Silver Branch series: July 2021

DEVON MARSH

Devon Marsh served as a Navy pilot before a career in banking. His writing has appeared in The Lake, Poydras Review, The Timberline Review, Black Bough Poetry, and Periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics. Devon lives in North Carolina.

Twitter: @DevonMarsh1

Instagram: devonmarshnc

Website: http://devonmarsh.com

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"I write poetry about family, loss brought about by life and human progress, and the natural world. The natural world offers abundant metaphors for understanding one’s inner self. It’s ironic that looking outward aids introspection, but it does. The effect for me is amplified by writing about an experience in nature. Similarly, when I read good poetry or prose grounded in nature, I feel an ordering influence on my thoughts concerning both the writer’s dilemma and the natural elements being described. This is what I aim for: to bring order to my own thoughts on a topic, and offer an opportunity for a reader to discover useful order as well."

 

        Devon Marsh, June, 2021.
 

New River

 

The New wends north bearing a misleading name;

only three other rivers follow an older course.

 

On a railbed trail, children on bicycles marvel

at a geologic rainbow, pink phlox, a black snake.

 

My family rides through morning to a picnic,

afternoon to wade in the river, after dinner to lie

in a field and ponder the zodiac. Fireflies

rise to constellate the air. Riffles offer

 

a song older than starlight: water motivating

abrasion, thinking of the sea. Nothing thinks of me,

 

my kin oblivious, consumed in a singularity—

this moment suspended above the depth of time.

 

Through us, the universe reflects. Out there

infinity; in dew-wet grass, its wondrous other half.

(Published in Black Bough, Deep Time 1)

Six

Our frozen cores hold mammoth breaths

for millennia in sintered snow. Our base

may be our undoing, so write my story

in graphite. Let it say hiraeth at night.

 

My descendants will follow concrete paths

to seek a trace of me, though signs lie

all about. When we go out, our extinction

will be sealed beneath a thin plastic line.

 

I would rather my distant heirs know my

own wonders: grazing deer, the Milky Way,

cool air. Nocturnal calls of whippoorwills

drifting through an open bedroom window.

(Published in Black Bough, Deep Time 1)

Palimpsest

 

Past Oconee bridge, a gravel road

led to a fish camp washed away by flood.

 

My grandfather designed its lodge

on Lucky Strike posters from his store.

 

Digging footings by hand, he found the pink

chert projectile point that rests on my desk.

On her only visit, washing diapers

from a johnboat’s stern, my grandmother felt

 

the current take hold. She bloodied her hands

pulling back to shore by a rusted chain.

 

At their graves I hear cicadas, mowers,

her voice naming churches drowned by the lake.

(Published in Black Bough, Deep Time 1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Room

 

Voices in here speak no more out there.

Soon they will cease in this room, full

quiet returned. Outside, storms herald

dark without benefit of moon. A nebular

ceiling admits raindrops. Pigment leaches

from walls I painted in a youthful mood

whose passion fanned arguments and shouts.

Echoes fade under a roof that leaks on me.

Wet voices evaporate each day. Alone

in here, I strain to hear them at night.

(Published in Black Bough, Dark Confessions)

Coherence

My childhood eye perceived a linear route

from home to church, a grandparent’s house,

my father’s store. Roads made no impression.

 

On Sunday drives to an Indian mound, battlefield,

waterfall, we might stop for ice cream. Stops or not,

we returned home without retracing our route.

 

I climbed pine trees to see beyond our land. A fence

hemmed our field and woods. A circuit suggested itself

like a shy girl says hello and becomes unforgettable.

 

Decades later, the map in my mind fills in space

between homes, churches, cemeteries. Images cohere

in slow motion. Glass unshatters in a rewound film.

(Exclusive to the Silver Branch series)

Battlefield Park

Cool cannons point out from the mountain.

Similar artillery points up from field below.

Surgeon’s kit displayed in a museum case

splayed like bodies it split. Limb saws, tools

for extracting shot, shine in blessed quiet.

Schoolchildren file from the theater,

skip the gift shop, grumble about lunch.

(Exclusive to the Silver Branch series)

Driving at Sunset

 

Arm resting on the open window rim,

raising and dipping my fingers

to surf the still air we rush through.

Our motion is the wind I feel.

 

Fireflies will rise from the field

on my right. The car shadow passes

the weight of memory over grass.

Gold feels weightless, too, a fortune

 

in low-angled light, high-latitude

summer heaped against white houses.

Dark windows and doors stand

wide open to the gloaming.

 

If I look to my left, my father

will be backlit by the setting sun.

The lighting, more so than his death,

makes it hard to read his expression.

(Exclusive to the Silver Branch series)

Field

Brittle clod, rough in the hand.

On bright ground, parallel rows

converge toward a shimmer of trees,

blare of cicadas. A water tower glares

around a town’s block-letter name.

(Exclusive to the Silver Branch series)

Sky

Afloat in deep blue,

a cumulus dreadnaught,

its hull dark, brilliance thrust

upward, billows piled on billows.

