid depiction of rural America and with its sassy rough-edged language that alerts me to the honesty of Merridawn Duckler’s explorations. We travel with Duckler as she wanders the counties and back roads and further enter with her into Idiom’s central philosophical question of who can and who does belong. In poems like “Hebo, Oregon” we find “the beauty / of a brown barn on a country road, in sunlight, before fields / of such green and living grasses as our sleep is composed of / when we are in the dream of metaphor,” and throughout Idiom we see the landscape’s hawk and bear and elk and salmon, the honor system at produce stands, beers one might holster and barrels to sight from. We’re shown women who look like women, “curved as nature” or with hair, “beautiful hair, black as a braided stream.” Men are on the make in this world of poverty and industry and age. From the first images of “Harney County Pastorale” the world’s natural beauty, “Striated vegetation in colors from the early last century / flak-jacket yellow, mustard grasses over the red blanket dirt,” is already marred by “godawful human habitation”: “barrels / dripping a mineral fuck up while a bad idea for a dog / barks in frantic jerks.” In this and other poems, Duckler suggests to me that if humans were to build a “world, as Auden says, ‘exactly to our liking’” that it might exist only as dream. She asks does the “over-intellectualized Jew,” the city sister, the wanderers, the displaced, or really any human belong in this landscape?
While Duckler is cognizant of humans as destroyers, she also gives us the vision of humans as natural and beautiful as stream or clouds. The only child is miraculum, object of wonder, and hope, whom all things, “Wild strawberry, fireweed, the quail” “cling to . . . dreaming of being your brother and sister.” Duckler’s language and imagery bring us fully into a beautiful and ruined world. If we recognize that “Everything ends but not everything begins,” what might we do but pray as the sun offers another day? Or as another poem tells us, “no one goes to church” but “they see god daily in the fields and hollows.” Finally, she affirms, “we do belong here, sister, / because we are all strangers, all of us emigre” and “all of us temporary on the land / of peoples who deeply understood no ownership survives.” These “Oregon Poems” sing for us all.
Table of Contents
Harney County Pastorale
Everything ends, but not everything begins
Color blind men named the west
Harney County Pastorale
Striated vegetation in colors from the early last century
flak-jacket yellow, mustard grasses over the red blanket dirt.
All the prettiest places have the most
godawful human habitation, bombed trailers, barrels
dripping a mineral fuck up while a bad idea for a dog
barks in frantic jerks.
A hawk or some great bird
spans the quadrant in dark half-circles.
Go down to Burns; step into neon so ugly
it’s like the comfort of a sob. Here, with the face of your lapsed aunt,
a guy says: “In Harney County all guns are like fifty-years-old
and have been stolen at least once.”
as he tries to holster a beer and buy one for a woman,
“Look at her hair. She got beautiful hair, that Indian girl.”
Damn, he’s right, as the piss settles in your glass.
Long, beautiful hair, black as a braided stream
under clouds moving like a watch.
impartial trucks on my tail we spin off a dirt lane
where Oregon elk in distant smudged herds
this dozen so close we see the lump putty
of their backs their starlet stroll in low grass
hills darker than a moment ago blew the dried stalk
into fires of tail light, the chiaroscuro great horned
do bear their candelabra heads in mist garlands
eye or barrel pointed at the hundreds here
circa Columbia County, place called Never Still Road
Everything ends, but not everything begins
When the sun drops
it’s a rout, a slam,
outside the park, inside the lines,
no contested down, nightfall. But what brings day?
“If you keep looking, it’ll never come,”
my family liked to say, in unison,
as charcoal city lights lost their margins
to reveal the night-covered oak on the river, a visible fact.
The sky went gray unnoticed, like a loved one’s
beard. Moon backed away
as I tried to remember the chip name
that matches that color, but while my eyes
were shielded not only the oak tree
but the very leaves on the ground
grew clear in outline as cat paws.
And all at once—how did this happen?—
conceived before it was written;
astronomical, nautical, civil, bright,
it was day.
