Photo by Sandra S. McRae
Beth Franklin, Erica Hoffmeister, Karla Johnson,
Marcia Jones, Donald Levering, Jessy Randall, and Tim Raphael
Marcia Jones, Donald Levering, Jessy Randall, and Tim Raphael
© 2023 Bristlecone
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Bristlecone welcomes poems from writers of the Mountain West region. The editors are especially eager to read poems that reflect the region’s various cultures and landscapes, although we have no restrictions in mind regarding subject matter. Our main concerns are with the quality of the work and the cultivation of a regional community of poets and poetry lovers.
Submissions are accepted year-round. Please adhere to all of the following guidelines:
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The Editors: Joseph Hutchison, Jim Keller, Sandra S. McRae, and Murray Moulding
Ghazal in the Land of Love
In the land of love, my heart got broken,
seven times seven times seven every time.
Scarlet dinner-plate hibiscus, one day alive,
droop, fall to the ground, at evening time.
Stones placed over daughter bones, press mother
and grandmother bones, marking ancestral time.
Worn out typewriter keys craft poem
after poem, beating wildly to love time.
La Malinche, indigenous traitor from pre-colonial time,
transforms to hero, Chicana icon, in post-colonial time.
A wheelchair, four walkers, a radiation mask upside down
on a garage hook, prolong mourning time.
A framed photograph, the groom’s gray tweed suit,
the bride’s white pleated dress, begin a lifetime.
Orange slices, delicately arranged on a blue plate,
first painted with watercolor, then eaten one at a time.
A thin mattress from the hospice bed, tossed
into a red dumpster; a breath taken. Last time.
“A Throw of the Dice”
This last time,
I walk around the ponds a few blocks
from our house, sold and empty.
Until today, a walk taken daily.
A bald eagle rests high on a cottonwood branch,
in undergrowth, geese surround their goslings, protective.
A gray heron, hidden among cattails, stands rigid.
Red-winged blackbirds balance, trilling, on single stalks.
Did you know he smoked waiting for you?
What did you think would happen when you married an older man?
Why are you always with other widows?
The snow dustings on the iced-over ponds invent geometric patterns.
Rabbitbrush sleeps, not yet its late summer yellow.
Fields of blue flax will flower to the left of the path.
Serviceberry, with withered fruit clusters, will bloom purple in June.
I carry my father’s prayer card,
the last line from the Irish blessing soothes:
Until we meet again may God hold you
in the hollow of his hand.
You, drum major extraordinaire,
melodious voice on the human stage of poetry
swing dancer, jiver, string bass jazz musician.
And the quiet you, gazer of trees, rocks and rivers.
Bagpipes. Heard that first time in an Inverness bar.
We stood with the raucous Scottish crowd singing
their beloved Anthem, music played at your final
Celebration of Life.
A photo taken by my oldest friend forty years ago—gifted to me
when she came to say a final goodbye—shows me reading
Mallarme’s “A Throw of the Dice.” Blossoms are
everywhere on my walk.
Why do you write about cancer?
Why do you paint yellow coneflowers on the edge of the river
at the cabin?
Sometimes a Beauty, Sometimes a Beast
“Ask the wild bees what the Druids knew.”
When my mother died, they found
an aerogram written to my Irish-American
grandmother. 20, in Madrid, writing
about discothèque dancing with Spanish
architecture students late into the night,
learning a lot, nice people, thanks for the $10.
A clipping from the Indy Star, quotes me—
Purdue co-ed—questioning her American culture
and values. Aerogram and newspaper clipping,
saved evidence of a mother’s and grandmother’s
pride for a young woman who left home
for distant adventures.
My seven-year-old niece, a Halloween Disney Belle,
revels in her floor-length yellow satin dress,
jeweled tiara, matching gloves, sparkling earrings.
With her mother’s makeup in hand, she requests
a heart crown painted on her forehead. Now tattooed,
the young princess waltzes through the living room.
