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Two Deep Breaths: Canyon

by Caitlin Dwyer

Have you ever stood in a place that made you feel small? In a good way, I mean — the way I feel when I look up on a clear night and see bright flecks of star. It’s the good-small feeling of being part of something bigger.

Where were you standing when you felt that way? A mountain, with layers of ancient volcano rock? A forest of huge trees, thick with shade? Maybe it was just on a streetcorner in the city, looking up at the sky and noticing the blue between the buildings.

Jennifer Elise Foerster’s poem “Canyon” is about that experience of smallness. Foerster is the author of two poetry books and a member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. In her poem, the speaker stands in a canyon somewhere in the U.S. Southwest. We know this because she mentions yucca and saguaro, plants native to that region. Looking at the rocks around her, the speaker “reads” the geological history of the region: “erosion-stripped script of ledges…crenelated lava scrolls.” The words “script” and “scrolls” relate to language, but Foerster’s narrator is simply looking at rock layers and imagining back thousands of years to when this region was not a desert, but an ocean. She imagines the inland sea that once covered much of the United States, so that water and desert collide in her mind.

In this contemplation of deep time, the narrator feels awed and small. Good-small. She also notices the ways in which time moves in a cycle. What happened before will happen again, she thinks; water will return to this landscape.

That return is not necessarily a good thing. Foerster’s book Bright Raft in the Afterweather explores climate change and its effects on landscape, as well as on people. I think her reference to the “coming storm” at the end of the poem is a warning and a truth. She’s thinking about the metamorphoses that global warming will wreck on our landscapes, as rising sea levels make our familiar places unfamiliar.

But, Foerster seems to say, landscapes change. We change. History is longer and bigger than individual people. Time circles back for us, and it’s good to be humble in the face of that big scale.

What do you imagine about the landscape where you live? How has it changed over time? How will it continue to change? Keep that in mind as you read “Canyon.”

Happy reading –

Caitlin

A reading tip: Read poems out loud! Poetry is an oral tradition. Often the sounds jump off the page when we speak them. Foerster’s got some great sounds in here, like the rhyme of “dust/upthrust” and or the hard k sounds in “stark/flanked.” See if you can listen for the sounds of these words as you read them.

 

Canyon

 

Brush over star’s dust,

upthrust shale,

erosion-stripped script of ledges—

 

sloughing scales off

our hands’ finned imprints,

slow-aging metamorphic skins

quartz

        schist   

            gypsum—

marine bones bedded in the drainage.

 

The basin overflows with wind.

Horizon—phantom barges,

a shore once lush with cane.

Moon—a relic in the azure sky,

gray face cut from the mountain’s spine.

 

A line of dust divides us—narwhale

and ghost—ancient stream

whose sound remains

floodland

        arroyo

    yucca

        saguaro

 

I dive with pipevine swallowtails

down winding stairs, crenulated lava—

scrolls, fossilized in radiant strata, read

prickly pear

        silver cholla

            spicules of sponge

 

Here in this rain-shadow’s stark

flanked gully, two blue-bellied lizards

streak across sand—vanish

inside a conch shell. Arrived

at the bottom of the world, I write.

 

Buried in the canyon’s

spiraled larynx—

a raft for the coming storm.

 

Jennifer Elise Foerster is the author of Leaving Tulsa (2013) and Bright Raft in the Afterweather (2018). She is an alumna of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), University of Denver, and the Vermont College of the Fine Arts. Foerster is of German, Dutch, and Mvskoke descent and is a member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma.