Three Poems and an essay
by Sara Backer
The five of us were asked to bring
one small thing we couldn't live without.
We carried keys, photographs,
a passport, a wedding ring,
and serious prescription medication.
We thought we would honor these
in ceremony, but instead we were told
to throw them into the ravine.
It took as long as it took.
I was first to toss twenty-two
countries away, but I was cheating.
Unlike the others, I could get another
passport; this one would get me out
of here, now.
The man with the keys went next.
We hiked downhill together,
discussing the meaning of the word
retreat. We reached his car
in the parking lot: locked. We looked
at each other, and laughed.
We still had our feet.
The small white geese are easy.
I need only raise my right hand
to make them swerve left,
or my left to make them move right.
The fields are fenced to keep the geese
eating Bermuda grass,
clover, and horsetail
between pungent spearmint rows.
Goslings work best, enjoying food
more than sex. A hungry goose
will dig nubs of grass, even eat the roots.
A fighting goose is a feast.
I remind myself they are meant to be used.
But as I stumble down my muddy path,
and pause to unfold a silver wrapper
off a sliver of gum, I sometimes see
wild geese flying a ragged victory V,
feel twinges of pain in my sore shoulders,
and sense a shadow in the sky
raising an arm behind me.
Note: Because geese eat grass and young weeds as quickly as they appear but do not touch some cultivated crops
(primarily cotton, corn, strawberries, and mint), farmers use them successfully in the field in place of expensive
hand labor and hoeing machines that often damage crop roots. Unlike humans and machines, geese work well
in wet weather and mud.
yellow jacket jaws
building a spittle-paper nest.
The nest is egg-shaped:
elegant, functional. Far superior
to my sprawling, ugly house.
In the evening, I spray poison,
so I won’t fear the sting.
A Predator’s Dilemma (re: the poem Wasp Nest)
To talk about wasps, I need to start with bees. As a child, I loved bees. In summer, I ran around outside in nothing but a homemade cotton sundress and flip-flops. We had an English border garden edged with a long swath of sedum that grew to ankle height, and honey bees would thrum in the low pink blossoms. I could see more amber-colored bees than flowers. My mother told me they wouldn’t hurt me if I didn’t bother them. When, wildly riding my tricycle or jumping rope, one would sting me, I believed it was a mistake and felt sorry for the death of the bee. The stings carried a sharp but fleeting pain, and I knew how to pull out the stingers and cover the bite with a stiff paste made of baking soda and water. By mid-summer, between bee, mosquito, ant, and spider bites, my legs were mostly pink bumps and white powder patches. My favorite bees were the big, solitary bumblebees that flew slowly and droned at a lower pitch. I taught myself to catch them and, barely touching them, gently stroked the soft fuzz on their backs. They often stayed in the cupped palm of my hand even though they could freely fly away.
Compared to bees, wasps seemed disproportionately large and thin. Wasps flew higher, in more erratic yet purposeful patterns; they lived in adult space and were not my concern. My first meeting with a wasp was at my grandmother’s house. I leaned against the back of the garage at dusk, vaguely hoping to see a bluebird emerge from one of the wooden birdhouses my grandfather built and stuck on poles in his large vegetable garden. As I stood in that supreme state of doing nothing but observing, a yellow jacket flew directly toward me and stung me just to the left of my breast bone, precisely over my heart. The pain I experienced was not the ephemeral surprise of a honeybee sting, but a stabbing burning sensation that wouldn’t quit. My skin swelled into a bump and I developed a slight fever. I did not go anaphylactic, but I recall someone saying I might be allergic to wasp venom. Along with feeling woozy and nauseous, I felt indignation, for I had done nothing to harm or alarm the wasp. That wasp taught me nature was not all live and let live.
So, at age seven, I began to grapple with the initial challenges of being an environmentalist. It's easy to champion harmless herbivores like porcupines and deer, but protecting predators—especially ones that attack you—requires more commitment.
Take, for example, the fisher, a tree-dwelling weasel slightly larger than a house cat with rounded ears and gorgeous sleek fur. Seldom seen, the powerful and speedy fisher is capable of attacking prey with a bite at the base of the brain so quickly its prey may not know what happened. Fishers originally got a bad rap from farmers because one fisher will kill every chicken in the coop. Farmers who found dead chickens and fisher tracks the next morning assumed the fisher killed for sport which made it a "bad" animal—you know, like humans. What they didn't know is that fishers, unlike most predators, also eat carrion and will return to their kill sites to finish up what they left. Fishers need tons of protein daily to maintain their impressive muscles and glorious coats. Rumors about the viciousness of fishers continue because they will occasionally attack pet cats. Although studies of fisher stomachs and feces show that house cats are a mere garnish in their diet (they mostly eat squirrels), people assume their beloved pets are being eaten by fishers instead of the far more likely predator of the woods, coyotes, due to their false reputation. A few folks around here, spotting a glimpse of a fisher at dawn or dusk, will respond by loading their shotguns. Without fishers, the rodent population would burgeon. Beyond their practical purpose in the food chain, however, is their astonishing beauty. I wonder if some of the fisher-haters could watch with me as a fisher knocked plums off my tree to eat if they would be so adamant about extinguishing them.