I paint a watercolor of a green apple with two leaves
casting a shadow on the journal page. I feel
the rounded apple in my body. My dancing niece
grabs the gymnastic rings hanging from the kitchen
ceiling, her backflip turning her princess dress
inside out. Eating an apple, I watch her.
She tells me she loves apples, sliced thin as wafers.
With a somersault she gains momentum,
pausing midair, legs straight up.
I want one-hundred legs
instead of these unreliable two.
A centipede in its stop-sudden mirage of fright
landscaping dandelions for what they are: resilient
medicinal, caught between concrete domesticity and
rebellion entrenched in slow-moving ferality.
I want to be a horror show: my body
amazing in the most traditional definition.
Flowing in rhythmic patterns, tidal, near-
villainous, terrifying those in my path
simply by moving in my strange, alien
existence, earthly existence, scurrying
and parting waves of humanity in my wake
over pavement, through small gardens and
I wonder where centipedes go after the march of terror
commences. I wonder if their families hug with two legs,
or all one hundred. If, like my mother, who needs
all parts of her body to love, they
smother their children with one-hundred
little feet, or hands, or whatever limbs
attach themselves to sectional parts of entity.
My two legs that carry this body: my inability
to move my segments in sync—my self
always twisting from its center, limbs flailing
against harsh concrete, man-
Horror show, dandelion heart. Ordinary.
Someone always mistaking me for a weed.
best laid plans
This is not a poem about the sweet scent of orange blossoms
drifting through bright blue skies of childhood memory,
the soft-petaled magnolia leaves, my mother’s jasmine
This is not about the ocean’s whisper, my salt-stuck curls
or the best breakfast burrito in town
This is not about my appendages ripped from their sockets
and tossed into farther corners of once-possibility, my torso
held hostage against Colorado’s snow drifts
my teenage-era locked door, my mother and I’s shared room,
a year spent mostly sprawled across my best friend’s sofa,
her legs translucent white
This is a poem about a hallway always occupied, the soothing hum
of chaos, park birthday parties filled with cousin-limbs and sibling
jokes: that time my brother drank too much on Halloween, my sisters’ twin giggles,
a knife always at her hip to heat and cauterize my open wounds
my nephew’s curly blonde hair, my mother’s wisdom, a double helix blue
and citrus wax candle to light when this mountain range partition
annexes our connected sky, a tiny flame
held against my chest’s permafrost
It’s when I say that Las Vegas is my favorite city, remember glass shards
sparkling in the street, hands splayed out of fast-driving windows
under a sky that cracks open on a regular Monday morning.
I sprout citrus appendages on tilled soil, a beautiful comeback, an
unremarkable origin story
This is a poem about truth-dreams that ache my bones each night
at 4am, awaken and descend into a disorienting free dive,
the conversation I never had with my husband
hallucinating desert depths
A cataclysmic variable—
binary star systems that merge and rotate into
a death spiral until they explode and die
they must exist together
or not at all
Maid had sloughed out of her starched
white cleanin costume and
white-world stance of
high alert watchin
Babys’ heads were pressed
so the mornin’s style could be
blessed and ready to bear sweat
in worship tomorrow.
Maid’s now home with
sisters at the table tappin
whist cards slappin
raucous freedom boomin
through lit cigs on lips, smoke curlin
up, a cloud of relief from the day.
Sisters were knowin
to be witnessin
the Nordic antics
of the dirtied white rooms of
Sisters at the table
wait she said what
hold up she made you listen to what
for a story from the famous woman’s lair.
Gurl, Maid said to the sisters,
choosing a card and tossin
she was callin
I’m tryna get home
paid time done and feet be achin
and she makin
me stand there and listenin
like she got somethin
Maid’s cig moved from lip to hand for the
spinnin of a
Exactly do they do
Exactly do they do.
Maid now hollerin
on knees and backs
the funny too strong and
laughter too big to do it just sittin
And first exactly.
Exactly do they do.
And first exactly and exactly.
And do they do.
