Matt Daly is the author of the poetry collection, Between Here and Home (Unsolicited Press), and the chapbook, Red State (Seven Kitchens Press). He is the recipient of a Neltje Blanchan Award for writing inspired by the natural world and a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the Wyoming Arts Council. His second full-length collection of poems is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in 2024. Matt is the co-founder of Write to Thrive (www.writetothrive.net), an enterprise that brings reflective and creative writing practices to individuals and professional groups to cultivate creativity and wellbeing.
Observe, my ancestor, white blossoms as columbine.
Report the columbine above the ripening
whortleberries. Presume red tendrils back
to the red of fruiting bodies. Examine the red
stain of the plucked fruit. Quarrel fingertips,
your convictions. Suspect the family of fruiting
bodies. Leave the beetle to its mark. Utter
the contractions of these unfamiliar textures.
Prove flavor by baring teeth. Scratch the weak
dew from the knuckle edge. Give testimony
which is also oath-moan. Dye cell by cell
to the fleeting flavor. Confess to finish
or further the inquiry. Witness the uselessness
of cuspids in the acquisition of language or
of flavor. Call upon the league of leaves,
their hidden reddening. Entertain the familiar
beetle fingering a fingernail. Divine the passage
of the black beetle into nearby blackness,
unwarranted red, token red, signal red,
faltering, forsaking, confessing, gesturing,
pranking, malignant red, circumstantial red,
what has been called the witches’ mark,
the witches’ words, the witches’ deeds,
the witches’ ecstasies. Witnesses the witches’
confessions, as you have long done, my ancestor,
as if white flowers aching always lightward.
Maybe in that late day a flame or shadow
darted into me. The tree coaled beneath itself
with spent needles. Late August exhaled. I was
a breathing boy still looking forward to light
as much as fading. I was beginning a year,
and I was familiar with sorceries. To this
day, I see things I can’t explain and don’t
bother trying. I still sit in the dirt with my
hands. The world goes on whispering just out
of earshot and the crick in my neck from listening.
I watch the needles pile up and feel them brush
shoulders of the moraine. Dirt will hold me
on the last day and dirt will also hold me after.
I had not been seen by stems back then,
but I had tasted them, and I had cut them
down. Hungry for sweeter veins of the woods,
I plucked and sipped grasses, popped clover-
heads, buggy and full, into my boymouth
for the flood of crushed cells. Among ghost
shadows of summer pines I extracted the flutes
of columbine one at a time to nip the slim tip
and let what sweet they kept for hawkmoths,
which look like hummingbirds among the mottled
shadows of summer pines, roll sweetly down
my tongue’s spine. Time passed, and more of me
grew barked and galled. I grew into my fragile
hungers, and I knew how to hold their dusted
pulse. The white flowers looked less and less
like secret treats and more like little wings
of a stillness I reached for without talons or clutch.
I didn’t know poison ivy grew along the red
rock canyon stream until I stood knee-deep
in its red stems, or that such a thing as bighorn
sheep lived anywhere except carved into some
canyon wall until the rams and ewes stood all
around me. When my legs began to burn and blister
I waded crotch-deep into the canyon stream
to let the water calm me. I didn’t know that
standing in any wild place I’d never before been
could feel like anything but lust. I still don’t
know any other feeling. Those parts of my animal
body that can only be called flanks quiver and itch,
and whatever live skin brushes my live skin
welts me as I slip through folds of leaves
toward the cold tug of clear water. I fished
for trout in the deep pools. Trout raised
in a hatchery cinder- blocked around the spring
that fed the tanks full of fry and couldn’t help
itself but pour toward the ocean-bound.
The later river, I have read, no longer rushes
with any urgency toward the hips of the sea.
A fragment of some forgotten stone lodged
in my right-hand, pointer- finger, fist knuckle
after I struck the pre- shattered rock a splitting
blow from a hammer no one in our cabin house
minded that I used for my rockhounding.
I don’t remember goggles or glasses, so what
became part of me could have been worse. That
was a boyhood time when my boyself cottonwooded.