And the cocoon for new lovers
and those at the bedside of the dying,
fragile slice of the long passage,
had come and gone. Dawn.
Let us pray.
Color blind men named the west
or maybe these mountains were once blue
like the women in that dump bar we went to,
between nowhere and Pendleton
swishing their imaginary skirt like a cockatoo,
crazy legs akimbo,
raised hands as funk
bites into the shoulder strap
licks the back hollow where maybe a tat flicker
were they younger
but here, forty, fifty, nothing is as incisive
as that walking bass.
Mother waited to be asked for,
these daughters of neon need no invitation
to glitter paw, a little detailed toework
or a big, swinging windmill of arms.
Mindful of Descartes first meditation,
they come down the peaks
tumble into the first place found,
this crap hole with a loud band;
with the true names of mountains tucked in their smokes
whisper them to each other at work,
tear away the hairnet
curls fall free
and leave the men blue, only blue.
You are son and daughter;
the first, and the last.
It is your signature season, summer,
when the world is plenty,
blood red tomatoes thick in vines
and deep green apples on hard stems
in the pioneer orchard.
You walk the field
between your mother and father
a firefly, illumine and self-contained.
Wild strawberry, fireweed,
the quail call in the cloistered miraculum,
all things cling to you,
dreaming of being your brother and sister
you are one on one
the sun your constellation.
Liberation comes to all things;
hawk floats above you
a shadow of your wings.
First you dreamed you cut my hair
then made me watch some video of a Russian
cutting a woman’s hair with an axe—
so, what exactly are you trying to tell me?
And when I looked up what does it mean
to dream of cutting someone’s hair
there were only dumb ass ideas about loss of power
and a lazy conflating with Delilah,
furthermore, these interpretations were for dreams
where a person cuts their own hair
which I have heard used as a metaphor
regarding why we writers need an editor,
or it’s like cutting your own hair—
though in dreams, the editor sleeps.
On this topic, I brooded, and nothing satisfied me
because I was awake while others dreamt.
And in my insomnia, I turned to read up about Hebo, Oregon
population 213, most with a HS degree or higher,
widely white, some mixed, not poor, not rich except in sunsets,
median age is 73.4, which makes us all young and only 23.9%
feel bad about themselves says the website
I’m reading all this information from
(who the hell compiles these things!)
most skew straight and in Hebo lives a single sex offender
who cries at night, where others see his light on;
I made that one up but not the fact that
gums are mostly healthy here, elevation is 77 feet
the commonest names are George and Helen,
sleep averages 6.8 hours and with each sunrise
comes the promise of a new day; news is brief and terse
from Happy Hollow and almost the same number (89.4%)
are married as don’t go to any damn church
since they see god daily in the fields and hollows,
the wind over the fields like a great hand;
very few come from anywhere and fewer still want to leave.
business is mainly retail and none of yours.
And you might ask what am I to Hebo? Or he to me
(if cities are men) my own sister doesn’t know
why we were born here, in Oregon, it seems the oddest place
for broody, over intellectualized Jews
stateless Litvak’s who fled Mother Russia,
(a nation that’s for sure a woman)
where they show the videos of successful axe
hair stylists but keep the unsuccessful ones
in a government vault. Why end up here
we who average 3.2 sleepless hours a night
over what dreams really mean?
So, sis packed off to a pied-a-terre in NYC
while you and I fly through Hebo
until I said stop and what was that
and we did stop, since I was the driver and backed up
to a dusty drive where 73.4-year-old’s walk
purposefully out in full sun to get the mail,
we rolled all the way back, looking this way and that
because I’d seen a farm stand
inside the open gate of a brown old barn
with an ox red door where wild flowers, foxglove, tassel rue
and black-eyed Susan bloomed in the bed
of a Radio Flyer, next to a gold wicker chair
with a white embroidered pillow as a seat
and a table with cloth of blue and purple pears
holding a porcelain metal tub, the kind with an ink black rim,
full of more flowers such as common yarrow
deep pink farewell-to-spring and neon green hairy manzanita
all beside a wind and rain weathered
metal shed and a dangling sign that said Pie
said Fruit said Summer said No Childhood but this One
Keep Dogs in Vehicle because heaven needs dogs and cars intact.
