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Paul Nelson

For Paul Nelson, teaching was a cherished avocation; writing poetry and short fiction the real job. When not a visiting artist or faculty, he affected back-to-the-land life on an 1873 saltwater farm in Machiasport, Maine. Gardens, woodlots, sheep, beef critter, home brew, lobster pots… the whole catastrophe, to quote Zorba. His family, from Norway and Finland, worked stone quarries and fished. So Paul’s imagery is from this old, cold experience, even now that he lives in Hawaii. Island imagery sneaks in because he trolls offshore, says it is like writing poetry, waiting for a strike from something natural.

A Heart Needs a Raft

for Laura Marello

Thigh-thick bamboo
light and marrowless

or balsa for fast long voyaging
bound with vines and twisted hemp

Kon Tiki’s buoyancy on currents
beating up with a square-rigged sail

Maybe white cedar Protestant logs
thick with small ascetic cells

lashed by nautical knots of manila
a heavier craft that plows along

though why handle such a craft
stiff with old hostility to nature

getting here getting there getting on
so full of mission

One could build a raft on a jasper shore
by huge and gelid Fundy tides

wide purple leather clam flats tanning
or mooning part time

treacherously lifting off
feckless on relentless rise

How to do anything without
the ethic of hardship and a big knife

How to stay moving
weighed down by the grave moon

the gravity of our wounded bodies
the fear of keeling over

upset and drowned in shock
with a cold and sodden brain

Best the bamboo on a sun-ridden beach
no heavy canoe or shoes

where equatorial tides are nothing
and seashell sand does not retard

an easy launch by pairs of hands
brains no anchors to romance

to somewhere anywhere
makes sense if you aren’t coming back

as it is with the life of a cautious person
building in the back yard a raft

out of anything like fifty gallon drums
strapped beneath a pickup’s bed

any light thing for a heart already afloat
tied up in its slip of ribs

A trouble with rafts
trying to get on one

your body already water
pumps and bilge all pulse and wallow

without keel the whole contraption
tugging on its veins and arterials

tethered bow stern and spring lines
flexing and sensing wayward weather

low and high pressure systems
systolic swells and peaks

diastolic ebbs and troughs a raft
quaking within the lava jetty


Winged facts evaporate
the second I lift the plastic swatter.
They have alps of air to hide in.

And if I manage to mash
with a certain whip of wrist
one particular sneak, roving sacrilegiously
the edge of the kitchen counter,
I have to understand that its infants,
infamous live rice in meat, bread or smashed fruit,
insinuate, gnaw, rest and swell in restless health,
harrying the Valley of Death.

Their swarthy, hairy elders swarm,
deposit, flee, repeat, then hang,
desiccate in Kali’s web,
or on a warm sky of window glass,
or vellum shade, having buzzed like kazoos,
or fried, consummated on a bulb
I activate at dusk like evening prayer,
or evening news… a peasant’s bomb.

They are so quiet in the desert
dark of midnight, planning
far into the future, as if all
the forgotten brilliance of so many stars
finally reached us from Alexandria
through the ash clouds of the library,
the calm, ancient mathematicians of sky
born again.

Are their days of zeal less than Heaven’s?
And if they carry death to us
by eager children, by flying toward
our bright towers of food and waste,
could they not be true believers too?

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