Now, in this later, too- warm summer, a leaf
prickle from a Canada thistle lances my opposing
thumb and leaves its initial pierce inside, I believe,
the meat of me. It throbs when I worry the mark
it made, but I do not call my doctor, who was
a neighbor in the rock- smacking days, to have
him cut it away. I grow neither leaf-like nor
calcified in what has come to resemble a tumble
of seasons. I fill up, digit by digit, with shards,
the piles of sharp ends of the left-unclobbered
wild, and I try not to let go of their not letting me go.
Fall hawthorn branches laden with waxwings
and hard fruit of skin- gripped seeds. Sunup
thorns sting the frost- laden arc. Every flutter
of my wicked cells in mourning. One at a time
the flocks go a little farther toward away
to that dull place beyond place where nothing
but what you, my ancestor, say is blessed, ripens
around a seed loosed leathery and groundward.
We often gorged among the hackled branches
near tumult streams. Our world was plain
as granite scree. What was familiar was sad
people and the slow erosion of sad people.
I would come to know sandstone, tamarisk
throat-handing desert streams, and a woman
invaded by weeds; and you, my ancestor, would
familiarize yourself with techniques to carry
a car-wrecked girl away from Montana before
the highway patrol arrived. But in our teens, we knew
only that altitude was red and seedy and tasted
like shards where marmots perched in our Augusts.
Years later, we tried to fall in love or to act
at last on the years of falling, but for a couple
of lean-bodied summers you and I did not need
the simple sadness of two bodies squeezed into one
clutch. We knew which red fruit we could pull
from brambles and swallow, and which harvests
among summer’s profusions would poison or prick us.
I have twinged, cactus spines hooked in my skin,
severally: looking away from a windowsill
pot, pulling a bulb from the white dog’s leg
before he could chew it, brushing against what
the dog missed, so on. Never have I known
thirst like the lost throat of a vast place that I did
not think was meant for my voice or safe,
even when not-for- certain safe. This calloused
luck of my ancestry, its inevitable cruelty.
Before I knew henbane was an invasive plant
where I live, I thought the speckled flowers
were beautiful. After? Still. Before I knew
how toxic henbane could be in all its parts
to the heart, I let stalks flourish in my yard,
admired the blossoms adorning the space
above the array of leaves. Once I knew henbane
was invasive, I released roots from the dirt
with a firm tug. I may have touched some
plants with bare hands. I may have feared
that my ancestor brushed his toddler fingers
over the mottled petals. Once I knew that
henbane was long used either as medicine
or hallucinogen, I thought about times the world
seemed strange to me, like how stars revealed
their varying distances from my pinpoint vision,
even those long since coaled to emptiness,
and I was unaffected. I like pilsner in the summer,
but sometimes one slurs me. Sometimes, I think
my thoughts are toxic, but that has yet to stop me
from thinking or feeling gratitude for my ancestor,
alive in this unfamiliar world, a feeling like a branch-
tossing gust as it gathers leaves before a cold front.
And I can’t help but reach out to what grows.
Pasture willows grew into hovels we entered
and sat surrounded by stick walls. We knew,
my ancestor, others who needed shelter: the boy
whose dad chased us off if we came near
his son while his son trembled, the boy
whose dad we never saw but about whom
our parents whispered, the boys at the end
of the lane whose grandmother stabbed a shotgun
at them from her porch when they strayed
into her drunken yard. We were almost
fatherless and often happy and without reason
to fear what our parents could do beyond
their falling silent and into separate rooms.
We grew woody and leaved, muddy
and trailing dried algae strands, ripe, my ancestor,
with the must of willow bark. We emerged
festooned with the half- wildness of the pasture,
and sheltered by the gray hands of branches.
I irrigated the steer field the summer before
middle school. If you were not picked up
by dusk, then you biked with me and hauled
the thin timbers and orange tarps with me, lifted
river stones to weight the tarps to keep them
from billowing away like water, and the work
went faster. So, we’d linger. Once, a town kid
slithered under the low strand of barbed wire
instead of scaling it, ladder-like near the staple
in a grounded post, and you laughed, my ancestor,
instead of showing him our way. He rose, forearms
sliced from the sedges, apart from the rest of us
and giggling. That fall in town, we would feel
like difference. Some nights the dusk surrounded
us. In the field, the steers followed in groups,
emboldened each other to snort and false charge
until we spun and flung our sunburned arms
upward and woofed. They would always spook,
the steers, and the ones that had been bravest
would lead their scared leaps backward. We were
already well aware of following and leading.