We got out of our dog-less car in a dream
of Hebo, off highway twenty-something,
I didn’t have all the statistics at hand then
but could tell we had brought the population to 215
and the Jewish population to 2. Sure, we wanted pie
but so much more was at stake. Inside the barn a delicious
coolness prevailed and pay was on the honor system
a system broken down in the rest of the country then
but as alive in Hebo, as you and I, staggering under the beauty
of a brown barn on a country road, in sunlight, before fields
of such green and living grasses as our sleep is composed of
when we are in the dream of metaphor,
where we have mind built a world, as Auden says, “exactly to our liking.”
On the table were baskets of berries, some black as a bear eye
others red as his maw. There were green cartons of beans
and salmon that had a day before been swimming in blunt
survival and would survive, on our tongues. Behind the table
stood a woman who looked like a woman, curved as nature
with a round, open, smiling face and I had to tease her,
saying: I am only here to monitor the pie purchases
which made her laugh, because yes, that is a woman’s job
and I would have said anything to make her laugh again.
She had on a pretty top and a prettier skirt, even though no one
goes to church in Hebo; yet the church comes to them, Sunday
at the farm stand, in a revelation of first fruits.
You gazed hungrily at pies in which the calorie count
was high, but then again so was the love.
And we wanted to buy everything: the yarrow,
the berries, the tracks where a dog lay
outside the car, the old baler leaned onto wood,
the blouse of the woman
her laugh, which was a full body itself, her eye shine
the empty pews in her, the honor system, the wind
that waved the foxglove in stately nods
as if we had all the money in the world
as if our median income was infinite as stars.
Now you think I will return to that hair
since all illogic is circular
and don’t worry I am going to
but the beauty of that farm stand had not cleared in me like a check
but bounced along with us for miles. I took
and posted a picture but inside me was another picture
in berry-stained voice, that showed we do belong here, sister,
because we are all strangers, all of us emigre
to Oregon as Montaigne said of some monks “they are in the world
but not of it” I don’t even know if it was Montaigne,
but it sounds like him, all of us temporary on the land
of peoples who deeply understood no ownership survives
only fields feed, winds nourish,
nature kills, revives and dissipates and returns,
I take everything for granted at the same time I know it will vanish
on that valance, I stake my life, on the analyzable dream.
Before sleep, moments run through my fingers like grain in a silo
and I keep Hebo running in the background,
which takes up a great deal of power
And sister, who is city as they come
represents berries in my half-dream of her red-vamped heels,
in her jewels, which are actually her eyes
(don’t tell her that) and the pert snap of her words
that bring a delicious coolness to our fevered romance
gallerist, moralist, bleak Jewish beauty
of the diaspora, which means to scatter seeds
who is a much more careful driver
and secret chronicler of all original twinship.
Not one to stop in a spray of gravel
on the empty, suspicious roads here or ever
yet stands in ruined dreams beside my memory of the farm stand
everyone hopes will be attended by good Christian folk
but instead get crashed by tossed Jews who read
rolling under night covers, saying, love, I am
trying to understand the world’s deadly beautification,
so that I might stop rolling this open road
and sleep, which sis said takes out the day’s garbage
but in motes reveals the single near-invisible strand
against the inevitable and most final timbre of the axe.
Merridawn Duckler is a writer from Portland, Oregon and the author of INTERSTATE, dancing girl press. Her poetry has been published and anthologized. Her fiction has been published and awards include Wigleaf Top 50 and a Sozoplo Fiction Fellowship finalist. Residencies and scholarships: Yaddo, Squaw Valley, Southampton Poetry Conference, Post Graduate Writers Conference in Vermont, the Bertha Anolic Visual Arts Fellowship to Israel, Poets on the Coast and the Horned Dorset Writers residency in playwrighting. She’s an editor at Narrative and the philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.