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About this Poem 

"This piece, written at the request of the Academy of American Poets, celebrates not only the centennial of the National Park Service, but also the existence of Point Reyes National Seashore, an unusual National Park, at the edge of the continent. Hundreds of thousands have enjoyed the National Seashore, which accommodates family farms, many styles of wilderness, and countless non-human species. On any given day, it is possible to be on the trails and to be entirely solitary, or to go in company of loved ones and guests. Our family has enjoyed the area for over three decades. It is a huge treasure and let's hope it exists forever."
—Brenda Hillman

Poem for a National Seashore

i.

    —& humans walked to the edge of the sand
  through a bank of verbena & fog;  
     they thought they’d never get over
the deaths, but they were starting to. Worry
     about money rested in their phones. Talk of
 candidates had stalled. Some sang. Grays of

    objects rested in their packs. They had come
to the edge with children or with friends. Big 
   nothing quieted the crows. Wings of dried ink.
The snake had gone back to the hills, to velvet &
the brian-grasses; it digested a mouse near its spine.
     Some sang. The fox went back & would never

meet the snake except through the ampersand.
     The memory of failure failed for an hour. Some  
        sang. The future was a cosmic particle
seen once a long time ago. Those who had tried
   too often walked with those who had yet to try
    as doubt can walk beside a radical hope—

 

ii.

some had cancer       some walked outside
       some were breaking up    a few

        were getting by      some walked past 
 pines    to their hearts’ desire    thinking
        of sex      or seeds      a few  asked  

    where nature is    bonnard-blue thistles  

yarrow leaves  narrowly     out to  sea   

axio-fog of August    down from bluffs    
   
      others rolled through  dune grass    some
 rested     depressed     a few  made sand-

cities  sandwiches       some went   birdward
 to sooty &  long-billed      murrelet     grebe

 

 iii.

—they had driven to the country, though as  
    a poet wrote The country will bring us no peace;
they took their children of light & flesh
      because the sign was the sun upon the earth,
it was not toxic assets, it was not forwards or
    options or swaps; the sign was not ruin upon

 the sea, for the sea saved some. A caterpillar of
   maybe it was the tiger moth inched along,  
     a few white bristles sticking up, bristles taller
 than the country, & Abronia latifolia's roots would
  not live past the country or the blue-eyed darner
    & the meadow hawk with its three life stages…

  By the sea the orbweaver rappelling beside
        the fleabane was bolder than the country,
          it didn’t see underlying leverage or hedging,
 didn't see collateralized debt obligations & rates,
    or see the probably 100 trillion traded on
what is called futures while the mountain lion that

    has a small future took her young through the O in
October. Human children rolled through dune grass,
 they had a simple laughter in the country, in sand
   so much older than the country, they had a little
gladness for that day while the sign, the shadow
 of death, passed over them but death did not—

 

iv.

      little  litter     on the littoral   shore

  where first peoples  set   tule boats  

     walkers     makers of    a burn tangle

left that ocean      before writing    nations

    whose words    are lost     thick low

mats  now named  beachweed or heliotrope

horned sea rocket       When  John Muir   

a sweeping man   settled farther inland      

that family farmer       grew  peach trees   

    o  ever now      after such sorrow  

      we dreamed       a red ladder of    

birth & death         being set down

 

 

 v.

   The sun paused. It was greeting the soul
  of the day.  The clouds gathered past money,
 they were cumuli- & cirri-, they were glauc-
& grise & gray. The friends talked
   with their thumbs on the tiny machines
& some walked or drank & some loved.

   On the mountain in summer
they had seen serpentine & saw it again
  today, black green not the color of money
  as if a serpent had slid beneath the birth
 of the sea & brought the burned
         waves to the rock.   The friends

had violence in them & they had
      silence too. By the waves the silence
        sounded like swswswswsw or ____ ,
 it sounded like     '''''''''   or even {{{{{. 
       Lichen hung in hashtags & the wind
   was braver than sports. Slowly they

 forgot the grief opening of the book  
& when they saw the secret serpentine
   they knew what could be both you
& not you, that snake & fox &
    word would live with the hooded,
  the ring-necked, the marbled, the blue—

 

vi.

                Otters swam in the lagoon,
            the gates opened in the reeds,
          no suffering between the myths or
         silver smelt diminishing. No metal or
       spilled oil where human hair had been
     used to gather it… Otters have one million
         little hairs per inch of skin so when
  between the reeds they passed they did not

 hurt with cold. Far out to sea 10,000 whales
             swam without the humans.
      The humans breathed when they saw them
not as dire. Liso- & lati- & beside. They stood
   in Abronia latifolia, cries of E or I when they
   saw the whales. Harbingers, Thoreau might
     have said. One tall boy named Finn saw three.  
There was aggression among large mammals

  but no merrill lynching, no goldman saching, 
      no bankers’ greed or quantitative easing
no negative interest rate environment
    yielding minus zero so students pay to be
in debt. There was none of that. Some willow
       buds bobbed in the lagoon, kelp bobbed
 between gray & brown otters’ heads in winter
       cress. Their happiness was research.
 

