Spring 2020, Volume 28

Poetry by Marsha de la O



They said it started with a man who lit
a campfire on a warm night in autumn.
In what we called autumn, though summer
never really ended but the winds came. 

The rainy season began, but no rain fell. 
Did he think the winds were bringing  
cooler air and kneel down to light his fire,
this stranger they identified as the source? 

The officials never talk about him now. 
Maybe he never existed. The stranger. The mistake. 
The campfire. After what happened, it’s only human
to ascribe blame.  To let it fall on a stranger. 

The arroyo is green again, rains came down
in spring. The earth is warming. That fire
waited years, biding its time, waiting on the future
while chaparral oozed oil, and heat notched up.

There were two pine trees
growing in the arroyo,
their roots deep in what moisture
could be found.   


The hills went up like tinder
because they were tinder and spread the flames
everywhere, yet the fire followed
the path of water, the hottest burns

in the arroyos that briefly fill with rain,
those small dry brooks that live awhile
beneath the silt and nourish the above-world. 
The two pine trees grew just there.

One of them held a bulky nest made of sticks:
a house that crows built. They chose a pine,
and not an oak.  I often stopped for a bit 
to watch them raise their young. 

They’d double-clutched, caring for a full nest
into fall. The father sometimes perched in an oak
and conversed with the mother across the canyon
as she tended their nestlings. 

What weight the future levies on the present. 
But crows seem equal to it.  We like to think they are
what we’re not: that wild means capable.
The fire knew the path and fell upon the pines.


I didn’t return for a long time.
It was forbidden for months
and when finally allowed,
still I hesitated.    

Both pines are dead. 
One remains standing, completely blackened,
a skeleton, no life hidden in the wood. 
Death in the shape of a tree. 

The other pine, the one that cradled the nest,
is utterly gone, no sign that it ever stood.  
A little grass grows at the base and there’s a space
in air where all that happened is annulled. 

Strange that the tree of death consoles me
and the tree that disappeared confounds me.  That bare place
where only emptiness remains.  I’m astonished
by absence; it’s an Absolute. How could I not have known.


They must have been fledglings, big enough
to fly, and flown to safety.
We can’t know who will be spared,
or what will happen to the earth.

I still see the adults, they haunt the burnt arroyo
that soon as ever grew a blanket of flowers,
mustard and wild carrot.  I can hardly look at the blooms. 
All that life, the weight of the future, flammable tinder. 

Most of the oaks survived. 
They don’t set down roots in a watercourse, 
somehow, they know better. 
The oaks are scorched, but not so bad they can’t go on. 

That’s where I saw the pair of crows,
the male high in what’s left of the crown,
the female down below in shadow. 
The male calling in hoarse, eager tones; the female silent.




BIO: Marsha de la O’s latest poetry book from Pitt Poetry Series, Every Ravening Thing, came out in Spring 2019, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.  Her previous book, Antidote for Night, won the 2015 Isabella Gardner Award and was published by BOA Editions.  Her first book, Black Hope, was awarded the New Issues Press Poetry Prize and was published by New Issues Press, Western Michigan University in 1997. In 1998, Black Hope won an Editors’ Choice, Small Press Book Award. De La O lives in Ventura, California, with her husband, poetry host and Ventura County Poet Laureate, Phil Taggart. Together, they produce poetry readings and events in Ventura County and edit the literary journal Spillway.