Monday, April 3, 2023

BRISTLECONE | March 2023

Photo of Bristlecone Pine on Mount Blue Sky

         Photo by Sandra S. McRae

Poems by

Frank H. Coons, Lew Forester, Amy Wray Irish,
Susan Marsh, Jerry Smaldone, Jared Smith, and Sarah Wolbach

© 2023 Bristlecone

Click here to download this issue as a PDF


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:

  • Submit 3 to 5 unpublished poems in a single Word attachment (no poems in the body of an email) to: Submissions with more than 5 poems will not be considered.
  • Poems posted on blogs and social media are considered published. Simultaneous submissions are fine as long as you let us know right away if the work is accepted elsewhere.
  • Use a header on at least the first page of your submission that includes your:
    • Name as you wish it to appear in the journal
    • Mailing address
    • Email address
    • Phone number
    • Website address (if you have one)
    • Phone number
  • Submission should be in .doc or .docx file format (no .rtf or .pdf)
  • Times New Roman 12 pt. font—titles in bold and not all caps
  • Flush left alignment except for drop-lines, internal spaces within lines, and any other special formatting your poem requires
  • 100-word maximum bio at the end of the submission; same guideline for translator bio(s). Feel free to provide live links to your website.

After publication, all rights revert to the individual Bristlecone authors. We consider simultaneous submissions but please let us know immediately if something you’ve submitted to us has been accepted elsewhere.

The Editors: Joseph Hutchison, Jim Keller, Sandra S. McRae, and Murray Moulding

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Frank H. Coons

Like Atheists

Walking across Spain
we spent many nights
in various rooms from
sub-pedestrian to palatial.

But it was after
a particularly hard day—
eighteen miles of hills
and vales, hungry and half lost,
we finally found our
pre-booked accommodations.

To our surprise, a convent,
where a stern holy mother led 
us to two very narrow beds
separated by Christ
on his cross, a New Testament
on the desk—

as if to excise any unsavory
temptations. Crisp white sheets
severely folded over anemic
mattresses, the entire atmosphere
the opposite of ostentatious.

And all night, the saints
kept their vigil, ready
to catalogue the most venial
of sins, prepared to intervene,
should the devil appear.

So we woke unrefreshed,
backs stiff, consciences
clean, though ready 

also to confess that if this
is what Jesus requires,
we’d rather sleep like atheists.



Where It Started

Every estuary
     is an amalgam
          of half-salted water—
               a brackish broth
that harbors the unfinished
     including you and I
          just now wading knee-deep
               eyeing an endless horizon
aware this might just be
     where it all started
          when those lonely elements:
                carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, etcetera,
gathered under a willing sun
     to become a living something—
          holy admixture and eureka!
               And here we are the unfinished specimens



Frank H. Coons is a poet and veterinarian. He lives with his wife who, somehow, still puts up with him after almost 47 years. His two daughters and three grandchildren live close enough that he can bother them frequently. He is the author of three books of poetry, both published by Lithic Press. His first book, Finding Cassiopeia, published in 2014, was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. His second book, Counting in Dog Years was published in 2016. His work has appeared in CaesuraEvening Street Press, Plainsongs, Pensive Journal, Santa Fe Literary Review, Pacific Review, Pudding and elsewhere. He was nominated for a Pushcart prize in 2019.


This work is dedicated to my two daughters, Allison and Lindsay, and my three grandchildren, Madeline, Cameron, and Cole. They continue to be an endless source of inspiration.

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Lew Forester

Augury of Ash

Marshall Creek Fire
Boulder County, 2021

Premonitory winds 
gust along the foothills,
dry grasses bent
like the penitent to their knees— 

a chaos of clanging windchimes,
tumbleweed trashcans 
rolling through streets, 
apparitions riding 
the playground swings.

Arid fields ignite, fanned into 
a blizzard of smoke & ember 
occulting suburbia, devouring
over a thousand dwellings—

homes once envied 
reduced to basements, 
concrete-lined graves 
of smoldering memory 
the displaced sift through,

as old prophecies  
about a warming world
begin to be absorbed
like wet snow falling
on ashes, too late.



Bird Paparazzi

Boots crunching ice, we walk through the fog
our words make  

while a hawk claws at a frigid blue sky.

We startle a whitetail deer, treading
the western edge of its habitat, 

then encounter a group of birdwatchers
wearing camouflage. They wrestle with tripods
and lenses big as dinner plates,

attempting to capture a migration of waxwings.

