Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fresh Snow

December brings thoughts of snow, even here in Southern California. My bedroom at my parent's house was on the second floor, and a flood lamp hung in the eaves just above the window. On a winter night I would fall asleep watching the snow shoot out of the dark into the glare of the light.

Fresh Snow

last night
an endless veil of snow
streamed past my window

today each boot step
marks my path
into the woods

the old signs are gone
the snow erases
the tangled browns and greens

of pine needles and saplings
blended earth colors of
chipmunk and quail

now new traces
one by one
my trail

and a single set
of rabbit tracks
etched across the glade

Copyright © 2011 Francis Kearns

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Don’s Morning

At a recent workshop, David St. John pointed out that sometimes the things most important to a person are the hardest things to write about. I've been working at this lately. A couple of poems here, "Circling Venice" and "You and I Walking" are part of this effort. So is this poem about my father, Don Kearns.

Don’s Morning

He was a rail thin wide-eared GI soldier,
one foot on a bench,
the Taj Mahal in the background.

He was a slow moving tall professor
walking across a campus quad
thin gray suit
a trail of smoke.

His wedding picture     lean sharp face
a touch of amazement and wonder
still there after the Burma Road.

How to take measure
thinning gray hair
this much commitment
a sixty year marriage

Yankee Unitarian
now a Saint Augustine Catholic,
spoonful of blind faith,
or a pinch of duplicity .

Out of my memory
his morning appears
the dark in his study
mug of coffee     cigarette

seven children   each
with a full cup of joy
random spoons of sadness
bits of anger and tragedy.

At the blackboard teaching
threadbare suit
dust at the pockets
years of gray chalk.

This morning
his study comes back
glow of his smoke.
He is weighing the joy,

counting the sadness,
gently rubbing the scars of each wound,
or maybe just hearing the birds.

Copyright © Francis Kearns 2011

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Swimming the "Killer Kern"

As the road out of Bakersfield heads into the narrowing Kern river canyon, a sign greets the traveler in English and Spanish. “¿Cuántos este año?”, “How many this Year?”. Below it is the number of people known to have drowned in the Kern since records were kept. In the Spring of 2011 it was 260 and climbing.

In the Spring of 2011, a record snow melt swelled the rivers and streams up and down the California mountains, and the Kern River was raging.


Swimming The Kern River

After the first raft was flipped
in a particularly sharp bend
in the canyon, around a large rock
with vertical walls on both sides,
and after the six guests and the guide
took a wild ride in the water

and after we pulled out for lunch
and the guide of the boat that had flipped
walked around talking softly to the other guides,
and the guys that had been in the raft,
some of them with bare feet because
their rubber wet suit booties
had been sucked off by the current,
stared past the rest of us,
past the lunch laid out on the tables
and past the scrub oaks on the hill,
looked past all of that
to somewhere else,
after all that,
the rest of us still didn’t get it.

We had been on this river before,
on a warm day with the river flowing
between rock banks
and occasional sandy stretches,
dropping around rocks that
threw spray into the boats
and caused squeals of laughter.

This year, after a record snow melt
the river was flowing high over the banks,
flowing into trees and fields,
and in the middle of the river
a column of water that
moved like a freight train
flowed high over massive rocks
that were exposed in normal years.

After lunch it was our turn.
Sliding down a chute,
paddling to try to keep the boat steer-able
while popping up into the air,
we were in the water in an instant,
the boat upside down,
and me just six feet away
but the river current dominated
and I couldn’t close the gaps
until our guide reached out with his paddle
and pulled me in.

Together there were three of us
holding on to the raft.
We tried to swim the overturned boat
over to the slow eddy running along the shore,
but we made little progress in spite of
all our exertions and the gasps of the guide
exhorting us to help.

We were moving fast
past another boat pulled over at the shore.
The guide threw a rope, and
only by that means were we able
to get the boat out of
the roaring center current.

We sat on the warm rocks,
gathering our breath,
feeling the adrenaline subside,
and one by one,
we realized that this was serious.

The previous group that had flipped,
had left at the lunch break area done for the day,
but for us the only way off the river
was to continue down:
only a couple bad rapids to go.

The last rapid was Pinball,
a hundred yard field of boulders
snaking down the canyon.
It didn’t look bad considering
where we had been.
We were half way through,
controlling the boat and doing well,
when behind a rock
was a four foot deep hole
in the swirling water,
and the bow nosed hard into it,
and we were in the water.

I was completely under,
the black bottom of the boat above me,
the life jacket pulling me up,
pushing my head into the black bottom of the boat.
I tried to work out from underneath,
but I was wedged
between the edge of the boat and something else,
maybe another swimmer.
I pulled with my arms and kicked,
and now the suction
of an undercurrent pulled me down.
It was deep and flowing.
Above me three feet of green water
was dimly lit by sky,
and I remember thinking
I’ve been down here a long time.


After I surfaced
and spent the next minute
sliding down the middle of the river
getting face full after face full
of water from waves standing three feet tall
and after I decided to swim for the shore
and was carried down a side channel
where one of the other rafts was waiting to pull us out
and I lay hunched over the thwart where I landed
gasping and repeating the same curse word under my breath,
not caring what anyone else in the boat thought,

and after the long bus ride back to the camp
and the returning of gear and the mandatory
smiles and photos with the guides,
and after we had taken inventory of the physical cuts and scrapes,
we sat in a restaurant and tried to sort out the psychic damage.
“Now that it’s over,” one of us said, “I’m glad that it happened.”
“Not too many people get that close and can still talk about it.”

Between June 1 and the end of the Fourth of July Weekend 2011, 5 people drowned in the Kern River.

Girona Twilight

Our third floor apartment window opened up into the back yard space between two long blocks of tall apartment buildings. As I tried to write a little on a beautiful Spanish summer evening, the sounds and voices of perhaps a hundred families floated in the air.

Girona Twilight

In a small apartment in Spain
as the birds sing an end to the evening
my poetry seems like a game
while the life of the city is breathing

as the birds sing an end to the evening
voices float in from the terrace
while the life of the city is breathing
the sounds could be London or Paris

voices float in from the terrace
in the distance someone sings opera
the sounds could be London or Paris
I hear the sweet laugh of a father

in the distance someone sings opera
my poetry seems like a game
compared to the laugh of a father
in that small apartment in Spain

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Blue (When Mixed With Red)

We had watched an enjoyable live music performance at the Anaheim Civic Center. A couple of hundred people at an intimate venue enjoyed the show and had a great time talking to the husband and wife performers, the stars of the show.

We hung around a while talking to friends, then headed out to the dark and nearly empty parking lot. There we saw the performers again, re-packing the guitars around their duffel bags in the crowded compact hatchback. Off to the next show ...

Blue (When Mixed With Red)

There were no blue notes in his set
Up-beat banjo hints of bluegrass
He stood tall in blue jeans and knit cap
Light dancing off the face of his guitar

She stood beside him harmonized
Her mandolin stepped high above
His smooth blue voice that called her every night
For twenty years

She was counterpoint to him
Beneath her polished presentation
Danced a restless nervousness
That glowed deep red beneath stage lights

The people loved their act
Stood clapping at the end
The small hall had no backstage haven
So they walked along the wall
And stood there in the back
To autograph a few Cd's

He walked out later in the dark
Past stragglers beneath street lights
And re-arranged the little truck
To get the amp and guitars in
She joined him and they drove into the night
Where red and blue had mixed up a deep purple
That colored in the shades of gray

Copyright © 2011 Francis Kearns

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Strip Mall Goddess

You greeted us as we stepped through the door
Across the noisy room at dinner hour,
The careless dreadlock curls that seemed to soar
A necklace that evoked some mystic power

Your calm gaze echoed such serenity
You floated just an inch above the floor,
Brown back and shoulders held with dignity
Were echoes of Egyptian queens of yore.

I searched for steadiness against the wall.
You moved – my heart, constricted, missed a beat
And let out such an aching feeble call.
Your graceful arc of arm revealed my seat.

What noble lives have you passed through before?
”I am your waitress,” yes – and so much more.

copyright © 2011 Francis Kearns

Safe Passage

I could write a poem
about epic adventure,
preparation, struggle,
final overcoming,
the tired entrance into camp,
with dawn just emerging over the far mountains.

But better to write about
a sunny summer day
on a well worn path above Bass Lake
following Willow Creek,
woods green with spring colors,
air fresh and cool and damp
like the moisture of fresh snow melt
still hiding in the dark recesses of the wood,

and the water high with the spring flood,
racing deep and fast through a rocky flume,
smashing into boulders,
foaming in deep whirlpools,
where the east side is hemmed in
by the vertical granite wall,
and the west side is a wide sloping granite shelf
warmed in morning sun,
an inviting deviation from the path
that loops away through still cool wood,

and how we walked along the shelf,
thirty feet from the edge,
and how the seeping water was barely noticed,
the algae clinging to the rock
so slick that we were without warning on hands and knees,
sliding, slowly, down the shelf,
and how each attempt to stand was unsuccessful,
and brought us closer to the roiling water,
and only the most gentle movement
made progress against the slanting rock,
twenty feet of passage
sideways, slow, slow crawl,
measuring each move,

and how the sun shone, and the birds sang on,
and the sound of water never changed.

copyright © 2011 Francis Kearns

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

You and I Walking

You were re-assembling
the building blocks,
throwing off the mood of troubled youth,
climbing out of scrimping two-job
low rent downtown apartments.

I was stepping out of
the skin of the classroom boy,
reborn to the sun in the garden,
community food banks, anti-war marches
and the smell of machine shop oil.

We shared the wonder of
warm air on a summer night,
strong coffee and alcohol
and the sound of the blues guitar
bending that high slow note
‘till our souls took flight.

I looked for nothing
beyond the spell
but in brief instants saw
as the kitchen window
set your red bandanna
golden hair aglow
a long road
and in the distance
you and I

Copyright © 2011 Frank Kearns

Monday, May 23, 2011

Night Life

At four in the morning
The sound of the truck
Plays out its song at the stoplight.

An ode to just one person
Whose children are still sleeping,
Who had coffee in the dark,
And pulled his jacket tight
Against the chill.

I lay here awake:
Another car turns at the light.
It rounds the corner past my house.
Perhaps he’s coming home
Much, much too late.

My mind floats out
To hear the sounds,
And memories of other nights.
A fire truck shrieks through the dark,
And I am a small child,
Watching headlights grow against my wall,
Then veer across the room and out of sight.

I follow them
Across the town
And down the hill
To places decades gone,
To where my mother hears my cry,
And comes to tuck my blanket
Tight against my chin

The light turns green,
The bark of the truck brings me back
To a lone man up early
At a time when each small man
Is heard above the din.

In the Heat of the Night

A time when all the anchors

Are stripped away, and we are naked

In the Still of the Night

And alone, and floating with our fear,

Floating with our feeling
‘Till the dawn.