If the steers butted heads in flight from us,
we chucked each other fist to shoulder. The ride
home was always straight into a darkening.
My heartbeat begins to feel like not-a-heart
when I have gone a time without the river
pulsing strong around my body. In such
seasons, the little houndstooth fist I pull
from a sock or sleeve and pinch until
it holds my thumb or pointer finger is like
the river’s reprieve as its own heart-shaped
glacier diminishes, seems to recharge among
the accumulation of storms only to diminish
in another dull throb of summer days.
What a lost pair of words: my body.
As if anything is split or otherwise held.
As if the nature of holding is anything
other than holding and then again holding.
Allergies for years would make you think,
my ancestor, that I should avoid goldenrod
in bloom, but bees and summer heat, the muddy
mistbreath of pasture and the weedy edges
of rural roads before the sere clung to my body
(such a sad bumble of tongues to call this
“mine”), the way hooked ends of grasshopper
legs drew carapace to boy skin. I leaned
and lean in. The sun once blistered my shoulders,
left me wheezy and flattened on the couch
while you, ancestor, went off to some shaded place
I can’t remember. Sunstroked, I slept, and if
I were to say that in my sleep I found myself
in a field of goldenrod, then already now my eyes
burn at the thought of a clear-lunged summer
without horses or idle gravel-kicking where roadcut
goldenrod hummed and I drummed inside
myself like pollen thunders in clumps on the last
legs of bees. Bees I rarely see now outside
mismatched hive boxes hemmed by crops
when I am outside with a task or two, a purpose
that, unlike fever dreams of a boy never learning
how to be a man or even manchild, is of no use
to this weedy world other than exhalation.
The way I know my self- deception is the lie
divided into my body and all the other wildlife.
The other day, I talked to a tree, a spruce
robed in black for the short month with heavy
snow. The tree grew in my neighbor’s yard,
and had been doing so for long enough to have
been brushed by the same winds that once brushed
the spruces in my yard, the trees my friend
cut down. I was glad that you, my ancestor,
were in your moldering place away on a far hill,
because I spoke aloud to the tree, and I knew
what you would think of that. Nothing sinister,
just a little chit-chat about the tricks the tree
was eager to perfect. You see, the spruce was
teaching other trees even the disheveled
birch and the graceful, albeit shabby, golden
willow, a little sleight- of-hand magic. The spruce
held snow and then gone, just like that, gone.
The snow was gone just like that. The branches
that had held the snow only a moment before
wavered as if brushed by a summer wind. I watched
closely. I listened for the snow to murmur
as it fell or when it landed. I was impressed
with how silently the snow slipped past the many
hands of the spruce. Who wouldn’t feel compelled
to admire a magician for such a trick, and so
I spoke. The dogs listened to me congratulating
the spruce tree instead of their neighbor’s barks.
The other trees clapped, letting all of the snow
they had held onto fall back to the same
old earth, you my ancestor, still molder under far
off in your stone cloak and hat. I have not said
one word of this account of tree magic aloud
to you, just tick, tick, tick. But now let’s speak
into each other’s ears in whispers or what is
left. You don’t need to be afraid of what I want
to tell you. Maybe those spells you spoke fear into
carried you off into your wicked brand of thought,
but the earth is where I never want my bones
to leave, the dirt where even your bones
are still tucked up some other place’s sleeve.
Nearly thirty species of willows inhabit
the drainage of a river I like to fish,
and some of these species hold me.
Moose and cattle wend mazes through
the overlap of stalks, and I follow them.
Once in a while, I spook this or that calf
or a crashing. Some paths end and I try
to make my own way twisting or ducking
until I am stuck fast and laugh. I’m slapped
or my waders pierced by a sprung branch
of a willow I can’t pick out from a species list
or don’t bother. The species grow side-by-side
in varied greens. I’d like to make a connection.
