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Three Poems from Washington State, Part II

The second of a five-part series featuring poetry by Washington State writers, with each poem influenced by our state’s people, places, and culture. The poems are excerpted from a new anthology, WA129.

  • July 19, 2017
  • |
  • Poetry
  • |
  • By Kathleen Flenniken / Tom Robbins / Catherine Alice Michaelis

Recital in B Reactor

Kathleen Flenniken


Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, October 2, 2016

To take its measure—

the 40-foot high graphite core,
Panel-lit pressure gauges and thermocouples
in each of 2,004 process tubes,
Galvanometers and Beckman meters,
cold-water manifolds, pile-discharge chutes,

zones of impact and comparative aftermaths,
40,000 to 80,000 dead,
permanent shadows burned into Nagasaki’s streets,
kimono patterns into long-ago skin—

a choir of 24 human voices sing,
24 lit faces
set against the old reactor’s looming front face—
an intricately-wrought mathematics
become an engineered and finely-milled altarpiece—

        Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis
        Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis
        Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem

petitioning the Lamb of God for peace and mercy
with mounting fervor until
with a sweep of the director’s arms
they cease.

In the sudden suspended rest
of Barber’s Agnus Dei measure 53,
we find not the silence we expect
but the reverberations of B Reactor
like an ancient cathedral speaking:

What humankind has made here
is mightier than all your breath.


Stick Indians

Tom Robbins


You’ll never really see them
and there’s nothing left behind
to identify them in the labs
of DNA.
And that footprint beneath your window
where in the night you saw a shadow
of a shadow of a shadow on the pane?
Just a heron with a gimpy leg
or some scarecrow run away
to search for love.

When the owl suddenly freezes
on its perch atop the fir,
little ears cocked like nacho chips
waiting for the cheese,
you yourself will listen hard
but only hear a scratching,
a clawing and a rasping
of the wind that wants to jimmy
your locked door.

It’s said they’re a tribe of hermits
(whoever heard of such a thing?),
professors from the university
of mud.
On paths of old mischief
they steal down from the hills,
bird nests for moccasins,
broken twigs like scratchy vowels
spelling out their names.

While anthropology prays for day
to break and bring an end to nights
it can’t explain.
you have to ask, “Where are they
then, and are they any different
from the rain?”

Well, they seem to have an interest
in all the things you do
when you suspect no one
is around.

And somehow you know they’re out there
beyond the porch light’s reach,
in the brambles,
in the hedge,
out behind the woodpile
where they certainly appear
to feel at home.

You imagine them raw and willowy,
you picture them splintered and dry,
you imagine them witch brooms
come to life.
But no matter how you picture them
or joke that they’re your friends,
you can’t begin to grasp the shtik
of stick.

The Stick Indian casino
is in your skull
—and you’ve already lost.


Ozette Beach

Catherine Alice Michaelis


I came for the whales: blue, humpback,
killer—I wasn’t particular on this.

I came for myself, to cast adrift
fickled fortune and drop anchor

in mahonia, mugwort, salmonberry,
sea stacks nested with deer.

I came for the bleeding sun cut on the horizon’s blue blade,
the bark of seals urgent in the dark.

Ozette, oh love, oh destiny,
oh ravens’ caw against my sleep.

I knelt by the cedar longhouse,
shushed by waves that kissed the lip of my prayers.

Seven bald eagles climbed ladders of warm air,
oh Artemis, oh Pleiades, my cartwheeling heart.

WA129 is a collection of poetry gathered from the people of Washington State. Compiled and edited by 2016-2018 Washington State Poet Laureate Tod Marshall, the book features poetry by amateur poets alongside acclaimed writers including Sherman Alexie, Tom Robbins, and Tess Gallagher. The collection includes 129 poems—one for each year of statehood. The book is published by Sage Hill Press and is available on Amazon as well as at independent bookstores throughout the state. An online version of WA129, featuring an expanded selection of poems, will be available during summer of 2017.

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