Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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to my children, an explanation of Idaho

Foolishness, to think it could be explained anymore
than Massachusetts or Maine. But know this:
that its boundaries, like theirs, are imaginary and political.
That it resembles Montana and spoons
its eastward front thereto is, in truth, mostly incorrect,
or that it imagines itself what it was,

which was, before it was, almost no one’s
but the ravens’, who outnumber its people
even today. What has come to be
known as Utah is a growth upon its rump,
or it is, upon Utah’s narrow head,
a tumor fed by methamphetamine, beer,

and The Church of Latter-day Saints.
That I have never known a Mormon
I did not like immensely, except certain senators.
This can be explained. It is history.
That Idaho has in its history elected
senators of considerable greatness,

but not for a long time, not, at least,
for most of my life here and none of yours.
That the state is an embarrassment and a joy.
It has been dragged into the century
before this one now well under way,
its notions of liberty circumscribed

by fearful ideas of stricture and malignity,
usually religious, which in this republic
have not, will not, and cannot be explained.
That its rivers are among the purest
and most beautiful in the same republic.
That it was established by the republic

it hardly seems to want to be a part of anymore.
That it has a town called Dixie
and a river called the Secesh, short
for secessionist, but also a Yankee Fork
of the Salmon, and that the Salmon is its greatest river,
named for a noble anadromous fish

most wild examples of which are gone from it.
That this is in part the fault of the republic
it once prided itself on belonging to.
That it is not universally but all too abundantly
racist. Neo-Nazis and Confederates
walk its occasional streets believing Hawaii

is a nation on the continent of Africa.
Its huckleberries are unparalleled,
its mountains spectacular, and deer
are its most numerous citizens.
Some of its human citizens would rather
deer vote than anyone who is not white.

That television was invented here,
for which the state will neither be given credit
nor forgiven. That at its least elevations
the temperature will reach 120 degrees
every summer, and at certain of its summits
the snow, until recently, never went away.

That its hot summer afternoons are indolent
and perfect, winter nights cold
and often ridiculous with stars. It lies
athwart the Rockies, it is desert and peak,
tundra and valley, prairie and canyon and forest.
Its beauty can afflict you like a virus.

That much of its populace is poor and that it is
determined to keep it that way. That it is
for sale and boasts more millionaires
per capita than any other state.
That its potatoes are peerless and most
Americans cannot place it on a map,

believing it must, like the other “I” states,
be Midwestern, and that is a good thing
in many ways. That its name means nothing
but scans the same as Illinois, where
I was born and one of you were,
which can be explained, though Illinois cannot.

That Idaho, like all the other states, is history
and toil, that massacres occurred here too.
That most of its people are kind,
like most people everywhere. That I have
for most of my life been in the employ of it
and been made to feel all the while

something very like an enemy of the state.
That for some reason I cannot leave,
though my own parents are aging or infirm
many miles away. This can be explained
but not to my own satisfaction. I feel filial guilt.
Two of you have happily left the state

already and the other aspires to. That of
the forty-two people named Robert Wrigley
in the republic, I am the only one in Idaho.
There are probably more Wrigleys in Chicago
than Johnsons in Idaho. That Chicago
cannot be explained. There are 242

Dick Johnsons in the nation, five in Idaho.
That the name Dick Johnson consists of two
euphemisms for penis, and that such
a diminutive as Dick, when your surname
is Johnson, can in this way be explained. That nothing’s
in a name and wild roses are even now

budding out everywhere around me. There is
a domestic rose called Crepuscule,
while these are wild and called Rosa woodsii. That one
of you is named Jordan, a name your mother,
when she was pregnant with you, spotted
on a lawyer’s office door

in Salmon, Idaho. That you are the only
Jordan Wrigley in the republic, that your
older brother is one of only five Philip Wrigleys
and that Philip Wrigley was one of the richest men
in the nation the year of my birth. As for Jace,
the youngest of you, he is the only one

anywhere—thus once you were all the only Philip, Jordan,
and Jace Wrigleys in Idaho, as I am the only Robert.
This can be explained, this too is history,
which, like the boundaries of Idaho,
is imaginary and political to the extent
that every polity is a political construct

and therefore imaginary, with the force of law.
That law is itself imaginary and if not
universally agreed upon nevertheless occasionally enforced.
There was, until overturned, a law forbidding
a man marrying another man here, or a woman
another woman. And there was once,

and not all that long ago, a law forbidding
the marriage of a Mormon to a non-Mormon,
also one forbidding the harvesting of fish
with electrical current or dynamite.
That this, all of it, can be explained.
There are cedar trees on this mountain

older than Chaucer and pine trees older than Whitman.
That the state, though it might claim otherwise,
does not care for schools and teachers.
That in its Platonic way, the state
also does not much care for poets,
and that in this regard it is like the others.