Fluent in their language, you chat with them
while I think of the ravens

I watched the day before, invading the perimeter
of my house, staring through windows, 
fouling the walkways.



Wheels Roll

across miles of Colorado highway
Craig to Elk Springs to Dinosaur
through sagebrush & juniper & rangeland 
the rolling freeze-thaw road paved 
over Ute Indian trails & dinosaur bones
over white man buried promises
no one ahead or behind for miles
& miles rolling free 
as the subconscious
the interstate an inner state
like the woman sitting alone 
in a café in Craig        
coffee in trembling hands     
hair like threshed wheat
hollow eyes verging on tears
should have offered her an ear
talked of flight & freedom 
in the broken lines 
& the lightness of leavings 
left behind
though leave your demons 
in the dust & your angels 
might stay back too
while the windshield carnage continues
the guts and wings of flights concluded
under clouds like gauze 
over landscapes sutured by barbed wire
with ghostly mirage    
blurred parallel lines
converging in the distance
while the Beatles’ Long & Winding Road
beams down from space through speakers 
& you ponder where next 
to go in this life 
besides down the highway
& into the vanishing 



Lew Forester is a social worker who lives in Arvada, Colorado, base for his frequent hikes in the Rocky Mountains. The author of Dialogues with Light (Orchard Street Press, 2019), Lew’s poems have appeared in Atlanta Review, Main Street Rag, Blue Mountain Review, Sky Island Journal, Pinyon, Plainsongs, POEM, Slipstream, The MacGuffin and other journals, magazines and anthologies.

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Amy Wray Irish

The Educational Exhibit

at the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, AZ

Sleek predator, poquito tigrillo, spotted hunter 
of the Sonora and primo del jaguar
why are you on display? A sign
at your enclosure says “Ocelot Entrance”
but not Endangered. Are you in need
of protection? Or just held captive in a space
that copycats habitat, plays pretend?  

Your signage claims you may live twenty years, 
preserved in the museum’s embrace. 
That’s 7,000 days and nights of vigilant eyes 
focused on release from your “natural” state.

Peering in at your penitentiary, it’s clear 
where declawed paws have paced those walls
with grace, rápidamente, again and again.
The earth laid bare from motion. Your sign
points the way for entry but never escape. And
feigns education, describing zoology but never
your zoo. Yet you are educational—look how much

I learn from your sanctuary, your cage.



The Ritual of Washed Hands

after Kora in Hell: "Improvisations II,"
by William Carlos Williams

If you are like me—a window-washer, 
poet, or other philosopher—with life’s filth 
fouling your glass every morning 

you would never return to the critical work 
of clearing the dirty accumulation of night,
without first cleansing yourself

of all that dug-up grave soil, keeping
even your cuticles spotless clean
with an altar cloth or scrap of haiku.

And when you hang your just-washed hands 
from the ceiling to dry, you cannot secretly
keep hold of broken glass or ripped cloth shreds. 

Really! How can you expect an untainted
trickle of light to find and follow you
through the gritty pane of this existence

like that—But come, let us pause 
together in reflected skyscraper light
along our precarious catwalk.  

One must be strengthened, prepared
for much before our hands
are tuned to these frequencies of purity.

You see, there is the oil slick
of the world forever spilling
between us, and we must become holy

as the translucent glass catching sun
before we can handle the stunned bird—
before our hands can meet.



When the Door Is Closed in My Face

The arid moonscapes of my empty walls
rise before me. Dented and pitted from the pierce
of pressed-deep tacks, ripped-out nails,
long-forgotten photos, discarded art—

But I find there a constellation of pockmarks.
I find a bouquet of flowering craters. 
I find a spiderweb of cracks connecting,
weaving a lacy curtain to hold back the beyond. 

And I find a tracery of wrinkles gracing
the snow-dusted face of my future.
I find a Himalayan range of white rising
in peak after peak of possibility. 

I find there a Rorschach of such intricate
artistry, revealing such beauty within
me, that I know any closed doors or enclosing 
walls can never hold me captive—never

call me abandoned or void—again.


Amy Wray Irish grew up near Chicago, received her MFA from Notre Dame, then fled the Midwest for Colorado sunshine. Irish was recently selected as the winner of the Poetry Mesa Chapbook Contest, judged by Judyth Hill. Her manuscript Down to the Bone will be published in 2023. Her 2020 chapbook Breathing Fire, winner of the Fledge Competition, is still available at Or read more of her work at

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Susan Marsh

My Wyoming

The dominant color is wind.
A sky smudged with dust,
Strands of barbed wire 
Humming the hues of light: 
Azure, denim, sand, 
Tawny buckskin tan, the soft
Gray shadow of a shadow.