And shee-bee-bop dippity doo
Gurl, Maid said shoutin
over the shared laughin
Ella oughta slap that woman for stealin
and calling it poetry
all she doin
is scat. actin smart but just bullshit spittin.
all still chucklin.
I thought, Maid said, wheezin
I thought, Baby, you need to get off
that stuff. Sisters
But I said, Maid said,
in perfect Nordic form,
I said it sounded important
and made my eyes wide
because ya'll know I ain't tryin
to be losin that one good job.
a sister at the table
of the washerwomen
spoke up, sighin
I sure hope Langston’s right.
The table be quietin,
of Prophet Hughes’ intention
“We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
Friends, I watch your family from the inside out, absorbed.
Here, there are no sneers for children because they exist.
Instead the grownups chat together like a deep breath
Here, the mothers do not pinch your psyche like wet dough and twist
And the fathers do not sit angrily behind
Upright embalming slabs which chill you
Even in passing.
And your family does not indenture me for
Kitchen duty and holding their blame
And you ask me—don’t order me and you don’t get cruel
When I reach demands.
And dishes stay on tables not flung
And laughter is not biting in at my expense
And you go together not make me go in your stead
And I’m asking myself
Car Wash Lullaby
Crystal rain tadpoles twist
upstream, then downstream,
against my windshield.
They curl, sensuous,
all the while watching me
my steering wheel.
Soft suds embrace
the last languid tadpoles
who didn’t escape
in the warning sprinkles.
Bubbles fizzle my car,
hush me in white.
I’m on Jupiter
deep in a marble crater
swathed in solitude
and eerie soap clouds,
a lull before the deluge.
Sudden rush, and elegant drops
drum a staccato of silence.
Silver monsoon meditation
washes worry away.
Could death be like this?
At last, more crystal tadpoles
glide forever downstream,
sparkling under crystal parachutes
in the rinse of letting go.
Wrapped in tangled bedsheets,
tossed and sleepless, she wanders
alone into the night woods.
The first floating notes in C# minor
summon her to still-warm shadows,
restless under the forest canopy.
An ancient square piano ascends
among soaring trees, its burnished body
formed in the forest, from the forest.
Its open lid reflects slender strands
of blue moonlight, its belly brims
with ferns and wild vines.
A flock of nightingales, mysterious
musicians of the dark, slow dances
on worn black and white keys
awakening long-silent notes in an aching
rhythm of tension and release, at once
desperate and joyful—a sonata of healing.
Marcia Jones's poems won awards at national and state levels through the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS). Her poems have appeared in two anthologies: A Flight of Poems (Colorado foothills poets) and All the Lives We’ve Ever Known (Lighthouse Writers). She published her first poetry collection, Only Time, in 2019. Her second collection, Blue Hour, will be out in 2023. She lives in Evergreen, Colorado, where the Rocky Mountains inspire her.
Song of the Carpet Moths
(Man-Moth) regards it as disease he has inherited susceptibility to.
Hearing voices from the wall,
Man-Moth fears he’s gone insane.
Then he reasons such high vibrations
could be the sonar-seek of bats outside
or emanations from a power line.
He reaches up to tweak
the buds of his antennae, and lo,
the signal strengthens, leading him
to the hanging Navajo weaving.
As he moves closer, the signals
resolve to song. Ah ha,
it’s my little cousin carpet moths.
Give me darkness give me dust
and a niche in a slumbering rug
Give me flecks of dried sheep dung
and globules of lanolin
Give me cochineal dye
that turns the wool the same Ganado red
my tiny tongue and feet become
Give me labyrinth of pattern
to chew down to the weft
the dizziness of Whirling Logs
dazzling Crystal and Spider Web
Two Grey Hills interlocking crosses
I love to inch along the pictures
of Yei giants and pollinating corn
munching on these cords of fodder
enough for all my hungry young
The Weight of the Painting
To calculate a price quote for framing, the framer needs to know the weight of the painting.
How could the framer assign grams or ounces to the scintillating effect of the painting’s pastel aura of autumn shrubbery, the way it lifts the viewer off the ground?
