Castalia                                                                                                               —Alison Hawthorne Deming


during my darkest grief the forest
was like an open sea birch trees
the beacon I used to steady my position

my brain felt at home among
saplings that tangle seeking light
that part of the soul Aristotle thought

we held common with plants
days and weeks cutting trail
at first moving three feet

through thicket then ten then
deeper into black spruce
bow saw and clippers

slung on my back like
Diana's quiver trying to sense
how the path should rise

past cobble and copse
into high fern meadow
and beyond into balsam fir

towering so high they make
beneath them a living room
of reindeer moss and fungi

woods long worked by men
timbers and fieldstones
oxen-hauled downhill even

the skins of island houses
cloaked with fish scale
of cedar shingles cut here

where hardly a cedar tree
can be seen so fruitful
were those times of building

the Greeks had a way to speak
about depth so that each spring
had a name and history

and a supplicant had a place
to go to beg for wisdom
or healing or a song to make

that part of the soul
held in common with song
feel at home North Head

Seal Cove Dark Harbour
do well for singing but
every place needs its Castalia

where older thought
emerges like steam
from vents in a caldera


the island lies under a pall
of cold rain sea churlish
and aluminum gray

white caps slapping
horizon dissolved
no edge just one waving

continuity of libidinous water
two bald eagles feed along shore
rain means nothing to them

cold means nothing to them
fish mean everything
the birds rise from below the long bank

return to woods their wings
sated and slow gulls wobble
their wings at home in raucous

air the birds know where
they're going which may be
nowhere but they keep going

because that is what
their bodies are made to do
rain means something

to mosses they puff up
put on velvet suits and shine
like green carpet movie stars

rain means something
to mushrooms each cap
smaller than a push pin

constellations forming
overnight the forest floor
lighting up from below

rain means something to deer
they lie down in fern meadows
under tall birches it means

nothing but cold to lobstermen
who motor out haul traps
dawn and dusk rain means something

to songbirds who clam up
when it starts and when it stops
renew their lease on songful sky


thwack of the driver as it slams
sledge against stake
to anchor the weir stakes

men working on floating raft
rhythmic thunks
as they breach ocean floor

birch saplings lashed for top posts
evening the boats come
home the bay silken calm

wisps of fog drift over
brittle grass pheasant
swift robin even gulls

tuck their cold feet
under downy bellies
glide toward sleep

Alison Hawthorne Deming

Alison Hawthorne Deming’s new poetry collection Stairway to Heaven, including the poem “Castalia,” will be out in September from Penguin. Her most recent nonfiction book is Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed 2014). Recipient of a 2015–16 Guggenheim Fellowship, she is Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in Environment and Social Justice and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona.

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© 2016