Sibyl James

Twisp, Washington


Back east, they’d call these foothills mountain,
but you learn to map a different scale here
where the road west of you keeps rising
into a pass closed Thanksgiving to April,
where yards of rusted Ford bodies
and wringer washers aren’t lack of pride
but history to people that don’t read books,
a comfort of real things to talk
and tinker about, drawing off the restlessness
that comes between Saturday nights.

You could live a good winter here,
rent rooms in any grey weathered house
and watch the snow shift on porch chairs
left out ready for spring. Eat venison
and brown gravy at the Branding Iron
every Sunday, and walk it off
on the ridge behind the old copper mine
with that pack of scavenger horses and mules
snorting at your heels, and your own breath clouds
frozen at your lips like cartoon speech.
You won’t need much talk here
where the names of things get crystal
and definite as that frozen air, something to exchange
hand to mittened hand on the morning bridge.
“Neighbor” is the guy who takes your shift
the day the baby’s born. “Love”’s the years
of Saturday nights she’s held your head above the john.

When the sawmill shuts down, the quiet
goes sharp and ebony behind a fine mesh of stars.
The creek runs louder than the road then, a sound
drawing you out to walk until the frost patterns your eyes,
and the cold burns in your blood like a hunger
for coffee and wood smoke, turning you back to town.

In one good winter, you could get so solitary here
that you’d forget the name for lonely,
until the spring came, surprised you
like the sound of ice breaking under the bridge.
It would be the day you swept the snow from porch chairs,
the night you stayed past closing in the Branding Iron
while the waitress shared Wild Turkey on the house,
let you talk until she turned the empty bottle over,
smiling, handing you the news the pass was open,
like a word she’d dusted off that morning
and knew you’d just turned foreign enough to use.



Sibyl James has published nine books, including The Adventures of Stout Mama (fiction), China Beats (poetry) and, most recently, The Last Woro Woro to Treichville: A West African Memoir. She has taught in the US, China, Mexico, and–as Fulbright professor–Tunisia and Cote d’Ivoire.