High Country Solitudes

Selected Poems

Four poems from Dan Guenther's collection, High Country Solitudes (Grand River Press, 1998), were chosen for the Coe College writing anthology Turning Up the Leaves. The anthology editors lifted out of its context a line from Dan's beautiful poem "The Spotted Colt," for the title of the collection. The first four poems that follow from High Country Solitudes are the four that appeared in the Coe College anthology Turning Up the Leaves.

The Spotted Colt

It was the heat that drove his lightning kicks.

When he leapt the gate his shoes struck sparks.

His dust 
hung over the long track
like a spirit.

The runaway spun our afternoon about
to wake a light wind
who showed her slim belly by turning up the leaves.

High summer,
mother of June's blue hummingbird,
ready me for want of flight.

Perhaps in another Life We Were a Pair of Wolves

Once in that life it rained.

And under a canopy of tall, coniferous trees,
by a lake where a wall of ferns
rose to shoulder-height, the moss, thick and green,
became a carpet to our rendezvous.

I remember the silence being broken by calls of birds,
and you turning to me with your bright eyes,
nuzzling close as the unseen birds responded
one to another, in a serenade for wolves.

We possess nothing but the here and now.

Recollections scatter through the wind
like flights of birds.

So when the howls carry across the canyons,
and there is only the darkness to embrace,
recall how you made me tremble,
and how what rushed through me
spilled into the flow of our heat and our becoming.

When that dark and eternal beast calls in the night,
think back to how we curled together.

When I am dead
think of how we once lived as wolves.

The Calculus of Emotions

The calculus of emotions begins with the moon.

The nature of time
in intervals and intimacies of touch
is linked to motion.

I believe that the lunar curve holds the secret,
that the mystery is as it must be,
in the configurations of plants as they grow,
in the textures and colors of skins brought together,
in the spike of a shooting star.

The evolution of how we will be
is an outcome that always happens
in the darkness of the night,
and our feelings hold the promise of the future,
whenever we reflect.

I wonder if the matter of love
can be grounded earthward
in the rhythms that pulse through us
when we are ready to speed,
in tune with illuminations and phases in the sky.

Here the formulas and solutions are uncertain.

And I believe that we are designed to move
across great distances,
that there is a process
where we reveal ourselves in dreams.

That truth is still there, after all these years,
holding firm as a planet in an orbit,
perennial and absolute.  

A Walk in the Wetlands

Thousands of water creatures hum through the pools.

Transient jays shriek at your shadow.

We pass quietly
under the sacred antiquity of the cottonwoods;
for this is where we go to hide,
a journey
over logs and millenniums of moss
to find what lies at the bottom of this wetland.

Here nature appears haphazard,
incidental as the water snake that blocks our path.

Wading through growth and decay
we feel blind to how things connect;
and we will always be interlopers to the frogs.

They scatter into the wet foliage, and, like us,
conceal themselves in sublime associations
with the leaves.

Bubbles of gas rise through splotches of algae,
nature's dark counterpoint
to the turbulent plumage of the oriole
and the swift iron-slick of the otter.

We move slowly into the coming night.

Small fish dart into hiding places
within the stagnant water.

The placid blossoms of the water lilies
are luminous at dusk,
like lamps on the water.

On the Dakota Hogback

We come for the solitude,
knowing our own limitations, to watch the magpies,
and perhaps to observe, late in the day,
a golden eagle on a glide path home.

On the Dakota Hogback dirt bikes create disorder.

But here we feel the potent rhythm of emergence,
energy moving up to where energy needs to flow.

We blend into the jumble of rocks and juniper.

All about us magpies jump in a continuous dance.

A snake uncoils from the cold
in the keen subtleness
of the snake's craft.

Energies merge, and other wild things
shed winter like an old skin.


Solitary and destructive,
Victim of the bad rap,
Few shed tears for the wolverine.

But you are fascinated by the skunk-bear,
of the Great Mother's children,
and stalk the edge of the tree line
to find where it fits.

Perhaps it's a matter of respect.

In this cold isolation
things fit with difficulty.

The  truth 
is that you get high on the action,
and what you are seeking 
may be yourself.

You have been chasing tracks for years
only to lose the hot trail
again and again
to darkness or a weather change.

Once you came close,
catching a glimpse among the trees
on an opposite slope.

A dark shape was bounding away
against the whiteness of the snow.

Life-zones on the Great Divide

You warn your daughters to tread carefully
through the altitude-stunted spruce.

For just above us bighorns are dropping lambs,
and here we must maintain the equilibrium
through attention to detail.

When the high trails shift, loosened by subtle change,
boulders crash by,
the ground quivers like the belly of a cow elk.
On the slope below, at dusk,
the mule deer appear lavender-grey,
where living with uncertainty
has made their step delicate.

Your daughters move down this Great Divide
and find the difference in life-zones
a matter of the obvious.

You tell of the balance to be found at each level,
how at the end of the day
it becomes necessary to size things up.

On this boulder field
the pika's urine is crystalline.

Pick up a lichen
and ten years breaks apart in your hands.


At the eclipse of the moon we walked
to where the pond lay still and deep.

And when a fox stirred in the leaves I froze,
long ago weathered by a war
and having surrendered to doubt.

We were lucky that the clouds had cleared
and for the fragrance of what bloomed unseen.