Wasps are beautiful, too. When I heard the delicate rustle of a wasp chewing, I was sitting on my door stoop. I looked around to find the nest. Not until I tipped my head back did I see pale gray hexagonal paper cells on the outdoor light directly over the front door. I hoped it might be a shy brown paper wasp, but its precise yellow markings made it a yellow jacket—who was way too close for comfort. Nine species of yellow jackets inhabit New Hampshire and all are aggressive.
Flashback to 1992 in Japan. All American wasps seem benign compared to the gigantic hornets of Asia. A Vespa Mandarina Japonica built a nest beside the door of my second floor apartment. This two-inch hornet zagged toward me every time I went in or out. I imagined a rerun of that stressful summer, constantly draping a large scarf over my head and hoping that was enough to confuse the hornet as I hurried through the danger zone between my door and my bicycle chained up downstairs. I also thought about the children I tutored in my home (and, if one was allergic to wasp venom, the lawsuit his parents might wreak upon me), along with visitors, the mail carrier, and my cat who liked to roll on the cement stoop. I had good reasons to destroy the nest-in-progress while only one queen was working solo and the nest was smaller than a golf ball. After the first larvae hatch, they help the queen enlarge the nest which can grow to house four or five thousand wasps.
On the other hand, wasps eat caterpillars, flies, and other soft-bodied insects, and happen to be the favorite cuisine of my favorite bird, common Eastern Phoebes, who nest outside my bedroom window year after year. (I once delayed house painting until the phoebe chicks fledged.)
Was it my moral obligation to set aside my own safety for the sake of wasps and phoebes and the food chain in general? I thought about the Jains, who lay on mattresses infested with bed bugs or fleas in order to feed them. The most devout Jain regarded it a duty to extinguish his own life for the cause of preserving other lives. But I, too, was a predator; did I have the right to defend myself and my nest from wasp venom?
I decided to kill the queen yellow jacket as efficiently as possible. But the least I owed her was a thorough consideration of what I was doing and why, and an appreciation of the beauty she created that I would destroy.
 Here is an atypical photo showing a fisher running:
 For a photo, visit my blog entry:
Sara Backer’s novel American Fuji was a book club pick of the Honolulu Advertiser and a nominee for the Kiriyama Prize. She is also a poet whose work has appeared in numerous literary magazines including Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, The Seattle Review, and Slant. She has taught creative writing classes for Cuesta College, Maui Literary Circles, Northeast Cultural Cooperative, and New Hampshire Institute of Art. She currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and lives in the woods in New Hampshire. Sara was the runner-up for our first Turtle Island Poetry Award. http://www.sarabacker.com/
Two Poems by Adrian C. Louis
In windswept chambers of my heart
I have pretended to scorn the surge
of colonial blood in my Ranger’s art.
I was urged to stay & told to purge
all songs that lashed me to my past,
yet I did not think I could or would
ejaculate subservience into our cast.
Hey, I do not think it bad but good
my beauty brought a base response.
The profane does have a sacred mask.
He always feigned such nonchalance
when in naked night I numbly asked
what it was in my dark meat he saw,
what essence made me deeply craved
& why would a pale-faced man of law
command my genitals to be enslaved?
My pasty colleague
had never traveled
in the world of men
& knew nothing of
a blood-gushing nose
given solely for a pale-eyed
stare so I punched him, hard
& somewhat metaphorically
& as he writhed upon the dirt
road, I oiled him kindly & then
helped him to his puzzled feet.
“Expect the unexpected, Judas,”
I said & he laughed with me, but
his laughter seemed so self-published.
Adrian C. Louis was born and raised in northern Nevada and is an enrolled member of the Lovelock Paiute Tribe. From 1984-97, Louis taught at Oglala Lakota College and is currently a Professor of English in the Minnesota state university system. His new book of poems is Savage Sunsets. For more info, see www.Adrian-C-Louis.com.
Poem by M.J. Iuppa
No wind. Last night’s rain drips off the crabapple’s purple leaves.
This isn’t pretty. Ruin reminds me of future work. Where does one
begin? Skirting puddles too wide to jump over, my footsteps scallop
the soggy edges. It’s Sunday. The garden is sinking. The windsock’s
carp eye stare— slack mouth open to the sky.