 

     vii.

             The humans had come     in        strong boats
                      when continents                were closer.
                  That is the theory         in        some accounts. 
          The continents floated        in        & suddenly
        naked-new bodies arrived      in        buckled dunes & radiating
grasses. When some made love     in       the wooden place
                             by the sea              in       autumn her hands were
                     always cold even         in       thick warm
                               fibers & out        in       the charismatic dusk,
  under the harvest moon set        in       the history of
                                   arrivals,          in      browns & gray of winter fog &
                                    maybe          in       the amount of time
                        it took for the         in-      side of them to become
               warm, jazz poured          in       as if from distant fires on
             the west shore, as if         in      animated orange code. Centuries
   passed. When sex was delicious one woman thought, here we are
       at a national seashore, almost nothing goes well for the nation
                  but land held in common past dominance & greed
                   which seemed like a real plan as if love were free

 

viii.

             & heard the reeds hissing    when
                       Drake stepped on land      creeks went
                        below       the new dead  in slim
                               fog  could not be comforted     

  dusky Chlorogalum pomeridianum       the "soap plant"

blooms on dry hillsides       white-crowns nearby

     cloudy  light flowers        wiry blue lines
     
Miwok dug up          hidden bulbs      used
 
     dye from leaves      for tattoos      used

raw bulbs    for lather       from cooked
   bulbs made       a sweet   starch       then      

 with the paste       they glued arrows 

 

ix.

In spring, when the field starts to think & the invisibles
are relaxed, sounds let themselves out to the left. Crows 
   & apples sanction their appeal & humans go out
     almost to the Point & see the baby elk that have
      have fuzzy fur on the horns, grasses through which other
 grasses push. Yellow mustard flowers like paintings in
Europe. The elk are standing out at the precipice
      past dread or Thursdays & the humans start to feel

 pleasure. Some humans don't want elk on their land
       & put up signs with poems: LET'S PROTECT/
BOTH ELK AND COW/ TIME TO BUILD / ELK FENCES NOW.
Humans want to have sex anytime they want but don't want
     the elk to have sex anytime & accuse male elk of
      drinking water before sex, even humans who might
 take property from humans in other countries think
  male elk are being unreasonable for drinking water,

      but the humans love beauty & can be released from
their positions because so many have doubts about
   doubts about what is called the natural world; far below,
      the sea lions are stretched out like rug samples,
  & the humans tarry, looking down at high waves crashing,   
   green with its leader into gray, crashing over what is lost;
the humans name what is lost while going home where
     they live in violence & hope & inconceivable longing—

 

x.

       In woods  where     the spirits stood

    among the signs     past usnea  hanging
   in wet bishop  pines    humans heard

   the loud instances     of wide hawk  

A red-tail      flew over them

E-E-E   & the anti-going   furred one
  crawled past    brown feet   of chanterelles

    waited while one     of the hawk's

          perfect E's flew     to the sky

             & found the     end of time

 

xi.
 
   They had come to the coast as they
        had come to songs as they had come
       to poetry.  When they were odd
children they went to the sea & saw
  the bronze stems in the sand, dune grass
 where the shaman starved & hurt sank
   quietly. The parents were anxious, so
the children tried to act normal to keep them

calm. They didn’t know about threatened
     corals or the sorrow of coastal towns.
The children tried to act normal in school
      when teachers brought packets of poetry.
On holidays, violent games with the cousins
            & the sea grew more toxic &
more lovely. Now they are grown, they’re   
    trying to feel a little less terrible

about everything. They might take a poem
 to the beach for a birthday or a wedding.
   Pelicans fly in their backward Zs.  Sand
is the residue of stars, edges echo eco
  eco, for the house is already beside itself,
        the edges not the center; the children  
laugh as they make the sand houses, not
      remembering they’ll remember —
 

 

xii. 

So it was that the dream went back past the signs

So it was in summer again the loved ones went out to
            the sea at a quarter to dusk

The part of them that could do nothing did nothing
            & the light of them walked along

Walked west forgetting not the horror but forgiving
            others who were happier & the amount

When they got to the waves they gave the ashes of
             the dead to the sea oh blankness cut loose
                        from the dream

& forgot for an hour the anger as they sat & shook
            the small stones from their shoes & walked
                        back over the bridge of fireweed     

Talking about events that mattered as the ashes were
            sucked back in the tide so loss could be lost
                         for a while as love kept them   
                                    in company beside —
                                               

                                                     
for the children & grandchildren of the seashores

Copyright © 2016 by Brenda Hillman. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.

Copyright © 2016 by Brenda Hillman. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 2013). She received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 2012 and currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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