See the small building in the background of the painting? How is the painting’s gravitas altered by the addition of this human dwelling? The ochre of adobe is dense with mud’s local lore. How shall he account for the levitation achieved by the roseate tones of sunset reflected in the building’s tiny windows?
Added to the assessment would be the burden of the history of the landscape painting, from the Tang Dynasty’s floaty silk scrolls of misty waterfalls to William Bradford’s scenes of spouting whales and ice-locked schooners, to Helen Frankenthaler’s flattened landscapes of pansies (what is the heft of her petals?). All these scenes behind the painting must be added to its total gravity.
This calculation would be incomplete without the sway of the critics’ weighing in on the painting. Their hot air plus the weight of public opinion may loft the painter to a moon-walk domain of celebrity, or consign her to the lead-footed realm of public indifference.
Nor can the framer ignore the background boulder that seems to lift off the ground. With its luminous lichens, it is as buoyant as if it were afloat in a salty sea.
Luckily, the price does not include the weight of the neural cloud of imagination about the painter as she worked. Like a cumulus cloud of water vapor, this mental image of the painting must weigh hundreds of thousands of tons but must be discounted from the framer’s fee.
After a diptych by Jane Shoenfeld
When you wake you check your fingers to see
if they’ve turned into ten long sticks
of colored chalk as you just dreamed.
Instead of the dream’s sidewalk, the paper
on one side of your easel starts to scintillate
with flecks from your pastel sticks,
colors nearly bright enough to sear
an optic nerve as you sketch a figure
that quickly grows into a woman
whose mane is a spectrum spray,
whose face an electric seraph’s,
whose voice reverberates like hive-thrum.
* * *
On the other panel, Grandfather
Sitka Spruce is lying down.
A trillium blooms from his chin.
Toadstools and lichen claim his face.
Carpenter ants haul his heartwood
to their potlatch. His needles
become banana-slug meal,
his voice, receding thunder.
His supine totem pole is hollowed
into a canoe that glides you back
sadly to your own casketed grandfather
among banks of overpowering mums.
After a watercolor by Susan List
Dusk on the lagoon like a burner’s gas light.
A hermit’s quietude flickers in the last light.
Twilight slides with earth’s rotation into night.
Old heartache turns me toward this “Last Light.”
Magenta spreads through the gloaming firmament.
Bats and moths and swallows stir in the last light.
Trappings come unmoored, habitual views disperse.
Glimpses of infinity scatter in last light.
Loose photon jubilee, cumulus hosannas.
Memory, time, and distance fuse in last light.
Donald’s eyes rise to the fontanelle of sky.
Love of spectrums of the dusk in List’s “Last Light.”
Not Checking Messages
[stolen french fry form*]
from not checking
messages that I
[* The stolen french fry is a poetry form I invented based on the number of fries I stole from Price Strobridge and Ashley Crockett at the Poetry West Writers Retreat in Crestone, Colorado, May 2015. I made five thefts of fries, stealing first 1, then 1 again, then 3, then 3 again, then 2. The stolen french fry is therefore a five-line poem with word counts of 1, 1, 3, 3, 2. As far as I know, “Not Checking Messages” is the only poem ever written in stolen french fry form, but perhaps that could change.]
The trouble begins
when I give bunchgrass a sway
or suggest stones kneel at sunrise,
as if they have something to say about this mesa,
its vantage distinct from morning everywhere.
Better I report unadorned the exact angle of the slope,
how it frames the valley below,
allow the fields to be green, leave riotous out.
A valley of green fields is enough.
Except then the mesa rolls from shadow to sun,
blinks itself awake and slips
into its polka dot juniper dress
in time to spot the owlets learning to fly “on owl-silent wings.”
They’ve fledged but not far from the cliff face,
loitering on a dead branch
in sight of the ledge
where they were born.
Not yet horned or hardened,
one stares back at me like a downy moon,
its face ringed in a winter halo of white feathers,
as if a July snow is on the way.
