Today's poetry for today's world

John Daniel


John Daniel may be better known as the author of narrative nonfiction books such as Rogue River Journal and The Far Corner, but he has been writing poems since the 1970's.  Two collections have been published— Common Ground (Confluence Press, 1988) and All Things Touched by Wind (Salmon Run Press, 1994).  His individual poems have appeared in a broad array of magazines such as Poetry, Southern Review, Seattle Review, North American Review, Sierra, and Orion.  The winner of two Oregon Book Awards, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University, Daniel lives in the Coast Range foothills west of Eugene, Oregon.   






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One April morning in the rain I pile green boughs

from the big Douglas fir

whose limbs had sagged on the barn,

splash gas, toss a match, and whump

out of nowhere, an orange explosion

subsiding to a hesitant burn,

flames stirring like sleepy children

still thralled by the other world,

then a quickening hiss and crackle

of sap-gorged wood, and the flames

remember their yellow hunger,

climbing the heaped greens with a rising roar.

I heave more branches,

my hat lowered to the sheer smack of heat

that instantly sizzles the needle-sprays black,

singes my mustache, curls

the hairs on the backs of my hands,

and I wonder as I carry

big sections of limb

I had planned to season for stovewood,

how we ever got it locked in the tips of matches

or in motors purring at our feet,

how we trained it to simmer saucepans

and stand, docile, on candle wicks,

a flutter as one of us walks by

the one slight sign

that once the world was its blasting cauldron

and is that now, within.

Live, I say, tossing scrap wood now,

rotted shingles and posts,

a wobbly sawhorse, plywood pieces—

live now, and not this summer.

But it isn’t for prudence or good housekeeping

that I feed and feed

that unbearable aura,

it’s for the flames that exult around each gift,

transforming hard heft

in their red livid heart

to the nothing it actually is.

Ashes drift down with the sprinkling rain.

With no more to offer

I stand aside, gazing like a child

at the great burning tent I will someday enter—

it gathers itself

from the dull clay ground,

it writhes and yearns, it points

to the far, invisible stars it has not forgotten.




First appeared in the Texas Observer, 1995.  Anthologized in Wild Song: Poems of the Natural World (University of Georgia Press, 1998).









                  Deepwater Horizon, Summer 2010


Few of us have seen the stuff itself,

the remains of epochs, eras,

of algae and protozoans

long buried beneath layers of rock.

Few have seen or touched it,

but the toddler absorbs a trace

when she mouths the plastic toy,

as do all of us who eat from fields

fertilized and sanitized

with its efficient derivatives.


We get whiffs of it from traffic,

from the weed-whacker and mower,

and sometimes a raw breath comes

as we board a plane, then again

disembarking in a distant city,

a trail of white streaks lingering

above, dissolving slowly

in the hazy skies of a warming day.


We know it by such hints and spoor,

but so carefully have we trained it

to do its work for us and keep

discreetly out of sight and mind

that we don’t know crude oil—

this brown or greenish or coal-black goo

that clogs with crippling weight

the pelican’s wings, floods beach

and marshland in a dark tide

that will not ebb. 


                             Those good souls

who net the birds and clean them,

who blot the shorelines as they can

with paper pads, they know its feel,

its balled or caked or oozing heft,

and they know in nose and throat

its sulfurous stink.  But they, at least,

can shed their gloves and boots

and sleep clean tonight—or would

sleep clean, if any of us could.


The image missing from this poem

is the man you’ve seen in movies—

the wildcatter, drilling for his dream,

strikes it big and dances now

in the black rain of his spewing well,

smeared, soaked, besotted with oil,

screaming his jubilation, his face

so writhed he seems almost in agony.

He is. He has it all, this oiled man.

He is rich, he is crazy rich,

and he means to share his dream.

He sees great things for all of us.

His gusher has come in and it is ours.




First appeared in a different form in The Oregonian, June, 2010.    











When the throaty calls of sandhill cranes

echo across the valley, when the rimrock flares

incandescent red, and the junipers

are flames of green on the shortgrass hills,


in that moment of last clear light

when the world seems ready to speak its name,

meet me in the field alongside the pond.

Without careers for once, without things to do,


without dreams or anger or the rattle of fears,

we’ll ask how it can be that we walk this ground

and know that we walk, alive in a world

that didn’t have to be beautiful, alive


in a world that doesn’t have to be.

With no answers, just ourselves and silence,

we’ll listen for the song that waits to be learned,

the song that moves through the passing light.




First appeared in South Dakota Review, Spring 1985.  Collected in Common Ground (Confluence Press, 1988).




Writer's Tip: Writing poetry can’t be taught but to an extent it can be learned.  Courses and workshops may sometimes be helpful, but the best teachers will be your reading and your experience of the world.  Read widely, poets you admire and poets you don’t.  Don’t confine yourself to the current scene; we live in an eye-blink of time.  Find your voice in what you love, and then: “Cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil.”  (Henry David Thoreau, in his Journal.)




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