Quick glance around— rows
of tomatoes listing in raised beds. Shadow of crow’s wings cut
a wake over desolate fields. There’s a lump in my throat. I thought
I could read this morning’s scene without any warning.
M.J. Iuppa lives on a small farm near the shores of Lake Ontario. Her most recent poems have appeared in Poetry East, The Chariton Review, Tar River Poetry, Blueline, The Prose Poem Project, and The Centrifugal Eye, among others. Recent chapbook is As the Crows Flies (Foothills Publishing, 2008) and second full length collection, Within Reach, (Cherry Grove Collections, 2010); recently released prose chapbook Between Worlds (Foothills Publishing, 2013) She is Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Visual and Performing Arts Minor program at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY.
Poem by Eric Paul Shaffer
If the butterfly delivers dreams, the moth punches a time card
and carries a lunch pail. The moth is trapped in his freedom,
forced by light into long hours and night. His flight ain’t fancy,
and he’s got not a minute to think. Moths outnumber the flashy,
fluttering butterfly four to one, yet no poet drones of moths
while he wanders broad meadows of seed-stippled grass
tossed in a flirty little breeze. The poet chases the inconstant
insect through blue and long, sunlit days that flicker and fade
before the universal permanence of night. Overlooked and over-
worked in their garb of brown, white, black, and gray, moths work
all the time, over-time, barely pausing to rest or mate, yet we think
of them only as dusky wings dusted with moonlight, flicking past
our ears. Overhead, their innocent bodies beat the dirty
glass enclosing the light in which they believe, as we heave wide
the heavy doors of bars where we drown our days in darkness.
Eric Paul Shaffer is the author of five books of poetry, including Lāhaina Noon (2005), Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen (2001), and Portable Planet (2000). Road Sign Suite: Across America and Again (2007) and Restoring
Lady Liberty (2009) are both recent chapbooks. His poems have appeared in numerous publications; including Slate, American Scholar, North American Review, Poetry Ireland Review The Sun Magazine, and Threepenny Review. Burn & Learn, or Memoirs of the Cenozoic Era, his first novel, was published in 2009.
Three Poems by Michael Adams
I Need to Tell You
I need to tell you, I don’t
have much time, I need
to tell you some things,
but I don’t have much
time, they’re important but I can’t
form the words, or the words
stick in my throat, I can’t
do it, I’ve had
but I can’t do it, it’s not
the way the sun sets, beating
on the hammered lead of the sea.
It’s not the sulfur smell of lightning-
struck rock, the blue-white flashes
that split the sky. It’s not
an infant’s first
cry or the eyes
of a dying parent.
Damn it, it’s in
these things but there’s much more,
like the shine of blue ice
and snow in the tropics, burning
the roots of your eyes
Fear, grief, love, loss,
beauty, they’re only
All the words I’ve ever
in my throat like cold
ash. I need
to tell you
before I die.
The train runs west, down the river, stone
shining in the sun, dark pines, snow blazing
on the high peaks, and the waters of Colorado gather from springs
and moss-wet snowfield for their long reaching journey across
the red Utah desert of god-fevered dreams and dream-haunted bones,
seeking the sea it will not reach, Sea of Cortez, he of the bloody golden cross,
The train and the river, down the long sweep
of America, with its tender burden of humanity,
the fellow travelers you come to know –
the father taking his wounded son back home, rescued
from the state hospital for the criminally insane, gentled
by love and drugs
the six young Amish men and women, suspendered and bearded,
long-skirted and bonneted in the dining car, laughing and playing cards,
The elderly black gentleman, impeccably dressed in dark pinstripe
suit and fedora and saxophone case, a session musician all his
life since hearing Charlie Parker play not in a club but on the street
in front of a bar in freezing November Saint Louis.
All of you carried through the Colorado of vineyards and oil fields,
through the Utah of storms and temples, enormous skies and small green meccas,
through the Nevada of gypsum flats and nuclear poisons, where the stars come out
to wash the night with the fires of creation,
Carried across the great living land, the beaten bruised forgotten America
of craters and uranium, brokedown lung-poisoned miners carrying the slow
isotopes of death.
And under it all, the old earth, great undying heart, fiery and patient.
You can find no words holy enough for what you feel, with your heart so tender,
No words for this world of light and terror, beauty and pain,
the suffering and joy of every living thing,
Only a dumb and unspeakable silence for the night
swelling and rising in your throat, demanding voice.
You can make a slag heap beautiful
and fill a meadow with despair, she said.
How do you do it?
Let me tell you what it’s like
to grow up in a place where the earth
itself splits open and pours out sulphur and
smoke and the rivers burn in the night.
Jesus Christ, you could hang
a clean white sheet on the line
in the morning and it’d be gray
by early afternoon, and the night sky
sometimes burned brighter
than the sunless day.
Let me tell you what it means
when men and women join hands
and say no more until we are treated
with dignity and men of power
are forced to look them in the eye.