Their barks turn subtle winter colors once
their yellow leaves are lost to them, (or should
I say , let go, my ancestor?). From far off, their colors
ease my way through another icy, troutless season.
I find it difficult to reverse course, to backtrack
instead of china-shopping forward into thickets.
I’m not so different from men like you, my ancestor,
whom I see and have seen believe freedom is sticking
to whatever I want or say or do all on my own.
Trailside, wild strawberries taste, you said, like clouds
as we fondled our way under leaves to pluck
them. You, in keeping, ate as many as were ripe
for your fingers, and I, in keeping, ate only
a few, thinking that less would make the flavor
linger, first on my tongue and after the memory.
You fell in love with a dying man years before you
met me. I was married for as many seasons
as I was not, and then I was not. you told me
you would always love him, and I stumbled
to make tendril room. I let go of a life, my ancestor,
and sometimes crushed its fruit. What I did
not say on the dappled slopes on the way
to a place that would be just ours but was not
yet, is that you knew more about the woods
and what to do in them than I knew, and that
the story of one life made out of two
is easier to tell when each page before the end
can be touched, the last words are already inked.
Clouds built up and fell apart, like the fruit
in our mouths, sweet and like everything.
My thumbnail moonshell knifes treeskin
and douses my knuckle with sap like turpentine.
This pungent blood of these elegant trees
carries groundfire embers into the canopy, lets
the summer’s whisper smolder-yelp its catastrophe.
I can’t stop piercing bark, rubbing the current
of nourishing into me. The forest is phoenix
and I have been one among the grounded
to watch or flee. I’ll never testify
for the prosecution, even if my judgment
won’t wash off of me. Sap sticks, yes, and I want,
my ancestor, the sharpness of the fir’s desire
to cling, my ancestor, like soot in dirt, to me.
I have awakened with such heat for the wild
world growling in me that I have sprung
from shelter to enter the first dense bramble
I could. I have felt myself muddy to swell
and spill into the green world erect and waving
to receive me. Even as I gray, I feel the rut
in me among bark folds and downdrafts, the throb
in buds and ticklish catkins. I have made
of my pulse a vessel for moan. I have pricked
my ears to what wild is left moaning back.
I have felt the duff dig into my shoulder blades
and how each little death is also never dying.
When I part from the trail, flowers and stalks
cover the bare skin of my walking in a film.
The residue snares dust and seeds.
Sometimes ants and ticks stick to the scum
which covers me. I stink of geranium musk
when I come back to the bloomless lot.
I reek of the dust and like their petals
my skin too blushes under the thirsty
sun. The trail runs beside the bottom
of the fault, runs alongside the stream
carving the edge of the lot, lies
alongside a larger stream. I mean
to say I am not ignorant to the entangle-
ments I seek, my ancestor, on every side of where
I should be, where you want me to write
my letters with fingers rather than feet.
Enchantment fell away under an evening
fir. I remember the red August and the soft
needles. Grasses spread abroad and golden
with seedheads. Stalks and stems and the sweat
of geraniums sticking the air together. I knew
that place and its shadow where I would see
into my days, and I gave no fear to the horizon
beyond the dusk of my birth. I was neither prey
nor did I genuflect. I felt my skin-warmth mingle
with the flesh of the pebbled earth. None of this
was an awakening nor an arousal. I simply held
onto a body of loam which was my own,
my voluntary exile in the squalid desert
that is the sole place my abominable self,
which is all there is of me, which has escaped
the links of your voice, my ancestor, your bombast,
and our twining code. I struggle to seek bedrest
under the gift of duff not your cruel vellum.
Following a spring creek toward the muddy river,
I passed through a patch of poison ivy before you
pointed it out to me. The day went on warming.
Tamarisks pelted the banks. Bighorns remained,
like the silent vipers, translucent. I stood
in the water some and sometimes I hiked
against the current spooking trout from one red
sandstone bowl to another. I caught a few fish
before the rest darted away from my skin
and the irritant fading from me. My body
burned a little and then stopped burning. I itched
a bit, but the underground water soothed me
even after it bubbled up inside a corrugated
hatchery before tumbling into the open, even if
I soothed not one wild witness of my passage.
