Hiker Feared Dead

Inland Northwestern Mountains, December

It will grow much colder than this. The mountains are consistent. 
Forget your fingers; you know that stabbing
in the knuckles means their tips will turn blue by morning. 
Try not to need them. What lives up here gets by
on less, survives in damp cracks
in the rocks. And avoids the ice. The lake
you have stopped at cannot bear your weight.
Don’t assume.

Stop thinking of home, of feet on carpet and artificial
                             light, your bedside lamp, its breezy
                             40-watt tiptoe across your blanket.

Somewhere nearby Montana gives way
to Idaho, but direction is meaningless. 
The hills and pines below knot up in a single spine.

At night pick out the sound of drifts shifting weight
on the slope, of boulder stumps shrugging off crumble. 
                                                       This is not what it’s like to give up.

The life that survives up here doesn’t try. Stand naked
in lake-darkened wind. Home is just a distraction
like your fingers, or that sliver
                                     of light you think you see distant,
                                     that flaw in the absolute night.


High Mojave Postscript

 

Once, he slept on my couch and never really left. 
He must have known I watched him sitting shirtless

at night on my patio. We blew smoke at tiny bark scorpions
crawling out of the sage. The mornings smelled of mushrooms.

They opened each day to wither defiantly in the sun. 
Afternoons we walked the small tract of desert beyond

where the roads ran out, climbing rocks and sweating tobacco.
Shadows broke over our knees like hearts.

His hair in a ponytail, the full red beard I envied so much combed, 
sometimes on Sundays he went to church. The trouble was hope,

for him, was enough. He’d come back
with a bottle of whiskey, shirt unbuttoned and already drunk.

Rainfall was rare. When it came like dropped
salvation we lay on our backs, our faces shoved in its cold

baptism. Nothing was confessed or forgiven. 
Then standing above me, beard dripping

and his shoulders like a sky coming close
I watched him shirtless. He must have known.

The trouble with love is the thought you might not destroy it. 
The trouble with speaking to him was he knew what I meant.

When the tract was cleared, desert broke through our windows. We tidied
the dust into piles for a while. The scorpions settled in corners.

 


Ghazal for the Grave of the Unhappiest Man

 

“At that empty tomb we shall seek for him, the unhappiest man… For as the faithful long to see the sacred [eastern] tomb, so do the unhappy feel themselves drawn toward that empty tomb in the west, each filled with the thought that it is destined for him.”

—S. Kierkegaard, “The Unhappiest Man”

 

Your inscription names no one. Your casket lies empty.
There’s rumors the one it did hold or will dies empty.

I massage the rotting wood. It crumbles underpalm.
I baptize in mud. Hands calloused, black-lined, and empty.

Bold to declare “The Unhappiest Man” rests beneath you.
You knew I’d come seeking myself and find you empty.

The corpse is not lost. He is only dead at present.
He has always lived whenever time is least empty.   

He had a home once, the American west. He waits;
she left and he barely noticed how quiet. Empty.  

She never returned. He remembers her coming back
clearly. Memory, like your tomb, denies being empty.

He might have imagined her, and all reality
depends on what spills into shape when his mind empties. 

The dead man returns west, a hollow deadrest. Desert
and mountains claim him again, the size of their empti-

ness enough to contain what he remembers losing.   
What he never had. A chair facing the fireplace sits empty.

Bone-sleep, you are tempting, but I believe she will be there. 
Just be still. Grave, while Michael survives, you lie empty.


Michael Landreth grew up in Alabama, then lived in Las Vegas for several years. Eventually he returned to Alabama, where he earned degrees in Philosophy and Creative Writing from Auburn University. He currently lives with his children in Moscow, Idaho, where he earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho and continues to work as a lecturer in the English Department.