Casualties:

search-and-rescue poems

Introduction by Ken Hill

It occurred to me only after I began to read these poems how rarely the themes of search and rescue are expressed in poetry. While indeed there is much verse about poor sinners gone spiritually astray, Taylor Graham is the only poet I know of who writes about people who are quite literally lost. So, for example, there are poems here about children who follow their dogs too deeply into the forest, foolish cavers who can't find their way back to the surface, and senile men and women wandering aimlessly in their "personal fogs." As well, there are also poems about the other kinds of casualties we look for: drowned swimmers, fallen climbers, suicides, runaways, and victims of earthquake, avalanche, flood, and murder.

The poems are also about the people who search and rescue, all too frequently becoming casualties themselves. Experienced SAR workers will recognize the feeling of searching strange, dark places in the dead of night ("We could be in Transylvania,/the Yucatan. Backwoods/of a suburb"), what it's like to walk ten abreast through muddy bogs, the way that tracks can indeed tell a story, or the very special way a cadaver-seeker looks at a river. And we are reminded, in "Tequila on the Richter Scale," that even in the midst of disaster, there can be humor.

The strongest emotions in SAR work are aroused when the casualties are children, and the most powerful poems in this book, in my view, involve this theme. For some reason, few poets have handled the death of children very well, tending too often, like Robert Bridges in "On a Dead Child," toward melodrama. There is none of that here. In "He Was Wearing a Yellow T-Shirt," Graham describes the fate of a lost child in a way that is compassionate and yet unsentimental, strikingly novel, and for people who are sometimes confronted with the deaths of lost children, perhaps even therapeutic.

Many of the themes contained in Graham's poems-- including a reverence for nature, the continuity of life and death, the fortitude of the human spirit--remind me of the poetry written by an American Civil War volunteer medical attendant named Walt Whitman who, in Leaves of Grass, envisioned a pantheistic concept of nature where 'All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses," and in which "to die is different from what anyone supposed." In Graham's "Calaveras Creek," a flawless poem that flows like the very stream it depicts, she describes the flotsam and jetsam carried by the swollen creek, such as fish bones, shells, algae, weeds, "nameless garbage," and, almost incidentally, "a child's swim-trunks gone green." Some objects may be held temporarily by strainers, seeming to resist the current, "but in the end it all pieces down to delta, where land/and water change and change about,/working with the tides, but always/back to sea."

There is power in these poems. I recommend them to you highly.

      Kenneth Hill, Department of Psychology           

      Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

      Leader, Waverley Ground Search and Rescue

click on selected poems to view

He Was Wearing a Yellow T-Shirt

Tequila on the Richter Scale

Calaveras Creek

Looking for Lucille

Hiking Old Dog to the Alpine Lake

 

He Was Wearing a Yellow T-Shirt

Tequila on the Richter Scale

Calaveras Creek

Looking for Lucille

Hiking Old Dog to the Alpine Lake

 

He Was Wearing a Yellow T-Shirt

Tequila on the Richter Scale

Calaveras Creek

Looking for Lucille

Hiking Old Dog to the Alpine Lake

 

He Was Wearing a Yellow T-Shirt

Tequila on the Richter Scale

Calaveras Creek

Looking for Lucille

Hiking Old Dog to the Alpine Lake

 

He Was Wearing a Yellow T-Shirt

Tequila on the Richter Scale

Calaveras Creek

Looking for Lucille

Hiking Old Dog to the Alpine Lake

 

He Was Wearing a Yellow T-Shirt

Tequila on the Richter Scale

Calaveras Creek

Looking for Lucille

Hiking Old Dog to the Alpine Lake

top

 

HE WAS WEARING A YELLOW T-SHIRT

 

We search for childpaths in the woods.

Where would he go?

Cedars bunch gray and blind

with cobwebs.

Berries and honeysuckle

shoulder up higher

than a man. Not a boy. Birds

only sing from the tops and edges.

Warblers, orioles,

flicks of yellow

foliage trick the eye. Not

a boy.

We could be in Transylvania,

the Yucatan. Backwoods

of a suburb.

Where is he?

who walked out of his house

and down the civilized street

and out of the world?

                    *

He's finding the way roots

pull the red clay over,

and quilted creepers: every longbone

loosened from its muscle,

moving the way stones and twigs do,

the intricate small bones of fingers

easing out of their joints.

By fall

it will all be second nature

to him, how the blond hairs

scatter. When it rains

won't matter. Snow melts and runs away,

kid-stuff. And spring

shoves up a few yellow tatters,

flowers that never grew

on a stalk.

 

TEQUILA ON THE RICHTER SCALE

 

"rescuers tunneled into a demolished hotel

and in what had been the barroom found..."

 

He couldn't remember

how much he'd had

before the room went reeling.

Sauza never hit him quite that hard

but when he woke, everybody

including the ceiling

was passed out on the floor.

He called for beer.

The barkeep didn't stir.

And so he helped himself

to the closest bottle, and then

a little more. He finished off

the rubia, and then some tinto

for its rosy

afterglow. It wasn't like

he was stealing: the drinks

were clearly on the house, and he

was way past feeling.

They burrowed in through rubble,

15 stories down. A chink

in a jammed-tight door revealed

this void.

And then they heard a moan,

a sigh, a snore. Not a bottle

had survived; no bar,

no barkeep anymore, but only

Julio, with a hangover

that measured 8.4.

 

CALAVERAS CREEK

 

Underwater ripens. Feel the swells

that are more than slough-water:

earth becomes liquid. At the surface

it pearls and wrinkles, changes color,

pretends to be sky. But further down-

stream eddies lift the bottom, mud

holding the bones of fishes, shells

and carapace. Nameless

garbage. A child's swim-trunks

gone green. Algae and weeds. All

have their turn at daylight now

in the swifter water just below

the mirror-face. Some grab

at strainers, take on sand;

and stay there in the shallows,

water-bound and stretched

to the current. But in the end it all

pieces down to delta, where land

and water change and change about,

working with the tides, but always

back to sea.

 

LOOKING FOR LUCILLE

 

Used-up things all end up here

on their side, back, heaped

under leaves and lawn clippings

past the trestle.

An evening gown gone at the hip,

otherwise blush-pink.

A couch sprawling its parts

so you couldn't name it.

What stinks

could be anything.

Folks who come here

don't bother with burials, book

before the cops come.

Follow your nose

to that peculiar sweetness,

the human perfume

every lady finally wears.

 

HIKING OLD DOG TO THE ALPINE LAKE

 

She takes the lead with unaccustomed

spryness, remembering this route

through sagebrush, bitterbrush,

mules-ears drying like so many summers

to a lake still blue,

sky filtered through runoff snow.

Her lungs pump noisy

on this once a year hike,

the only season

this water gathers enough sun

for an old dog's joints.

You'd never guess,

the way she chases sticks in the waves,

and we keep on throwing,

remembering her a young dog

ranging these mountains

for a hiker lost, for all the scents

of August gone.

Finally the old dog sourness

washes off

and her fetches turn

to good dog weariness.

And then we take it

a slow walk back,

holding in

so the old lady still

can take the lead. So slow,

by the time we reach the car,

she smells of nothing

but drying grasses, lupine

and sage.