My ancestor, you docked the red boat while I brought
out our stringered catch. Your request for me
to clean the fish for our dinner felt not quite
question or command. You shut the cabin door
to me, and the evening went on. I lined each
dry-eyed fish just so in the stubbled grass
and clover weeds. I checked the cabin window
before plucking dandelions to place just so
between one once-silver fish and the next. I had
not gutted fish in years, but, like all small brutalities,
the simplicity came back to me as if staining
my knifeblade. I bade each fish farewell as if they
were not, the lot of them, already gone. Quite
quiet and ceremonial, I pulled inside from outside
to the newspaper and dandelion blooms. You
rinsed each piscine streak of meat in the spigot sink,
patted dry the skin, lay each in the pan with sliced
onion. We ate into the silent summer night and,
after, nothing dared to dart through my dreams.
We prized the cones fallen from subalpine
firs as ammunition which was the same
as currency for our childhood wars. The strobiles
were hard and hurt in the way we wanted,
my ancestor, to be hurt, stung in the way we wanted
our bodies and each other’s bodies to sting.
When you sprinted for the boards laddered
up to the platform piled with projectiles to augment
your pocketfuls, the game turned, and I turned
against you, the runner, my ancestor, aiming whatever
cones I could grab and chuck at you. On occasion,
a rock may have been thrown. If you made it
to the platform perch, my ancestor, hitting me
was easy, and so you lessoned me something
about how power works, but eventually you had
to come down and be welted. I did not yet
know that subalpine firs bleed sap like turpentine,
and when wildfires spark that liquid fire introduces
the canopy to flame. The world is still like this:
hard with sheltered seeds and ready to burn.
We are as we were: playing at war as if dodging
consequence with our back pocket matchbooks
from the Stagecoach Bar already full of those struck.
There is nothing much to the hawthorn berry:
leathery skin stretched over a pit. That’s about it.
And thorns at least an inch long along each stem
and strong enough to pierce through the sole
of a boot, my ancestor. Berries a deeper shade of bark
shaded by almost autumn leaves. And yet, black bears
lean their limbs into thinning hawthorn branches
to gorge. Bear scat pebbled with pits and scraps
of skin. And the time I stood between a bear stripping
a hawthorn bare and a few people peering nearer
to him. And then that other time outside a plank-
floored place when the whole downtown profusion
of spike-branched limbs transformed into flocks
of cedar waxwings, so many their waxy bands
of yellow and red thorned the berried twigs. I live
in a town where wild things invite themselves in
so often they often go unnoticed for being so
unrare. I live in a place where I have gorged myself
on bear meat sausage and where I have heard
firsthand that men look almost like bears once
bears have lost the thin trappings of their bearlike
skin. I am profuse with how I am thin-skinned
and how I think of my bones as thin. And, my ancestor,
how thornlike our colors and claws have always been.
Yes, I have boiled nettles in a camp pot to eat
and called them sour and compared them to this
or that leaf picked up at the grocery store
in the humdrum summer heat and tourist haze.
Yes, I have leaned my leg into them to be stung,
if only for the sake of feeling. I have carried
chosen pains and those stumbled through all day
and let them welt and redden me. Yes, I have
stood wincing in a stream beside festooning nettles.
I have allowed myself to go all numb, my ancestor,
beyond the simple pain of feeling what nourishes.
I returned from searching for the next plot
metered ten-by-ten where two years prior fire
deviled everything to pebbled dirt and black.
My job to lead a group of students from square
to square to count what new grew there: trees,
forbs and grasses. Heat cicada-buzzed me quiet,
the group quiet, stalked between boy-high stems
of fireweed. the bloom- stalks like cairns covered
in pink butterflies. My eyes unable to find anyone
in the world talling back into itself, rooted in black
release of what it takes to root again. Clouds piled
up as they might have when the strike caught.
No one spoke and I could not find them. My steps
crushed one or another plant. I parted greenly
into the circle of young hands sticky with fireweed
reek and feathered by wisps of seeds like words
I could not speak, have not yet learned to speak,
my ancestor, outside this voice I use to speak to you.
