Marjorie Stelmach

Survival in the Northern Woods

                        In ancient Rome it was considered a sin to eat the flesh of a woodpecker.

How long, O Lord?  How long? 
                                                                         —Psalm 13

This morning on the shoulder of the two-lane, a downy
lay flattened in gravel and dust,
like a wildflower pressed in an old book.
If it’s true birds take in a visual field flat-out in total focus,
this one’’s last vision was likely the grille
of a lumber truck–
a steel beast lugging a horizontal forest.

Tonight, wild creatures of the woods will feast
on woodpecker flesh;
by week’s end, so swift the erasure, I’ll walk
that stained patch of dirt without a thought.

So many spring deaths.
And yet, a few will linger a lifetime; such is the nature
of human vision.
Out on the lake, the twilight stirs with the loons’
famous laughter.

I’ve taken to browsing my grandfather’s shelves–
ledgers kept a century back,
a children’s Bible, a Boy Scout Handbook from 1911
with a chapter on Chivalry and Brave Deeds,
another on Endurance.
Under the heading of “Losing One’s Way,”
I find:
                        If lost in the woods for a time one can survive
by chewing the leather of one’s own shoes.

It’s only long after, when I’ve climbed to the loft,
that I find myself worrying over the phrasing:
If lost for a time?
or survive for a time?

And my own darker question: For how long a time?
I wake after midnight to a quiet still frayed by occasional
tremolos filled with longing.
Or bone-deep misgivings?
Or simple lust?
I’ve no way of knowing, but if you’ve heard
their liquid echoes warbling the dark you know
it’s not laughter.


I read somewhere if you change a single ion–
magnesium to iron—you’ll have changed chlorophyll
to blood.
Had Jesus come upon this bit of chemistry,
might he have chosen to come to earth,
not incarnate, but in-arborate—embodied
in leafage, root, and limb?

How to know anything?   Least of all, what will save us.


Out in the dark on the highway’s edge, the feast continues,
a downy’s forbidden flesh consumed by a host
sp;            of microscopic creatures
burrowed deep in its tissues
and by the beaks and canine teeth of the North–
a ceremony washed
by Northern Lights
spilling their ions onto the earth: an ablution
to ease the long-term taking.

I lie in the loft, wakeful, expectant, but the stillness stretches
and stretches.
Maybe there’s time.
Maybe from one of my grandfather’s volumes
I still might learn
the skills of discernment–
how to distinguish between a silence that precedes a call
and one that follows it forever–
between an interim and absence.

Marjorie Stelmach’s most recent book of poems is Without Angels (Mayapple, 2014). Earlier volumes include Bent upon Light and A History of Disappearance (University of Tampa Press) and Night Drawings (Helicon Nine). Individual poems have recently appeared in Arts & Letters, The Cincinnati Review, Image, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, New Letters, Prai