We were young and we loved it, loved it all –
the spindly trees, the small flowers,
the rushing dirty streams,
the days when the wind
came hard enough
out of the north
to blow the sky blue,
our secret places,
the small green glens
hidden from the mills.
from the stacks.
Michael Adams was the author of nine books of poetry and has been published in numerous anthologies, literary journals, newspapers, and general interest magazines. His most recent books are Steel Valley (Lummox Press, 2010), and If You Can Still Dance With It (Turkey Buzzard Press 2012). He has worked as a laborer in a steel mill, an urban planner, a climbing and rafting guide, a college instructor, and a natural resources manager. He lived in Lafayette, CO with his wife Claire until he recently passed away. We are happy he knew these poems were forthcoming in TIQ. He also appeared in our first issue.
Three Poems by Jerry Brunoe
Love Poem # 49: Nawiliwili Bay
for Walt Whitman, "what is it then between us?"
What is it then between us?
The ocean shores and the ocean,
the rolling waves tolling the word, come,
and days later crashing on the sandy beaches, here.
What was it that sounded ‘love’
just after the waves swept back the shore?
Three times I sang the body love.
I sang it sad. I sang it blue.
I sang it with a coarse voice
that scratched my lover's tongue
and scraped her areola thin.
Three times I felt my ribs ache
with each extended vowel.
How many cascading mountains divided my song
and did it ever reach you?
Walt, don't feel cumbersome
and overdrawn on long vowels.
Don't we both love these three bodies:
the ocean, the rivers, and the reservoirs?
The love, the laugh, and the swelling of both?
Love Poem # 7: Something About Being an Indian
for Adrian C. Louis and Simon J. Ortiz, “being poor and powerless. And refusing again.”
And we knew it as children: playing in tattered pants and
three day worn t-shirts, laughing at our slower cousin and
his hokey pokey hobble of a run, just starting to climb the
slope. We played king of the hill until night fall, scraped off
dried specks of blood from lips as we walked home bragging.
And we proved it in high school basketball: the sweat still
drips from our foreheads, gym shoes squeaking, and shouts
echo through our court. Those are the remaining sounds of
our full court press. Our heads hung lower than our loose
hair after each playoff loss. We practiced back home on
black courts, scraped our knees and elbows on asphalt.
And we finally acknowledge it in adulthood: our drunken
mouths whisper alcoholic nothings, accidently though, in
each other’s noses. We scrape together loose change and
take our beer cans back for the extra nickels. Hatred grew
more than our bones, replaced food and aspirations. It
slowly taught us how to love the ball of hand we call fists.
There is something about being an Indian:
being poor and powerless. And refusing again.
And do we ever feel Indian
as a Wasco would on his river
before meeting with Clark?
Are we still Nummu
after spending years
with only one sunrise
and the same sunset?
Can we ever peer from the Pueblo
and feel Acoma?
Did any of our ancestors
hear the words Power and Less
then think Whites and Us?
I don't know what to refuse
our past or our future.
What is derived from our poverty
that outsiders believe
we should keep as spirituality?
Love Poem # 58: Nearing the Metolious Bench
for Gary Snyder
could keep its dust
if I drove it like I wanted?
Pedal to the metal,
forgetting the shiny rims
and yesterday's wax job;
the developing cloud behind me
propelled by tailpipe rust,
and the M-100's trust.
Gary, don’t feel Springer
because of the handful of Sahaptin words
you have learned. I have spurned them
since I was a child, slightly more
than the English, slightly less
than the Kiksht.*
*“Sahaptin” is the tribal language of the Warm Springs people. “Kiksht” is the language of the
Jerry Brunoe was raised on the Warm Springs Reservation. He attended Oregon State University (OSU) briefly and sporadically. He left OSU and his journey was broad but always within reach of a good book. His poems have appeared in From Benicia With Love (Poetry, That Is),Future Earth Magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, Poetry Quarterly, Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, Oregon Poetic Voices, Naugatuck River Review, Basalt, Horizon Review, Contrary, To Topos: Poetry International, and Native America Calling’s “Open Mic Poetry Session.” He is the winner of the 2013 Walt Whitman 150 Award. He is a Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Toe Good Poetry. Jerry is also an Advising Editor for Turtle Island Quarterly.
Credits: Love Poem # 7: Something About Being an Indian,” and “Love Poem # 58: Nearing The Metolious Bench" first appeared in Yellow Medicine Review
“Love Poem # 49: Nawiliwili Bay” won the Walt Whitman 150 Award
TURTLE ISLAND QUARTERLY
Issue 2FALL 2013
Sara Backer, Adrian C. Louis, M.J. Iuppa,
Eric Paul Shaffer, Michael Adams, and Jerry Brunoe.