Here is the day’s delicate beginning
Clouds mixing like ink on the horizon
As sun gilds the interior
Of a weathered windowless shed.



Come See

The frozen fist of winter has lost its grip
Snowmelt trickles through its open fingers.  
It stares into its hand, amazed. Aspens weave 
nets of mist across the mountainside.
Come see, they bid. Come see.

The sky spins mare’s-tails on a wild warm wind  
water pours headlong, glorious in its rush
silence is silenced by a cacophony of life.
The patch of earth beside this log is dry
dabs of color beckon. Come see.

A buttercup’s green hands embrace a yellow globe
hail-dense drifts of turkey-peas erupt 
from warming leaf mold. Elegant steer’s head 
conjured from bare earth, blooms under the pines 
gone before April softens into May.  

I want to call my friends in distant urban places, 
draw their attention from greening lawns, from 
quince and cherry blossoms. The mud has thawed, 
the buttercups are out this morning, I will say.  
No greater miracle than this: come see.



Susan Marsh lives in Jackson, Wyoming. Her non-fiction has been published in Orion, North American Review, Deep Wild Journal, Fourth Genre, and in many anthologies. Among her books are an award-winning novel, War Creek, and ten non-fiction books, including A Hunger for High Country and Saving Wyoming’s Hoback, winner of the Wallace Stegner Prize in Environmental Humanities. Her poetry chapbook This Earth Has Been Too Generous was published in 2022. She writes the column “Back to Nature” for Mountain Journal.



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Jerry Smaldone


Dick took a drag off his Marlboro and tried to exhale.
He was sitting on the porch, waiting for the sun to go down,
waiting to die.

He had stage 10 cancer and enough other stuff to kill a horse.
A big ol’ warhorse, more like a workhorse, pulling a wagon,
pulling a plow.

Now it was coming to an end, and he thought of all he’d done.
The farm in Ioway, a stint in the Navy, the precision of the
machine shops, winding bike rides in the mountains and
hunting with his boys.

He was alone now, Rosie gone two years.
He was proud of how he’d cared for her,
the love of his life, unable to breathe.

That first time he walked in the Ramblin’ Rose
and saw her behind the bar.
How she trusted him, wanted him 
in her hard-headed, independent way.

Yeah, he was alone, but the girls, his stepdaughters, 
came by to check on him and bring him dinner once in a while.
He had decided to do the right thing and let the family know.
Maybe somebody would want the guns he hadn’t used in years,
the bike he couldn’t ride, the truck. Somebody’d want the truck.

He thought how he would miss sitting here, watching the neighbors,
young ones pushing trikes and wagons full of impossibly cute kids,
old ones limping around small gardens of vibrant jewels,
some he hardly knew, who’d come by for a casual talk
as word had spread down the block.

He eyes teared up as they rose to the blurry trees and clouds 
and everchanging sky.
A perfect still life it was, life that is, with just the right amount of pain 
and joy to wake you up and raise you to a higher place. And then 
something lit up inside his head and he realized that was it.

We had to be lifted up to get to heaven, all of us,
we had to lose this wasted, worn flesh, to see who we really were.
We had to put on a body of shining light to enter the illuminated world.

Dick lit another smoke and took a swig of beer.
The air was clean today, sweet as your first breath.



When Jerry Smaldone is not advising top-tier thinkers on how to physically, spiritually and financially survive the coming global holocaust/ascension into the 5th dimension, he is getting beat up by numerous grandchildren. Numerous books are waiting impatiently to be published by anybody other than the author.

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Jared Smith

Watching a Downy Woodpecker

I’m watching a downy woodpecker
silhouetted against storm clouds on
the highest branch of an ancient elm
tilting to the wind, sharpening beak
against fluid bark and pausing, then
picking what it finds into its mouth
jostling its feathers as the clouds 
themselves are jostled against cloud.
What does it hope to find so far above
the ground where beetles burrow freely?
Perhaps one or two tired stringy grubs
within a stalk too thin to hold them
yet hanging on, they too small and cold.

I must go on and like that tuft of feather
tend to the little things I cannot catch
or keep for any length of time.  The
messages of lovers, family, friends
that tie me to the world I love. I look
at my investments in the future, my
meager means of tying thoughts to
whatever it is that meets us at this time.
This is my job: making skin-tight marks
on paper as my sister falls dead across
the country, where she sifted tax returns
and handed out the government doles
to those who could no longer work,
one Administration to the next and next,
a long gray highway of U.S. dreamers.