That the only true city in Idaho has a river with trout.
That the state’s trout should be foregone
for the trout of other places, and that this
is explainable and entirely selfish of me.
That sometimes the moon risen
over the mountain summit to the East

can bring me almost to tears. The most
beautiful place I have ever been is here,
and I would pinpoint it for you
but not in this particular document,
lest others, in light of my selfishness, should go there.
That I do not understand this impulse

to explain that which cannot be.
It is possible you might have been
better off, had you been raised elsewhere,
though I do not think this is true,
beyond certain measures economic and cultural.
There are things that cannot be explained

which are vastly superior to those that can.
This document is in some way my form of prayer,
and I pray most often to certain trees.
Seeing a mountain lion when you are alone
in the woods is a terrifying benediction.
I hope you remember the afternoon

we watched from our porch above the river
twelve bald eagles circling in the sky above us.
The sound of a wolf howling is a miracle
many in the state would exterminate.
That it seems I cannot help myself.
As one of you has said, living in the state

is like living in an abusive relationship:
there is always the hope it will get better.
A woman once said to your mother
raising children in this place is child abuse.
That we understand ourselves to be lucky somehow.
There is a place we hunted for arrowheads

and hunting for arrowheads is illegal.
We did not know this, and I found a white one..
We were lucky. A man came from upriver that day,
walking along to shore to reach us.
“How’s it going?” he asked, and I told him we were
hunting arrowheads and extended my hand,

the white one in my palm. He looked away,
out over the river. “Hunting arrowheads is illegal,”
he said. He said, “No, what you’re looking for is flint.”
That guns outnumber people here
is the pure product of America, which is crazy.
That allusions are how writers congratulate themselves.

Arrowheads are made of flint: quartz, obsidian,
jasper, or chert. That making an arrowhead
requires two tools, a hammerstone and a billet,
usually antler. Also enormous patience and skill.
There are likely thousands in that place along the river,
lost among chips, fragments, and pebbles.

Today I am in the little building I built
almost entirely by myself, though each of you
helped me some. That what I mean to say, is that
love is undertaken, and borne, that it is
beyond explanation and not worth living without.
A snail’s glister trail across a leaf

is a beauty that might be transmitted
but not explained. That I have met
every governor of the state since I’ve lived here,
save one, who was interim and is now
a senator, about whom the less I say the better
(cf: lines 15–20 above). That sometimes

when I’m fishing I understand a cutthroat trout
is more distinguished than any man
who ever lived, certainly me. That I am by turns
misanthropic and generous,
and this is something I might explain.
That I have been awakened in one-man tent

by the howl of a wolf, that I have been
awakened in a one-man tent by a bull moose
splashing in a mountain lake, that I have been
awakened in a one-man tent with a desperate
need to pee, and that soon I stood peeing
at the edge of camp and looked up to see

a bear risen manlike on its hind legs—
it seemed hypnotized by a swirl
of yellow butterflies just above its nose.
That it ran when it saw me there.
It leaped a fallen log as gracefully as a steeplechase
thoroughbred and made no sound at all.

That the central Idaho wilderness
is where God lives, which is to say, nobody.
That the central Idaho wilderness is larger
than many eastern states. That Connecticut
cannot be explained. Nor most especially
Rhode Island, not being an island at all.

That according to current actuarial charts,
I have just sixteen more years to live in Idaho.
That I have found a pound of morel mushrooms
this spring, and on one mushroom hunting trip
I also found a perfect whitetailed buck’s skull,
with smooth antlers not the least gnawed by mice,

and later on, in the same draw, I saw a doe lick the caul
from her newborn fawn until it rose
unsteadily and followed her into the brush.
That the Nimi’ipuu called this part of what is
now known as Idaho “Tat-Kin-Mah,” meaning
“place of the spotted deer.” That Tatkinmah

is also the name of the property owners’ association
of which I am a member in good standing.
This can be explained, it is meant
as homage, it is history. It is also
a species of historical rapaciousness
that makes me uneasy. That I like to walk

in the woods at night, because it is impossible
not to be a little frightened by the dark.
There are very few darknesses in the republic so deep
as those we may seek out and abide in here.
The man from the electric company
thought I was crazy, when I asked

that the dusk-to-dawn yard light be removed.
That by darkness I mean nothing metaphorical,
and that by metaphorical darkness I mean
such darkness as is universal, historical, and political.
Also that the measure by which I love hating money
is the obverse of how much I like having it.