The drama of the moon's eclipse
might have escaped,
elusive as the fleeting eyeshine of that fox.

A night heron stood waiting,
unattended in the shadows,
his low and mundane call a melody to another,
while frogs croaked
and the rhythm of the night things
sounded in the chambers of the moon.

I have been too busy with day-to-day events,
with naked promises that pass us by;
and I have taken much for granted,
the cold torturer of facts,
having no time to ponder the moon's dark side
or that lunar shadow in the heavens
that whirled our heads.

Prayer for the Bears

After a dry summer bear were coming down.

October had them confused, still hungry,
their hopes
to imaginary garbage.

The dry summer had seen them proliferate
in spite of us,
impartial to our disorder and complaints,
a sow and two cubs
as far as Lakewood.

It is said that bear never compromise.

But when a big male
tried to maul our dogs
someone sprayed him with a hose
and he ran,
to find refuge in the peace
of the Engelmann Spruce.

May he survive to enjoy
the full moon's moment,
and go back to scavenging road-kills.

May all the bears sleep, undisturbed,
in a dream time governed by their ancestors,
in caves deep within the Great Divide.

Hunting for Antelope East of Yoder, Colorado

For an afternoon you share these dry plains
with occasional great stones that have no destination,
hunting for antelope
along a straight track crossed by wild dogs.

To your left
you are surprised by a snowy egret
descending from cool altitudes.

Along this flyway there are many possibilities,
and one overcomes the forgotten condition of the land,
the abandoned farms,
the accidents over which you have no control,
to find a form of comfort
when twilight rests on a far tableland.

We have all been struck by the sudden and unforeseen,
something wild as the intensity
that glows in the eye of another.

Overhead the egret rests in a lone cottonwood,
her black beak like a spike of dark crystal.

The great stones erode into odd and random shapes.

Here the distance and dust-haze favors the antelope,
and things cohere more by luck than design.

Letter to Lake Ellyn

At the turn of summer, returning to Lake Ellyn,
under the changing leaves of the oaks and the maples,
did you feel that homecoming that only fall brings?

All my ways of thinking were overcome
as I gave myself away to those bright leaves,
finding a kind of balance as they fell,
a flock of geese gliding by,
holding to a pattern in their descent.

What I wanted was to let go,
to turn loose the years held within of a longing
for a past time and place.

The years slip by,
but some things like those oaks and maples
are held permanent in the heart,
and although we move and change
like the geese in flight
we hold to a form governed by a spirit deep within.

You, by your cold, northern lake,
think of me when winter's first snowfall
seals the landscape in a sleep.

Think of me when you smell woodsmoke,
and how I must be
back among the mountains of my Great Divide,
holding true for spring.

Crossings (Remembering Vietnam, 1968-70)

For twenty-five years you have been crossing a river.

Your smooth companion 
has been the dark,
and many a night, along the riverbank,
you have turned circles
in the tall grass to make a bed.

Tonight brings back a memory of the monsoon,
and you awake where ridgelines
rise like weapon-heaps,
study the landscape
till the violence snaps back.

Time grows into the tall grass,
and distance becomes an endless fence.

For you there will be no homecomings
to where the razor edge of the elephant grass
scratched your cheek,
and you have grown a beard 
no lover would recognize
should time ever bring you both face to face.

On your flank there will always be a murmur,
and moving out from the tangle of the thickets
you will always pick your steps.

What you carry in this crossing is that dark weight
that broke us all apart,
a weight you feel even now
when the full moon's rise fixes your gaze.

We are all destined for some measure,
if not by being lost,
then by bearing the dark weight home.

At a Waterhole Along the Western Slope

You find that there is more here
that the hazed flatness of the land.

Deep below there are aquifers
that feed the waterhole,
and during the late afternoon
the yellow grass shimmers
to the meditations of the locusts

At night,
when it is time to drink,
the languorous eyes of the mule deer
beg for mercy,
slipping by with their desires.

You play cards with the visiting multitudes,
under a camp's kerosene lamp.

Glazed stockmen,
weightless and without doubts,
their muscles hard as feldspar and galena,
spit at the immensity of the sky.

Cutting Wood

In this high mountain valley,
for three days I searched the dry timber,
while our trucks
snapped through aspens
thick as tow cables.

Distant thunderheads
rose in the mountains to the west,
moving through the passes
with the porcupine.

The sweat and grit cut.

The features of each face were dust.

I believe only the airline pilots
truly understand this time,
and the different parts of the design.

Between the numbered hills and the high plains
they pass over me with their measured flights.

And while I cut wood
the rivers spread out on their electronic maps,
seemingly endless and immeasurable
slivers and spines.

In that open brightness everything is slick.

Eternity is a glistening impression.  

High Country Solitudes

Occasional clouds
still close like scissors on the foothills.

December has been a damp month.

On cool nights the muzzles of buffalo
wire the air with vapor.

On clear nights
the stars guide your mind westward,
toward the high country solitudes.

Deep in the interior,
in the far distances,
your muscles still flex
on a blue mountain's backbone.

We all must live with the memory
of a journey never completed
or a path not taken.

As the sun sinks lower on the horizon
low pressure systems bring snow instead of rain.

The wet buffaloes resting along the Genesee Exit
turn into dark haystacks.