It is too cold to walk the fields today,
the winds too turbulent and I too small
and dark, too feebly feathered to fly
holding only what I can.



Within the Shadows of Invisible

There are no deer in the side yard this morning,
stepping out from the tall winter grasses
on silent feet, nibbling the buds from groundcover,
looking toward our window, ears raised quizzically,
knowing we are here but not why or what we are,
sensing danger in the midst of our kindness,
fading back into the landscape from which they come.

This is a wide, deep forest where the trees grow close,
so squeezed together they shiver in winter’s wind
rather than standing tall and strong against it,
their trunks and branches rubbing against each other,
hands and eyes tangled against the clouds.

This is a forest filled with invisible animals
that take their meals from the sun and shadow
and go uncounted about their time among us.
This is the forest unkempt, unlogged, pressing
against the cities undrawn by architects, un-
lived in within the shadows of invisible.



Jared Smith lived in Colorado for many years until last summer and still retains ownership of two primitive log cabins in Roosevelt National Forest. His sixteenth volume of poetry, A Sphere Encased in Fires and Life, will be released by New York Quarterly Books in May of 2023. Jared has served on the editorial boards of New York Quarterly Magazine, Home Planet News, The Pedestal Magazine, and Turtle Island Quarterly, and has hundreds of publications in journals and anthologies in the US and abroad. His first grandson will be born in Colorado in April of 2023. Hurrah!!

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Sarah Wolbach

Anniversary Hike in the Sangre de Cristos

Lost in the woods after missing the sign 
with a curving arrow advising us of the trail,
we wander for hours unthreaded 
from the needle of direction. 

I grip a sharp stone in my right hand,
binoculars in my left. I will break a skull 
if I have to, of a mountain lion, most likely, 
for we find paw prints in patches of November snow.

Sometimes you fathom how vulnerable you are
among the indifferent atoms of living things
and dead things. I set love aside for survival,
follow you cautiously into the forest’s maw.

The light dims, becomes shadow-light.
The particles of the intimate boundary 
between light and dark separate,
and in a split second the forest disappears,

becomes dark as a cavern after the candle
is snuffed out. Eyes useless, feet lost
underneath us. We hold cold hands, pull 
in different directions. The forest growls.


Killing Time in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

I choose a bad restaurant for no good reason.
The huevos rancheros are made with greasy
eggs and stale tortillas smothered 
with lukewarm red chile. 
The coffee is hot, brown water in a chipped 

cup. At the next table sits a family of three—

two teenage parents and a baby the parents 

pass back and forth across the table along 

with a cell phone and a salt shaker. 
The ease of it. 

While you lay dying in my arms, I murmured 

“love is everything” over and over. I wish 
I had said only “I love you”—less 

complicated. When did you say, “I am not 

happy”? It was an interminable day of bad 

choices. With each flavorless bite, I try

to forgive myself and love you more. 
I will be back tomorrow.



We used to say we’d hike 
    up Bear Canyon to Atalaya, 
        have a picnic.   

Now I hesitate 
   to step from flat
        to slant     to crumble

and you are gone.
   In my youth, 
      in my seven-league boots,

I leapt from boulder 
   to boulder
      over slits and chasms

over gaping mouths 
   of caves. I lit 
      fires with my boots. 

I walked over water 
    on needle-thin planks. I fell 
      but did not break.

But I dwindled
    with you, meandered 
        too long

in the flats. Then you stumbled,
      you broke, you fell 
             into shatter. Now 

you lie in the sand,
     old man, old glass 
         changing color.

My nerves shiver
   the fall, the slant 
        of shale. 

Why not avalanche,
    scrape flesh to the bone?
       Why not 

slip from a bridge
      and see where I land?
          I might skip 

across water, might sink 
      into sand. But if 
          I must drown, why not

drown happy? I plan to be wild:
   Up-fall into darkness, 
       become a bright stone.



After receiving her MFA and a postgraduate fellowship from the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin, Sarah Wolbach moved to Mexico, where she led poetry workshops for expatriates and taught English to the employees of a mushroom factory. After leaving Mexico, she lived for several years in New York City. She is the author of two chapbooks, and her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Artful Dodge, Borderlands, Cimarron Review, Comstock Review, Fixed and Free Anthology, Peregrine, Pilgrimage Magazine, Santa Fe Literary Review, Snakeskin, Wild Roof Journal, Yalobusha Review, and others. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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