That “In God We Trust” is on our currency
and this can only be explained ironically.
I do not know what liquidity has to do with money.
This is something I wish I could explain.
The song of the brown-headed cowbird
is sweet and liquid, and the many-noted

call of the meadowlark makes me entirely glad.
The bugle of a bull elk is ethereal,
and the scream of a mountain lion
primal, and once at a bar, given the choice
of being killed by a grizzly bear
or dying in a head-on collision, I said

bear, and this is explainable. I am now
recovered from such romantic nitwittery.
Your mother would rather sleep outdoors
than in, and that her elegance mystifies
those who know this mystifies me. That for me this is
only explainable in terms of Idaho.

That the female great horned owl’s hoo
is deeper and more masculine-sounding
than its mate’s. Years ago I glanced up
from a page to see out the window
a bald eagle, holding its place in the air,
in the midst of a snowstorm on the Clearwater.

It was most surely not the case it turned
to look at me, though it seemed to,
before it slanted and soared back down
to the river. Sometimes on my walks
along the shore, I used to lie next to the shallows,
just so that I could see how the current

in the middle was several feet above my head.
That I have killed a dozen rattlesnakes
for straying into the yard you played in,
and that I have skinned one and hung its skin
on the wall above my desk, for which I will not be forgiven.
Once I found a dead calf moose

so festooned with ticks it looked scaled
instead of furred. That I have found
nearly every animal in these parts dead, except the raven.
That I have imagined myself dead
in the woods and not been dismayed by the thought.
That, as you know, I collect bones

and make widgets and bird perches from them.
This spring there has been a raven
who likes to sit on the porch rail of my shack,
and I thought for quite a while
he was watching me, before I realized
it was his own reflection that fascinated him.

The fascination of birds is magical.
When the deer here are fatting up
in the fall, I can hear them chew
the withered, nutmeg-smelling dry blossoms
of the shrub called oceanspray.
That in winter I will often have an apple

with my lunch and toss the core
toward the usual two or three does
who take shelter in the thicket just west of the shack.
There are fewer people in this vast imaginary
polity than in the miniscule borough of Manhattan.
That all of this is meant as explanation of here,

this place, which is called Idaho, green and golden,
and I am in the mercy of its means.
Fern Hill Road is a scant twenty miles
from where I sit today, on Moscow Mountain,
and these few acres where I am are called mine,
upon which—I tried to count them once—

there are more than four hundred trees.
They are red fir, juniper, aspen, and hemlock,
but they are mostly yellow, or ponderosa, pine,
and the wind in this yellow pine forest
sounds oceanic though it’s miles from the nearest sea.
These yellow pines’ millions of needles

are reeds, they are literal woodwinds, a thousand-acre
weather-breathed bassoon. That it seems
what is most beloved in Idaho is what is also most resented:
that it is America, and American. This
too can be explained; it is history, which is political.
That everything American is political,

even its trees: the immense cedars older than Chaucer,
these hemlocks and pines. Seconds ago
an enormous crack of thunder came, though the sky here
is clear. The storm is out of sight,
north of the mountain, but as its hard wind comes on,
it sounds like no other wind in the world.

And that, my dears, may not be true, but it can be explained.
That unlike me the trees here know only here
and do not hear their music. The wind
is bound for Montana heedlessly
and without knowing how or why. The sky
is its apolitical upper state and one of its clouds

can weigh more than the mountain’s Chaucer-old cedar.
There is a mathematical formula
to calculate the weight of clouds, but there is no formula
to measure love (not even mine for you, though
it seems more than the planet itself) nor for this place,
where I have, as we say, put down roots.

Know that this is a metaphor, as the state, being both imaginary
and literal, is in some ways as well, in which case
Idaho is Idaho, its pan and handle, its forests and mountains,
its deserts and canyons and rivers,
its metaphorical backwardness and its literal encirclement
of the largest expanse of wild country

remaining in the lower republic: that this is why it is what it is,
and where you have each, in your time,
come of age, as I did too, but belatedly, a grown man,
midway through the first half of my life:
I’d fallen asleep on a long, flat shelf of stone on the edge
of a high mountain lake and awoke to see

three coyotes watching me, no more
than twenty feet away, wondering
if I might be dead or dying, probably hoping so.
I opened my eyes and there they were.
Wind riffled their fur, their black noses twitched.
When I lifted my head they ran away,

and when I rose to a sit I saw a trout seize a fly
from the surface of the shallows
just as the reflection of a many-tonned cloud passed
overhead. This is simply what happened,
but it may also be why. I fell asleep on that rock
because I was exhausted from the hike in.

I had never been so weary in my life before.
I was alone and very lonely, only one
of you was yet born and he was still a baby.
Nevertheless I vowed that you, then you, then you,
would see and know such things as these in your lives,
that they might be a counterweight

against the other, outer, imaginary and all-too-real
nowhere such a nowhere could survive in.
Just remember: that in another history, someone else was here.
That some mountain lakes and certain rivers
are hardly different now than then, when someone
shaped this perfect white arrowhead from quartz.  

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