The Crooked Truth

Selected Poems

New from Redburn Press

The Crooked Truth, a book of selected poems by Dan Guenther, is available from Redburn Press on or

The Crooked Truth was the 2011 Colorado Authors' League Award selection for Poetry (Books).

"In the midst of jungle and bombs and the torn and bloody country of war, the speaker glimpses a rare forest antelope, running from the destruction of his world. That glimpse evokes beauty, terror, power, tragedy, pathos, and, oddly, hope, and the eye that saw that antelope and knew to focus that complex landscape down to his leap from it, is a true poet's eye, is Dan Guenther's eye. His poems, set against the backdrops of Australia, the American West, and the war in Vietnam and its long echoes, capture precisely and beautifully and courageously the details that allow us to knit into his vision and so see the world with a renewed and necessary clarity." — Wayne Karlin, author of Wandering Souls

"Dan Guenther is a poet for all seasons who speaks to us through unique imagery and often brilliant contrast about his many years walking the western landscape, the old Ute trails in Colorado, foreign lands, and a war-torn country side. His deep relationship with the natural world, and all its creatures has a way of healing, making connections, and balancing one's life in the great scheme of living and dying. In silence and solitude and in secret places, from Vietnam to a winter campsite, he ponders the big questions, and we listen. His meditations on time, space and light, ancient cliff dwellers and new beginnings, awaken the poet in us. We feel his compassion and respect for all things living and dead, and are grateful when he says the child in me still believes in magic, because on each page of this fine collection, we believe with him." — Carolyn Evans Campbell, Author of The Tattooed Woman, Colorado Book Award winner.

Read more about The Crooked Truth from the Colorado Authors' League.

After the Burn

The wildfire caught the winds just right
along the Front Range north of Denver, 
riding side by side with those angry, up-slope spirits
that always arrive after the thaw.

A dark plume loomed over our ridgeline,
and the magpies screamed retreat 
as the fire picked up speed, the junipers exploding,
our appaloosa spooked and running down Highway #93.

When help finally came to form a fire line
at the ancient cottonwoods it was almost too late, 
and we were humbled and soaked with sweat, 
grateful that at least the giant trees were spared.

The wildfire swept away our barn and the big bluestem 
we took ten years to restore, lifted everything skyward 
in a spiral of ashes, leaving a black scar 
where both Ute and Arapahoe once grazed mustang stock.

We could rage across that blacken space,
but the realizations have come too late for pondering
what else could have been done to save all that 
which has been lost.

In the morning a light rain fell, settling the dust,
and gazing up at the gnarled trunks,
we took comfort in knowing this grove should live on 
long after we're gone.

A sacred place to the Ute, my father always talked
about the sweet spring flowing from among the cottonwoods,
and how the breeze in the shimmering leaves high overhead
reflected dapples of light on the surface of the water:

Sometimes we stand alone, waiting
on a separate, dream-struck plain, 
trying to remember the best of times while our heart aches, 
and our mind shifts, devoid of any acuity or understanding.

Water Dreams

Broad wings of the wind bring rain,
and you float on the dark,
lying awake,
waiting for dawn
and the return of that sky-floater,
the red-tailed hawk.

Understand that no answers 
ever arrive at this late hour.

But years from now, on a hot, dry afternoon,
you will recall how the night breeze
turned into a cool, swift current
with its promise of tomorrow,
and how you were caught and carried off
into water dreams,
while listening to the rain. 

In the early hours out on that broad river
beyond the hills,
giant catfish sleep as they drift downstream.


After the Thaw

A pale opossum travels along our river through the night,
and he stares back at me in the moonlight, 
caught once again in our garbage,
his soulful face like that of a lost spirit.

For a second year in a row he has returned 
after the thaw, ushering in spring's divine rains.

This drab beggar carries off our waste as an offering
to his unnamed deities, and for all we know
he could be counting the risings of Venus
on the delicate toes of his tiny paws.
Lately animals and birds appear in my dreams, clothed 
as human beings, along with the ghost of a drowned child.

And recently I was told
the wild bees have all but disappeared from our valley.

That nest robber, the loggerhead shrike, 
sighs from among the thickets of scarlet haw lining 
the river's banks; and he shakes in his restless sleep,
his head spinning with dark schemes.

