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Casualties by Taylor Graham

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

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