Richard Shelton saguaros 


What do these mountains want?
Why do they rearrange themselves
and move silently closer at night?
They never sleep.
Sometimes I shout at them
that I am not afraid
and they absorb my voice.
Dawn comes to them from another country,
speaking a foreign tongue
to which they pay no attention.


I am faded by the moon
like pale nocturnal stones.
I come alive in the soft light of darkness.
The road extends a thin white hand
to lead me back. I cross it quickly
and move on through the desert.
Tonight I hear
the oriental voices
of coyotes
as if they have just learned
that they were not supposed to be born.
They wail against silence,
and these constant stars
are more than anyone can bear
for very long.


Just after sunset
bats lurch through the sky
as if on broken wings.
Their voices are tiny and pitiful,
their faces masks of pain.
It is a ceremony
which causes the moon to rise.


A tarantula lurches down the pale road
which he believes
was built for his convenience.
He loves to travel and is
untroubled by ideas
of time or destination.


Skeletons of saguaros
stand in amazement long after death
while the moon changes them
into designs of light and shadow
and their gray ribs
hold the wind in a dark circle
where it cries and circles
circles and cries.


Night in this desert
is a great glass bell.
I have shouted against its walls
and there was no echo,
but the gods of Sonora heard me.
They sleep until the earth cools
Then they walk down from the mountains
and shaggy-headed cholla
go to meet them.
I have never seen
the place where they meet,
but it is near.


After years of being watched
and listened to
I have learned to pray dark prayers.
Now I can anticipate
the scream of a rabbit,
and night birds fly through me
as if I were a shadow
thrown by the moon
over these faded stones.


The crow sits
on the stump of a blasted mesquite
where lightning has been.
He worships the god of fire
whose color is black.
He is aware of his sleek beauty
and slender yellow legs.


In this desert
each stone has its own name
and no two have the same name.
When I stand
between my shadow and the moon
I hear their unborn children
pushing up through dry sand.
I hear the firm clenching
of claws on branches
where birds sleep,
and I am aware of rabbits
listening for the shadow of an owl
whose eyes are always perfect circles.
No one knows what causes
lights which wander on the mountains
nor why certain shadows
have no agents.
It is more worthwhile
to contemplate the cholla's
luminous blond hair
or study night's great jeweled belly
for signs of dawn.


I came to this desert
from the north
where the god of water
lives in a silent blue house.
Now I am walking in the morning
and rain hangs from the sky.
I do not know this trail
nor where I am going, I see brightness lying down.


The voice of these mountains
is above the voice of thunder
and below the voice of the grasshopper.
They sing about a blue stone
whose home is in the south
and a black stone
whose home is in the north.
They sing about the shell
of many colors in the west
and the white shell
in the east.


Seven years ago I found these stones and built a wall.
Now they are climbing down,
slowly sorting themselves
into families and going home.
Neither time nor distance
can discourage them,
and since I have seen
their subtle movements
I would not try to stop them.
Watching stones for seven years
has taught me little,
but it is enough.
And I am no longer
afraid of the saguaros.
They are overgrown children
swinging their arms,
grinning stupidly.
In the spring each wears
a large white flower on its head.
Their great green hearts are gentle,
and tiny owls nest in their eyes.


What were the lizards
before they shrank?
Were they huge monsters
or gods with fringed mouths?
Or were they both?
I have asked them many times
and they are always too sleepy
to answer. But in that second
before the film of sleep
comes over their eyes
I see the cold memory
of an earlier world below,
without sun or moon.
Their tiny arthritic hands
stretch out on warm stone.
They sleep. I will not stand
between them and the sun.


Tonight when I wade
through rivers of cold air
in black arroyos
the coyotes will be still
and listen.
The white coyote is good
and the yellow coyote is bad,
but each owl is the same owl
and all are holy.


Now dark cloud and his younger brother
let the rain downas a curtain.
May it be happy behind me.
The yellow snake will protect me
and be my messenger.
She will take my prayer quickly
to the gods of the western mountains.
May it be happy in front of me.
In the early light
saguaros climb single file
to meet me.
Each carries bird's nests and flowers
and each holds securely
in his huge fists
the fragile life lines
of tiny spiders who ride the wind.
May it be happy on either side of me.
I walk with a god behind me.
I walk with a god in front of me.
I walk with a god on either side of me.


The mountain which moves is holy.
As it turns around
it draws all things to it.
It draws the clouds and birds.
They circle around it.
Soon the rain hides it.
A handsome man comes out of the rain
wearing a necklace of white shells.
The light from his necklace
flashes over the world.
His eyes are black as the rain cloud.
His teeth are white as shells.
He is silent and draws the clouds to him.
In one hand he carries a branch
of dark spruce. With the other
he sprinkles pollen before him
over the wet ground.


I go to the Woman Who Changes.
Her sister leads me
with a white shell in her hand.
In the evening it will rain.
All night it will rain.
In the morning I will smell wild onions.
My song is short because I know so much.

From Selected Poems 1969 - 1981 by Richard Shelton, © 1982 Richard Shelton. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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