During the hot afternoons he retires to his shady keep,
impaling the still trembling young
of other birds upon those wicked thorns 
hidden in the density of the leaves.

Why is it we always feel that inevitable ache 
for the lost in the darkness of the night?

Our river flows on, bearing its quiet burdens, and at daybreak
the swallows will be skimming across the surface of the water.


At First Light

For thirty years I've followed old trails
used by the Mountain Ute,
tracking wildlife through the snow,
often at first light.

Every year I walk the high meadows 
to where the bull elk shed their antlers,
the magpies scolding me through the scrub-oaks.

While the weather is still cool,
and before the snakes come out,
I find new paths along the Front Range
where the deer bed down to watch the lights 
stretching away across the plains.

My wounds have taken a lifetime to heal, my symptoms
following a cycle with the seasons, perspectives
changing, then shifting back:

When the high country is swept by sudden rain,
with Denver's office towers glinting in the distance,
Southeast Asia seems no more than an abstraction,
a history as cryptic as the rock pictures 
left by the ancients along the Arkansas.

Up here, for a time, a mind can leave behind 
what remains unresolved, to find the kingfisher 
tunneling into a narrow bank within a dark canyon,
and glimpse the otters on their muddy slick.

Some habits are hard to break, and a natural inclination 
takes me down old trails: but I no longer believe
that everything is lost with death.


Chronicles from the Whale's Road

I once ran away looking for oil
to make Norway proud again, and off the Orkneys 
rode the rainy swells of the Whale's Road.

We drank Russian vodka,
longing for old times
while the world credit crisis propelled us toward collapse,
and while Olaf, our captain,
lulled us to sleep with his chronicles
of the ancient Norse singing in their great halls:

All I know is captured in a single computer image,
the fruits of my sonic scanning, blinking
and luminescent green,  
an opaque troll's eye 
peering into the depths,
guiding us to geologic domes hidden in this codless sea.

One clear night I climbed with several of our crew
up into the ship's rigging
to watch the Northern Lights.

Our Chinese engineer then told me
in his cosmology there was no creator,
and no higher plane of meaning beyond the here and now.

A pod of those rare, beaked whales passed by below us,
gliding on the shimmering water toward Iceland
where herring and squid still swarm, from a distance 
their breaching spume, pure and uncorrupted, 
icy plumes suspended high above the waves like so many
shape-shifting spirits, or a sign from Odin.


Elegy for Jock

In a previous life I crossed the border
from Thailand into Cambodia,
back to those smoky barrooms 
where the social misfits and morally bankrupt 
mixed in deadly crowds to sell their skills.

Even now as glaciers in the Himalayas melt down,
and the Mekong flows 
quiet and lazy, merging with rivers 
whose names I have forgotten, primeval ruins loom 
out of the broad, flat plains of my memories:

When Jock committed suicide in Phnom Penh,
his Khmer wife danced for days before
a floor-length mirror, wild-eyed, her black hair flying 
like that of a sorceress, her blade-thin body sweaty 
and glistening in a haze of incense and candlelight.

"He has already returned in the incarnation
of a cat, of that I am confident," she snapped at me.

"You will find him at that cosmic intersection
he often spoke about, mingling with celestial nymphs 
from other galaxies who change their shape at will," 
she said, twirling, her madness quite complete. 

So we wept one last time for Jock, our Australian mate, 
two Yanks having found and recovered his remains.

Jock, who all his life yearned to understand infinity,
who believed in a Karmic chain 
woven intimately into everything,
who believed that beauty 
offered the only path through the darkness. 


The Maize Goddess

Once she was a vital force, imperious and unyielding,
who knew the place where the corn seed was hidden,
and where she would rendezvous with all the old men
wearing only an enchanted cloak to cover her nakedness.

She brought the rains to ease our yearnings every spring, 
and in the winter her glowing hair streamed across the sky 
beneath the Northern Lights, a promise of her return.

The Maize Goddess was the one true spirit rising 
from those hallowed, dream-like realms 
that only the shaman knew,
the ones anchored in the depths of time's deep seas.

Was it you who found her likeness strolling down a beach 
along the Gulf of Mexico, possessing that radiant glow 
of divinity which is the underlying reality of all things?


