Photo by Sandra S. McRae
Frank H. Coons, Lew Forester, Amy Wray Irish,
Susan Marsh, Jerry Smaldone, Jared Smith, and Sarah Wolbach
Susan Marsh, Jerry Smaldone, Jared Smith, and Sarah Wolbach
© 2023 Bristlecone
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.
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The Editors: Joseph Hutchison, Jim Keller, Sandra S. McRae, and Murray Moulding
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
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.
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
Marshall Creek Fire
Boulder County, 2021
gust along the foothills,
dry grasses bent
like the penitent to their knees—
a chaos of clanging windchimes,
rolling through streets,
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,
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
in the flats. Then you stumbled,
you broke, you fell
into shatter. Now
you lie in the sand,
old man, old glass
My nerves shiver
the fall, the slant
Why not avalanche,
scrape flesh to the bone?
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.