by Heather Altfeld

Letter to Levis from Winnemucca Lake

If there is only one world,
does it have to be this one,
that vacillates between memory

and latrine, mercy
and shore, desire
and frailty, shipwrecks

and slicks, flight and madness?
All of the new countries
have turned to angry stone,

and the continents have loosened
and drifted into the sea, captained
by legions of children, the only real mariners

of justice. The granite splits open
to let out its dead, and they heave through
the lake with tomahawks and awls,

stopping for picnics of retribution.
Sometimes I lie awake at night
thinking of all the things I love,

and all the ways they can go wrong—
how easily my girls could become
wisps of smoke quick as wings,

how the island of my love’s body
could drift so quickly into the uncertain ocean
of age. It is a terrible way to pretend

to sleep, traveling every old road like a tinker,
with a suitcase full of powdery detergent,
with a mouth full of dried bread.

The grey mountain light follows me again
to the junction of shade and dust,
bathing me in its toxins—

and yet, perhaps it is not really poison
pocking my coat,
but only the rain,

the rain I used to love
and bare my wrists to, when water
was still a surprise behind the Jeffery pines

and crappies flipped
beneath the dark clouds,
and the riverbed was not yet dried or pruny;

still a discernible fold in the map,
a bend beyond the bend, made entirely of light.



When he blinked forth from the caul
into the pitchy blackness of the storm,
they took him and hurled him
over and over into the raging creek
dipping his screams into the current
where even the salmon tumbled in sleep
and birds quivered in their damp nests.
The first lip of his world was this crash,
and his heart caught hold of a rock
and stayed there, laced with ice.
They called him Snowdrop, like the purple runt
that edges its way out of mud in March,
like the icicles that formed on his toes
as they pulled him, finally, from the water,
frosted and screaming, a trinket glinting
with all of the bright new terror that had passed,
and what was, of course, to come.

In Stephen Powers’ 1877 Tribes of California, reference is made to a small military party that went in search of the Yahi two years after a massacre of whites near Chico, CA, led by two squaws. During the snowy night, one of the women gave birth, and the accounts of this incident note that the women carried the baby to the creek during the squall.


Beautiful Massacre

Perhaps this is the moment
when you are deciding whether to be
the type of girl who oysters up
inside the covers while the sun butters

the fields outside, or the kind who will press
forward into the certainty of light—
and if I knew which sort you wanted to be
then I would know how to really talk with you,

so I could tell you that the world is impossibly full
of music and departure, that the unassailable darkness
is falling constantly upon us; even the marzipan pig

still stoic in your dresser drawer is dreaming
of becoming a red little bee, and the birdcherries
flowering in the spring snows
of Russian films as the reel chirps

into every available midnight
can sometimes, somehow, flutter into your hair
and become the stars that make the sky
want you to live. Because inside every jenny

there is a violet breaking through the rocks,
inside every cricket there is the tremor of song
and the click of a brother whose body was broken
by a boot—so until his wee ghost rises up over us

to rub his forewings and cantor his hymn
through the trees, how will I know
if you will still be here to wear last winter’s woolens
or gather tea roses for the table? The poet Weiss

tells us that the body needs fright, darkness,
and wind—watching you is like standing
in a hurricane as the poppies blurr
beneath my feet and shattered bones
below grow wooden in the black loam.
I have to imagine that the massacre
your salty battered body and your bruised soft heart
are enduring is, as the soldier outside Jaffa Gate
once told me over a cigarette
of men killing men in the fields,

beautiful—that just below
the tired soil and the faint layer of silt,
your life is raging, fierce, abundant.

Heather Altfeld’s first book, The Disappearing Theatre, won the Poets at Work Book Prize, selected by Stephen Dunn. Her poems appear in Narrative Magazine, Pleiades, ZYZZYVA, Poetry Northwest, and others. She won the 2015 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry with Nimrod International Journal. She lives in Northern California.