Neither of us ever fought in a war that was not
playing at war as boys before we met and became
friends who never fought. The wars I played at
were with boys I knew and usually included
melting plastic army men or lighting the fuses
of as many bottle rockets as we could tape or tie
to try to launch the men we had not melted
into the street. The wars you played at were not
anything we talked about. The river called and
sometimes we answered together, like the time
before my marriage ended in a peaceful accord
when a storm sprung up no more quickly than any
other August afternoon but quick enough and with
enough charge crackling through it that we had
to hustle from the side channel toward the car.
You never liked lightning or thunder. You never
liked to show how scared you were of air, so we fled
into the cottonwood grove dappled with already-
fallen leaves and sunlight and elk bones. We hustled
and lowered our rods and watched the hairs
on our arms for the terror of standing. And just like
that the trees show-curtained onto a river channel
facing the stormlit peaks I had lived near for years
and just then did not know, the same channel we had
left minutes before. We were together, my ancestor,
when inattention to the line between place and thought
in fear of a bolt were a circle we looped before any rain.
I was with you once when you killed an elk
and once when we tracked one wounded through
a long, cold day. Apart when you watched a man
breathe in the river and when I kindled
my partnered life to ash before replanting. You
have lost more people you love than I have lost,
my ancestor, and someday I will die and you
will stand and turn under leaflight, under bark
scars, and there will be a war someplace we will
not visit and I hope my son will not be there.
I wonder, my ancestor, will you remark on how
the river channels are dry where they used to be.
This time, the extinction event is profusion
and black bear shit-slurry worrying the trail.
Fingerling branches bow with berryweight before
teeth and lips strip them nearly bare. If I am
not taking off my clothes in the woods, then I am
thinking about disrobing and the bright pricks
of frost or sunlight honing me. Off trail,
the rivulet loudens, and the maze of things
presents itself as shadows beyond each selection.
I am one of those people who was told, “Turn
right. Turn right. Turn right.” I have heard
that fruit sweetens after a hard frost. My body,
as do bodies, stiffens and softens. The crush
of seedflesh in my mouth bitters me inside
as if dust. I have fallen face-first into clawmarks
on the coated skins of aspens. Broken-branch
scars eye me or flit away like waxwings.
Some birds become so much fermented fruit
they lose the will to flight. Some bears reach
past shambled wasp nests and tug the fine
branches mouthward. I have been talking
with my bare tongue about the speechless places.
I have felt their tang fall, like a spider thread,
into my belly. Some cubs let the profusion of fine
twigs hold them until all the fruits are pits.
Snow will clamp down and after that, sprouts.
I keep telling this story and yet I cannot identify
the species of needled tree I prepared to live
my life under. You are, by now, familiar
with the details: child, birthday, trail, two lakes,
excitement into a dash up the wrong trail, tall
grass, red needles, evening, solitude. I do not
remember loving or even reading stories of boys
lost in wild places or raised by wild mothers.
Instead, I liked the one about the boy who flew
an airplane made of bread dough. I never cared
where he landed. I know that I felt, whether
or not this really happened, as if I could become
this ragged life raised by a conifer I still cannot
name, raised on a green slope punctuated by forbs
under branch shadow and comforted by the red-
needled duff and cones. I sense now, with that sense
underneath my senses, how some new self
birthed itself that day, how quiet I could be,
and how you, my ancestor, with your unusual name
called out my plain name over the slope
of plants just tall enough to hold me out of sight,
and how my tongue spoke the language of bark
instead of tumbling into your arms. Even that young,
I knew what I would always be leaving. I have
known other women and men, other forests
with their many trees, and I have felt in myself
your ancient feeling: disappointment and,
underneath, my ancestor: the pulsing of sap.
I will not stop giving myself bodily to
the meadow. Stems of alpine timothy bend
under me in their ancient way of offering
to spring back up as soon as I go on.
I have no memories of a mouth that did not
sip from culms. One of these days, I’ll be
underground or sprinkled over a field in flower
or a field of snow or planted with the roots
of a little tree ready to embrace everything
but the metal bits of me, the mercury
and screws. To be made again of sunlight
and the reachings of radicles is the oldest
memory I’ve written into each place
I’ve touched and every touching part of me.
Oh, to reek of earth again and to be unconcerned
with patterns made of stars or words.