I followed you up the face
of that cliff-riddled mountain.
I am tall, stiff, scared of heights.
You are small, lithe, quick and not
scared of anything in the physical
world. At first the easy handholds
and footholds gave me confidence.
But narrow ledges curving under
overhangs began to take their toll.
I stalled, my face pressed to rock,
no way forward or back. The fall
was steep for three hundred feet,
then a sloped field of boulders, then
the tops of firs rising toward us.
You coached, guided my hand
to a hold I couldn’t see, and suddenly
I could swing around to you.
We grew silent in our climbing
as the sun beat down on us hot
and the wind whipped us cold.
You led the way, finding routes
that only a lizard would see. The top
was faraway above us and out
of sight. I kept my eyes straight
ahead on the rock, feeling
for the next hold. Or I watched
the soles of your feet, your
swaying butt, the braid of your long
blond hair swinging back and forth.
On a steeper, more difficult face
you kept describing finger holds,
but when I reached, they felt like
band aids stuck to the stone.
Still, I made the next ledge again
and again. The shadows of hawks
and eagles flashed across me as if
I’d become stone myself. I could
hear your words, but I didn’t listen.
Wind whistled and whispered across
the countenances of great cliffs.
A hawk’s shrill cry scattered down
the valley of crags and spires.
I watched the wavy shadow-feet
of clouds as if they knew the way
home. Your voice fell on me
from above like my own thoughts,
saying to keep reaching and feeling,
to keep moving. And I did, managing
somehow to trust the sliver of an edge
to pull myself up to you. We sat
for hours on that ledge, our bodies
fused at hip and shoulder. The vastness
swirled and thickened. Our eyes
and ears traveled so far into the unknown,
we could barely breathe.
—from Rattle #70, Winter 2020
Jim Peterson: “When I was just a kid, because of a fine teacher I started writing poems. It was a good way for this shy boy to tell a girl I loved her or to express my sadness at my friend’s unexpected death. Once I started, I never stopped. These poems combine those two impulses—poems for my beloved and deceased wife, Harriet.” (web)
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