Paul Willis has published six collections of poetry, the most recent of which are Deer at Twilight: Poems from the North Cascades (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2018) and Little Rhymes for Lowly Plants (White Violet Press, 2019). He is also the author of an eco-fantasy novel, The Alpine Tales (WordFarm, 2010); a YA Elizabethan time-travel novel, All in aGarden Green (Slant, 2020); and the essay collections Bright Shoots of Everlastingness (WordFarm, 2005) and To Build a Trail (WordFarm, 2018). He is a professor of English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and hosts an annual reading in Los Padres National Forest to honor the life and work of the late poet William Stafford. www.pauljwillis.com
A stack of letters on my desk waits
for reply—not urgently, for those who wrote
knew several days would pass before
I read their thoughts, and I in turn
can take my time in contemplating
what to say. Meanwhile, the inbox
on my screen beckons and beckons,
crooking its finger like a hooker on Haley Street,
and I obey as if in a trance.
The pile of mail on my desk
cantilevers in crazy ways, growing old
and anonymous—but patient—yes,
patient as a tortoise crossing desert sand
when row on row of solar panels, dark
and flashing, settle upon its ancient home.
Wild buckwheat, brittle now
on granite ledges, you
are about to go under again.
Is it lonely there, separated
from the sun?
Or is it merely one short sleep,
tucked inside those rumpling quilts?
The foxtail pine stand up
to ice-borne scrutiny for months
on end, losing
their checkered bark to the winds.
The cones and needles say
to each other, Hold on.
And the yellowing snags—
they hold on anyway,
raising their gnarled fists to the sky.
But you, buckwheat,
you have it easy. Just shoulder
the flakes as they come.
And lie down.
—Sequoia National Park
Sheep Camp Lake
I found you by dead reckoning
from over the ridge,
a long green pool
between the heather.
Above, a swath of runneled snow
comes swirling off a granite face
and into your waters,
finale of an Olympic run.
In the distance, pinnacles tip
overhanging blocks in cloud,
daring me to take my stand
and upset the balance of nature.
But I would rather sit right here
on this warm slab,
your chartreuse shallows.
Underneath, the ghost logs
old thoughts of mine
beneath the surface.
—Kings Canyon National Park
Bilberry bleeds the granite,
and amber grasses tuft themselves
for a fallow taste of October sun.
The water hands its jewels
to the breeze as if the ice
will never come.
We are the ones, stepping softly,
resting our heels
in not quite the same lake,
who bring the ache,
who sing an elegy
for the living.
—John Muir Wilderness
The live oak shelters a fire ring,
a rusty grill. There is a bleached
log to sit on, worn smooth.
Out of the shade, manzanita tangles
the breeze. And down in a gulley
of shattered stone, a thin stream
apologizes, fading already in May.
Two thousand feet up the mountainside,
it comes from a spring under a boulder
big as a house. You could live in either place—
here by the tree or there by the house—
but you'd have to pick your seasons right.
The snow is deep up high in winter,
and, down here, summer will see
the stream run dry. So you'd probably
go back and forth, the way we do.
The way we almost always do.
—Los Padres National Forest