The Crooked Truth

We catalog the insects in our garden,
checking a guide as evening comes on,
still wary of the devious spiders that lie in wait:

You marvel over the secret etiquette of the sugar glider, 
the frantic ecstasy of a moth hovering above a wine glass, 
the theory that all stars coalesce out of interstellar dust.

What if the arrow of time is a circle,
and the cobwebs in our garden the handiwork 
of a cosmic sculptor playing upon a galactic scale?

The child in me still believes in magic,
that we all may be governed by an invisible energy, 
an unknown hand that holds the cosmos in its grip.

How high-minded of me to spout off after a bottle of wine, 
knowing outside our science nothing is ever clear-cut,
that what is most often true is in the glitches.

Let us trust those illusive inklings we have learned
on our own, those yearnings that once arose with a glance,
to be confirmed by the sweet blips and mishaps in our lives.

A honey-eater lingers over the waratah 
in the warp of the season's change,
feeding right up through twilight on these last, long days.

Those wild orange dogs in the distant thorn trees are restless, 
ill at ease and always on guard in the horned and vicious dark, 
living moment to moment with the crooked truth.


In Gamoowea

The honey-eater gathers with the shrike;
and I drink beer with my pregnant wife.

Stockmen speak of snow and ice,
hoarfrost in Tasmania,
of harvest nights layered with a freeze,
sound sleeping.

September is a native cat moving westward,
is the curl of a lizard
caked-hard in a dry creek-bed.

I say north of the MacDonell Range
these rolling hills are my woman's lap. 

The stalks of stunted grass
are her underbelly's golden hair
sifted through the sand of the Barkly Tableland:

There are men opening graves in Queensland
and the Northern Territory, digging
for polished axe-heads of the long dead,
and there are chipped flints left unfinished
in Gamoowea, growing like a child's new cut teeth.

From Poetry Australia, 1976


Finding Africa on the Way to Broken Hill

Call the black stump a lion's head.

For in the midday heat of the wide plains
small boys hear it roar.

Abandoned cars left on high ground
suggest rhinoceros at twilight;

And if you see tentative giraffes among the emus
crossing Nyngan's yellow flats,
you may have found Africa on the way to Broken Hill,
dust and dry water holes equal to the Velds:

I never saw the hot Zulu who broke my windscreen
with a stone, just outside Wilcannia.

Whirlwinds rose from a red salient.

Tire treads thick as elephant hide
were left in the footprint of a great truck.

For Les Murray, from Poetry Australia, 1976


Slowly Waking

Far out, in the Tasmanian Sea,
a thousand dolphins head south, under a full moon.

Across the street the post office is full of insects.

And grouped in close formations
lizards take command of the window screens,
are ready to advance:

This is Australia of the mile long beaches,
and tonight, as the parties end,
as the crowds turn out,
the mosquitoes are at the walls of the city,
the hibiscus explodes,
my wife turns in the empire of her sleep,
her stomach lunar,
slowly waking to a child's dolphin kick.

In the early morning schools of mullet move off-shore.

The glint of small fish massing to spawn
flashes like rifle fire in the moonlit water.

From Poetry Australia, 1976


Elegy for a Rare Forest Antelope

You enter a zone where the trees soar skyward,
blocking out the sun,
working your way along a massive ridge.

Vines thick as a man's thigh twist upward into the trees, 
and in places you are up to your waist in swirling fog.

When you reach the crest of the ridge
the view is staggering, a vast landscape broken
by deep ravines, with rugged limestone karsts
jutting above a green expanse.

Who knows what is hiding from you in the dense canopy,
where the sanctuaries and forbidden base camps 
number in the hundreds, and await your discovery?

The mountains looming in the west belong to Laos.

To the east a plume of smoke marks a contact.

The sun glints off the tail of a distant aircraft
making its bomb run across the valley floor far below,
where the Agent Orange has done its work, leaving 
a barren swath, pock-marked with water-filled craters.

Your gaze locks on the plane's descent, and across 
that leafless moonscape, outrunning the air strike, 
a lone forest antelope gallops for the safety of the trees.

From Operation Oklahoma Hills, May 1969. 
Years later, the rare forest antelope sighted on 
Operation Oklahoma Hills was identified as a Saola, 
an animal yet to be fully described by science. 
Today fewer than 300 of these solitary creatures 
remain along the Laotian/Vietnam Border, an area 
that saw extensive use of Agent Orange defoliant.