The Outdoor Poet: Charles Atkinson

The inaugural installation of The Outdoor Poet features three poems from Charles Atkinson, recipient of numerous awards including the American Book Series award, the Stanford Prize and the Emily Dickinson Award.

The Outdoor Poet is edited by Robert Sward, author of multiple books of poetry including, most recently, New and Selected Poems: 1957-2011 (Red Hen Press). He lives on the Westside with his wife, artist Gloria Alford, and a poodle mix named Collette. Participation in The Outdoor Poet is by invitation.

First Storm Watch

for a grandchild

Rollers crest a hundred yards out there,
break, re-gather in the mocha apron,
rear up maybe ten times your height and
pound down on the beach—what’s left of it—
shake the sand like shelling you don’t know.

Redwood stumps, bucked-up fir, cottonwood
spars roll in surf; any would crush you.
Thousands of gulls wheel over what’s been churned,
ravening clamor that makes you scream back at
so much appetite, raw, unslaked.

Waves whip a tan froth against
the seawall, pile it higher than your head—
drifts that twitch in the gale, tear off as
foam creatures tumbling down the beach—
“Run, run!” you’re shrieking. All our ghosts.

Mud-choked creek carves its way through sand,
floats a buoy—no, a pumpkin!—seaward.
Next wave flings it a hundred yards upstream,
sucks it back again—a slow-motion
shatter. Urgent, coaxing, you toddle beside it.

Sand’s blown over the seawall. In the crust
flotsam beckons, a toppled barrel of trash—
twisted winking sharps. Here’s where I
scoop you up; someday you’ll see. But never
curb your zest for the wild, the gamble, the world.

After Wildfire

New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur

The floor of hell could look like this: chalky
orange clay, exploded rock, black stumps.
Shredded pine roots from a ‘dozer’s firebreak.
Thousands of silent acres charred, inert.

Not a leaf on the hillside—till you kneel
in dirt: bindweed tendril, bracken nubs,
poison oak’s buds bronze in the ash. Why are
the noxious always most eager, first to return?

Beside the chapel, wren so quick to change
direction on a twig, faster than the eye:
now east—bald ridge—now west—the sheer Pacific—
intent on aphids from a potted rose.

Rain slides down an iron chain from eave
to ground, a rusty rippled sleeve. Each link
a wavering lens that frames the bell tower—
tiny silver towers stacked to the gutter.

Matins for the Mystery—blaze, vine,
bug, bird. They eddy out the chapel,
tufts of milkweed floss shaken loose
by wind, seeds above bare ground.

Salinas Valley Pastoral

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
no more water, the fire next time.

—plantation song

These folks know arroyos, savor the chaparral
on horseback, deer and turkey they hunt and smoke.
Side-by-side they sandbag the cresting river,
dig each other from the earthquake’s rubble,
fence and plant their parents’ graves with roses,
drive to church and hear what they believe.

Gunshop owners, taxidermists, ranchers,
Farm Bureau men. Grandkids all need guns;
fossils in the fields (proves Noah’s flood);
the homeless need to help themselves
(build a shelter and they’ll never leave);
pollution helps the drought (it seeds the clouds).

Spring jade on the hillsides, river easing its
load of silt and discharge toward the Bay.
Mile-long row of berries picked by noon—
compliant men and women, pennies a box.
No olive leaf, no dove. Overhead
a rainbow. Above it, a second, its colors inverted.

Biographical Note Charles Atkinson’s first collection, The Only Cure I Know (San Diego Poets Press), received the American Book Series award for poetry; a chapbook, The Best of Us on Fire, won the Wayland Press competition. A third volume, Because We Are Men, was awarded the Sow’s Ear Poetry Prize. His most recent collection is Fossil Honey, from Hummingbird Press. He has also received the Stanford Prize, the Comstock Review Prize, the Paumanok Poetry Award (SUNY Farmingdale), the Emily Dickinson Award (Universities West Press) and The Ledge Poetry Prize.