(Exclusive to the Silver Branch series)

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A River of Many Cliffs (extract from a longer piece, part1)

 

From the unpaved parking lot at Wolf Pit, I climb a thousand feet up rough switchbacks. A warm October sun bears down on me. My gear rides well in the new pack I’ve loaded with more than I need, and I get the hang of trekking poles I debated about buying. Thank goodness I have them for balance and for my knees, which are twenty years older than the last time I ventured on a solo overnight hike. I climb toward the Mountains-to-Sea Trail where it runs concurrent with the Shortoff Mountain Trail, along the eastern rim of Linville Gorge in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. I ascend remnants of mountains that formed 480 million years ago. Trying to comprehend such a span of time challenges the mind. On this trail, so does walking. I concentrate on my path.

 

The trail begins to level as it nears the first water source. I unburden, stretch, get out my water filter to begin filling four one-liter bottles, thankful I had the foresight not to carry almost nine pounds of water up the ascent I just climbed. Another hiker walks up as I catch clear water shooting from rock. He carries a camera with a large lens, has a small pack on his back, and no obvious water.

 

“Is this the trail?” he asks.

 

“Yeah,” I say. I point to a white disk on an oak tree. “There’s one of the blazes.”

 

“Oh, I don’t use the blazes,” he says.

 

I have no response. I make a mental note: 35 to 40 years old. Cargo pants. A rain jacket. String backpack. Carrying an SLR camera with a big lens. These details will make him easier to describe to rescuers if I find out someone has gone missing.

 

The guy with the camera walks past. When I get back under way, I see he has stepped out onto a small overlook. I quicken my pace to catch up with solitude.

 

I reach the first major overlook on Shortoff Mountain and approach its edge with care. The sound of the Linville River arrives at my ears as its rocks, cascades, and reaches come into view. Its distant roar describes a strong flow; I can see the water’s movement a thousand feet below me. The height of this overlook provides a familiar perspective. One thousand feet was a common altitude for search missions I flew in the Navy. It’s the altitude from which I looked at an unremarkable patch of ice beneath the left wingtip of our P-3 Orion as my crew and I circled the North Pole. We flew through 360 degrees of longitude—around the world—in three minutes. And it’s the altitude at which I flew over calves of the Petermann glacier floating in the Nares Strait northwest of Greenland. We often flew even lower, as low as 200 feet when we needed a closer look at something. From 200 feet I’ve seen waterspouts south of Puerto Rico twisting between dark clouds and a Payne’s Gray sea, and a pod of whales near Bermuda in sapphire water as calm as glass. Buoys we dropped from the plane radioed underwater sound back to us. Sometimes the submerged microphones picked up the haunting songs of whales from many miles away. Hundreds of hours of flying accustomed me to seeing the world from above. To hearing it, too, even when I can’t see the source of the sound.

 

Planning this trip, I could see on the topographical map why the Cherokee people called this gorge Eseeoh-la, “river of many cliffs.” A seam of rock runs along the western side of the gorge, forming steep cliffs above the river for most of its course. The overlook where I stand is also a cliff. Others lie farther up the trail. The river flows below many cliffs, all of which it played a part in forming. I think of the time it took for the river to carve a gorge to this depth. The gorge is much younger than the surrounding mountains, only a couple of million years old compared to hundreds of millions. That doesn’t make the age of the gorge any more comprehensible. I try again to grasp the scale of such a quantity of time. Maybe the ocean, vast and deep, offers a useful metaphor. I can see it from great height, step into its shallows, scoop its water with cupped hands. I comprehend its essence even though its entirety exceeds my view and a handful eludes my grasp. On this trail wending its way through the oldest mountains in the world, I wade in an ocean of time.

 

***

 

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A River of Many Cliffs (excerpt  2)

 

I ascend from Chimney Gap to Rockpeak. Then I enjoy a gentle downhill stretch of Shortoff Trail, nearly level, until I arrive at the campsite. I set up my tent, arrange my sleeping bag inside. An early supper replenishes my energy. I take some water, a headlight and flashlight, my camera, and my notebook, and I walk ten minutes up the trail to Rockpeak to watch the sunset. Around me, katydids take to the air on gossamer wings. They look too vulnerable in flight to be the creatures that emit the authoritative bursts of sound I hear throughout the afternoon and evening. Along the trail, bottle gentian flowers hold their blue blossoms closed. Having seen them like this for two days, I wonder how they pollinate. Yet the katydids fly and sing and mate, the flowers bear seed and spread and bloom year after year. Both are part of the seasonal cycles in mountains whose only enduring feature is their slow, ongoing change. Like sleepers waking to fog in a valley, we base our impressions on local and immediate signs.  At first glance, I recognize viability no better than I recognize impermanence.

 

At Rockpeak I clamber up irregular slabs that slant in parallel. They offer no ergonomic spot for me to sit. I make do. To the north, I see where I’ve been: The Chimneys, and Table Rock beyond. To the west, the opposite wall of the gorge. In diminishing light below its rim, the band of granite or quartzite mimics the river, its bends and its flow. Above, the sun sets clouds aflame. I take a photograph, then another. Several. The scene keeps changing. The gorge darkens, distant peaks of the Black Mountains fade. Pink light alters the expression of leaves. A time-lapse sequence plays out before my eyes. It moves forward but could easily reverse, the seasons passing in retrograde and accelerating. I would not be surprised to see a red wolf trot past, or a herd of elk graze and disperse; native people flash by on the trail; a glacier heave into view, pause, and retreat. All of these things happened, and they happened here. Not tonight, but in the shallows of a sea of time that eroded an entire mountain from atop this spot. Four hundred million years ago, the peak where I sit was a mountain’s heart.