Flecks of bone, like flakes, are scattered below the nest,
the white mandible of a mouse or mole, bits of leg bone and spine,
a tooth. I’ve interrupted something.
two owlets motionless
save the slow swivel of their famous heads.
Harvester ants a few feet away begin their Sisyphean day,
and I’m tempted to describe them as cheerful—
a pep in their steps up their cartoon volcanoes.
But why try to pin a mood on an ant?
The soil softened by heavy dew.
The soil itself more pebble than dirt.
Is your eye drawn like mine to the dark crevices,
a gash of dry streambed running down the slope,
where I almost will a coyote onto the page?
Omitting the distant hum of State Road 75,
I linger instead on the blue of the sky,
leave out the sweat, my skin already wet,
8 AM and the urge to say something,
do something beyond witness.
No, I am not a reliable ally,
I don’t tell it all,
deny you the scent of after-rain,
ignore the stab of goathead.
Today, it’s the absence of swallows and jays,
no bunches of blue birds in the juniper.
No birdsong calling Lightnin’ Hopkins—
Baby please don’t go Baby please don’t go
The blues scale I practice over & over.
Each note in its place, but O, elusive swing,
somewhere out there,
out beyond the metronome,
where every coyote is a gift,
and daybreak’s refrain is here
We know each other first by our dogs—
walking our road, I see Tipsy
the cattle dog, dragging her dead leg
like a grub hoe & I know Stan will appear
in long slow strides, knit cap on cold mornings.
Scout runs ahead in sniffed greeting,
& when Stan pulls even, we trade a few words
about his garlic crop, about Kate & the kids
& keep moving—he east, me west.
Stan’s unwritten list of loss
is longer than mine & includes his wife
Rosemary, whom I never met,
yet he just hauled a Model A back from Nebraska,
convinced he can find a transmission
& get it back on the road.
Kate had only been half joking
about our own dead truck when she told the seller,
We’ll take the house if you throw in the truck,
as if we had a choice, grass hiding
the airless tires of the Dodge,
a ’49 flatbed with perfect patina
of autumn rust & blue, as if someone
had sanded dead leaves & sky into fender
& door, dignity in the rotted bed boards
& side rails that once held stacks
of apple crates or firewood—the kind of truck
you’d hop in or on if someone was headed to town,
bouncing over the pitted road when
there was still a bar & gas station, maybe
a kid taking a turn at the wheel. Now
the bench seat is all springs but the chrome
is like new, the Art Deco ram on the hood
ready to charge up valley to the snow on Jicarita Peak.
The sign Kate painted & hung at our gate says
Blue Truck, not Blue Truck Farm—
we have less than a hundred whipple beans
in the ground, assorted beds of zinnias
& cosmos, three rows of wine grapes,
a few apple, pear & plum trees, bush cherries,
a lone apricot & only three hens after
I forgot to latch the coop one night.
Farm is a big word when nothing
is sold and what’s canned or put up
doesn’t fill a pantry shelf,
& farmer may require even more—
a few generations buried
in Father Kuppers’ cemetery, callused hands
like Stan’s that no longer crack in the cold,
a knack for knowing whether clouds gathering
in furrowed rows will bring a soaking rain.
this town has everything it has it all this town except curbs
curbs & sidewalks but this town has everything else no curbs like the ones
in the last town with its paved streets & shaded sidewalks & town dogs
on leashes no leashes in this town this town without a police force no police
no movie theater oh & no barber shop no salons for people or dogs
no tourist bureau with directions to the post office or the Battle
of Embudo Pass or the tree where Harbert’s honeybees swarmed last year
no big muddy river that’s the other town this town has hardly stream enough
for beavers & kingfishers who meet on the banks because there’s no convention
center either but this town has icy canyon roads sopapillas & a past like
& unlike your town & the snow is starting to fly & knock down
the last of the cottonwood leaves & this town looks back & ahead but mostly
is busy today with Clarence’s funeral & keeping kindling dry as though this town
is a protest without slogans that fit on banners a treatise of half-baked
tenets & no ultimatum this sawdust-scented town this town with everything