By: Vicki Graham

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Vicki Graham lives in two places, each offering its own gifts, from the pasque flowers of the Minnesota prairie to the spotted sandpipers of the southern Oregon coastal rivers. Author of three collections of poetry, Alembic (finalist for the Minnesota Book Award), The Tenderness of Bees, and The Hummingbird’s Tongue, she has been writer in residence at the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest as part of the Long-Term Ecological Reflections Project and writer/witness of clear cutting at Shotpouch Creek as part of the Spring Creek Project, OSU, Oregon. She is recently retired from the University of Minnesota, Morris, where she taught English, Creative Writing, and Environmental Studies. Her writing springs from a reverence for the beauty of the earth and a desire to know and to protect all living things.


Joy silk. Loss a knot.
Metaphor, like paint or stone,
a medium: the pen’s black threads
tangle, untangle. A heron’s cry
breaks the night, wakes desire.

Learn to love what is broken,
but first touch what remains:
the wiry hairs of beard lichen,
the willow leaf’s satin,
the hazelnut’s beaked husks.
Part the petals of the nootka rose
as tenderly as the bee in mid-summer.
Lick the pollen grains
from the fingertip. Taste honey.

And remember:
even the cleistogamous flowers
of the evergreen violet
must break to release their seeds.


Here, where wind blows upriver
fingering the water’s silks,
and willow leaves shimmer
green white green white
like eyes opening and shutting
in the sun; here, where dragonflies
skim on transparent wings
and the merganser herds
her brood of ducklings
into an eddy; here
it is impossible not to say
the wild is tender.

Look: caddisflies walk under water
in gem-studded sheathes.
Needle thin fish flash between pebbles
in the shallows. A spotted sandpiper
scrapes a nest in gravel.

And mid-winter when the river
floods, topples firs from hillsides,
jams logs against boulders, breaks
the willow’s fingerhold on cobble,
is the wild not tender?

If the sun’s gentlest touch
on a willow leaf is not love,
if the river’s hardest thrust
of water on rock is not love,
if to set down roots, wind deep
in cobble, clutch stone,
withstand flood, bend and whirl
then spring free of the water’s grasp
is not love, what is?

Look: wind turns willow leaves
in the sun, green white green
white green, and the caddisfly slips
from its underwater casque,
spreads four diaphanous wings,
unfolds in sunlight.


Flicker: shadow and leaf
change places and a tiny green frog
steadies in your palm.
Stay still. Study the golden eyes,
the black eye stripes,
and the long brown lines
running down legs and back.
Look how the sword fern’s sori
grow in two neat rows
of brown on green. Look again
at the frog’s legs.

How long before this frog
takes on the color of your hand?
How long before you take on
the color of tree frog and fern,
cedar and Douglas fir?

Watch him breathe.
Feel the soft pulse.
Flicker. Shadow and leaf
change places. All day
the print of the tree frog
sings in your palm.

One Bird

Three days after the storm,
the river flows molten jade,
curling white over boulders.
Logs jam willows
swept flat by flood
and coyote brush clings,
roots twisted and torn,
to scoured stones,

but still the great blue
wades the shallows,
following step by step
the ragged shoreline.
Bill poised, ready to strike,
it listens, then lifts
in one long slow sweep
of wings from the gravel bar.

Perched high, it preens,
combing and combing
with beak and claw the fluid plumes,
a ritual of oil and powder down,
cleansing soiled feathers,
smoothing and realigning
the interlocking barbs.

One bird, one ancient dance
forever renewed, can rivet
stone and sky, water and earth
together again.
Today, it is the great blue
with its golden eyes,
pectinate claw, and S-curled neck.
Tomorrow, the kingfisher’s ratchet
or the water ouzel’s song.

No End

Wind plays with water, laps light
into a chaos of color, then stills.

Each molt of the dragonfly’s larva
brings it closer to the sky.

Yes, the river says. Yes, yes, yes,
laughing over stone.

No end to beauty.
It bends the heart, tunes the sinews
until the whole body is poised,
Aeolian harp, ready for wind.

Sing this, the river says,
laughing over stone.
Sing this, this, this.