Mudlark Poster No. 1 (1997)

Taylor Graham

Cessna Down | Last Seen at the ATM
3/5. the Andes by proxy (poems)
The Search and the Poem (essay)

Taylor Graham is a volunteer search-and rescue dog handler. Her poems have appeared in AMERICA, THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, NEW YORK QUARTERLY, SOUTHERN HUMANITIES REVIEW, WILLOW SPRINGS and elsewhere. Her most recent collection is CASUALTIES (Coal City, 1995).

Cessna Down

Listen for the radio chatter
that could be news, or static.
The sky rubs against the near
granite peaks (too clear and
close-up to be blue), strikes
sparks. Or is it sun-glare?

Over the glacial cirque
a helicopter and three search-
planes circle, an edgy dance.
Somewhere thunder speaks.

On this high ridgeline
we trust to lenses
for the clear view,
to a handheld for news.

Just one hawk (a rough-leg)
scans the deep-firred basin
far below, and farther,
squirrels and mice bespeak
their own quick lives.

On the air, no word of metal
wings feathered, of egg-shell
fuselage. Lost. If anyone
in this decomposing granite
landscape moves, it would be
news. The radio is silent.

Last Seen at the ATM

A street of banks and churches,
count em, five of varying
denominations, a losing hand
in a child’s fist. We look for him
behind 1st Interfaith, and just
next door, the ATM’s a gaping
mouth shut tight without its
password. The fingerpads beep
and blip just like kids’ faces
at computer games. His T-shirt’s
in the dumpster by the drive-thru.
The ATM pays out, and blinks
like a witness through its lens,
like someone who might have seen,
have saved him. Enter. Gone.

3/5, the Andes by proxy

It’s been so many days now,
we’ve gotten out of synch,
this ersatz hero and I.
Imagination can’t sustain
without the real
smell of sweat on snow,
the actual scuffed rock
Half a hemisphere away,
I fancy a stick figure
on a postcard. Maybe
he’s still searching. But
it’s not my business anymore.
Come down from altitude,
I think the child is dead.

The Search and the Poem

My dog samples the air and trots ahead of me. She’s finding out all sorts of things about this morning and this new place—things she can’t convey to me in English. If poetry is sensory, then she has a poet’s nose.
            We’ve been up since way before dawn, driving across three counties to watch the sun rise over Sutter Buttes. Now we’re searching a pasture sprinkled with buttercups, shooting stars and lupine. I think of all the human ways to describe such an intense, mountain-blue sky. What I come up with, this morning, is chicken gizzard, cyanosis and bruise. The man we’re looking for is old and in poor health, already missing two nights. The sheriff briefed us on his radio code for deceased. That doesn’t quite spoil the morning, but shades it with unexpected colors.
            Now my dog sniffs at the edge of a rutty path, still muddy from last week’s rain. Dogwood overhangs the passage. I check where my partner inhales the scent of mud—and what else? Could that be a footprint? I sidestep to study it from the best angle, against the sun. Details. Clues tell the story, since someone or something left this trace. Two days? It’s such a fragmentary bit of evidence, might be the curved indentation of a heel. Or a deer’s cloven hoof. My dog gazes into the woods with brown-eyed longing but doesn’t offer to lead me that way. I suspect deer.
            What if this old man took an overgrown track from pasture into woods? What’s beyond the woods? My map shows the contours breaking off into cliffs and serious river canyon. Thousand-foot vistas. Searching makes me look at landscape differently. In my pre-search days, I used to be poetically awed and inspired by breathtaking views. I still am. But I can’t help thinking, what if this old man got in trouble down there? What if I have to search that beautiful, terrible place?
            A searcher always wants more information about the person he’s looking for. The briefing is just the beginning. Who’s missing? WMA 78. That’s white male adult, 78 years old. Herbert Sykes, answers to Bud. Lives in that white house over there. Family moved him here from Oklahoma a couple of months ago, he thinks he still lives back there. Wearing overalls and a tan shirt. Emphysema, high blood pressure. Last seen at noon Tuesday over by that tree. As I follow my dog through the woods, I run these scanty facts through my mind. It’s like trying to get to know the character in a poem one wants to write. Somehow the physical place we’re searching, and the weather, and who knows what else... interact with those sketchy missing-person details, and the story—the poem—begins to flesh out. Sometimes I learn things this way that I was never told at the search briefing.
            What I learn may help me and my dog—or some other searcher—find Bud. Or it may not. Sometimes all I have at the end of a search is the poem.

Copyright © Mudlark 1997
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