The forest is astonished
by the sound of its own voice.
It hasn’t heard itself speak
in such a long time. A sigh,
a clearing throat, a hungry
rumble, wet yawn.
But nothing like what I hear now
as I walk among trees
I can’t see through.
A bear must be waiting in the woods.
What else could it be?
I thought the forest had forgotten
it had bears. I had too.
Maybe the heavy snap is only
a branch cracking under a freezing,
or shivering under the thin-veined foot
of a winter sparrow as its pulse slows to its rest.
A bird’s timid hot heart, then,
no rough-padded paw with snow-balled claws
snapping where it steps,
looking for me.
The growl in the woods is the brook loosening its flow,
ice groan, and snow sloughing from
the pine canopy. It must be.
But the trees rush. It’s loud for nothing rushing.
I might have come too close to a dangerous thing.
Listen, it breaks through the saplings, flea-scabbed,
shaggy as a pony, Viking-heavy, lumbering
shuffle through what it pleases. Near-sighted
and soft-nosed it will find me
standing without any witness in bear country.
Statistics are tidy where there is risk, and
never wrong for long. My belly will tear in its
fish-gutting jowls, the snout that furrows hives,
a stung nose the only pain it has ever felt.
But I have felt it other places, haven’t I?,
understood it better. I know enough to hurt something.
Why not? This place is
his or mine. Then find me, if you dare,
and let the survivor
write the stories.
When I bring the paint pony home,
she backs out into the rutted pasture
one long inch at a time, unwilling,
heels hanging off the lip of the trailer
as she clutches it with her toes like a diver
about to fall backwards from high up.
I bought her cheap, already middle-aged
and passed around God knows where
to gather bad habits, white-rimmed and frightened now
to leave the box she had feared getting into.
No matter. I don't buy the young ones anymore.
I've lost what it takes to be the first to break something
and send it on after my bones
have ached against all its whims.
I would rather fix the already-broken ones.
Even then, I only keep the best for myself.
The horse I've had longest, the one
who has most outlived his usefulness,
arches his neck and shuffles on arthritic legs
when he sees the new mare's feet on his ground.
When I used to ride him, I was a kid and
he'd run away with me. Scared,
I'd pull his head to my knee, and we'd circle
until he relaxed into more human thoughts.
He doesn't know how things have changed,
how much I would like to retire. To afford a will
that doesn't need repair.
I turn the paint loose in grass taller
than what grew in the pasture I got her from.
Maybe this one will be worth keeping,
good enough to stay here awhile, and make me stop
looking for better.
Not just another far-off bright spot
in the field in the sun,
one I won't want to know long enough to name.
They were safe if they stayed in corners,
and they usually did,
tiny suspended mouths with hesitant octaves,
brown natives who understood the unspoiled landscape
of plaster and dust and where the roof leaked.
They spent more time in our family than any of us,
though they were scarcely remarked.
The fugitives, lost or switching walls
in stealthy treks across mossy carpet, fell into
societies of children led by my cousin who claimed
the too-small mandibles couldn't cause us any harm.
He pulled their legs off one at a time to prove it was true.
As the spiders found their spaces, no one laughed;
the boy could not stop himself
and pulled them apart until only their torsos were left,
curiously oval, pitted and shivering, blank as buttons.
We sat back on our shoes tonguing the holes in our teeth
and stranger gaps.
When I awaken sometimes now to a red raised place
capped in a small white spot of venom,
I know a relative lives where I sleep
and wonder how it has found me out.
It knows, and is bent on revenge.
It does not leave, even when I wash the sheets, would stay
even if I could change these legs
wherein seem to lie all my iniquities.
Chera Hammons is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Raleigh Review, Rattle, Sugar House Review, Tar River Poetry, Tupelo Quarterly, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among other fine journals. Her chapbook Amaranthine Hour received the 2012 Jacar Press Chapbook Award. She is a member of the editorial board of poetry journal One. She lives in Amarillo, TX, with her husband, two horses, two dogs, three cats, and a rabbit.
Q: Your lovely poem “Horse Dealer” takes us inside the relationship of human and horse. Might you extend that to how a poet approaches, wrangles, struggles with the poem?
A: It might be helpful to give a bit of background for this poem (but I should warn you that I could “talk horses” all day long). There's a sentiment that I've heard many times among horsey folk: "There are too many good horses in the world to keep feeding a bad one." By "bad," they don't necessarily intend to say that a horse is mean, or incapable of improvement, or of poor quality. They usually mean that it's the wrong horse for a particular person. A horse that a timid rider finds hot and spooky might just be intelligent and quick to a bolder rider. One of the main mistakes inexperienced people make is buying a horse that's too much for them, and then not being able to admit it. They end up being afraid of the horse and not doing anything with it. And the undesirable behavior of many horses is learned in defense to rough or ignorant handling, or to being spoiled by well-meaning but naïve owners. Long ago, when I had more time and nerve, I used to buy horses that needed a tune-up to correct issues like being barn sour, prancy, or pushy. I'd work with a horse for a few months, and then sell it to someone I felt was more suited to it than the person who sold it to me. I always hoped I’d fall in love with one of those horses and keep it, but that only happened once.
I’ve also unintentionally bought and sold many horses. By that, I mean that I didn't buy the horses I've had with the intention of ever parting with them. I hoped it would work. But it's like any relationship— sometimes you give it a fair try, but it's just not clicking. The wrong horse requires the same commitment of time and resources as the right one, if not more, so why would you keep putting your time and money into the wrong one?
If you wanted to extend this to a poet's relationship with her work, I think you could on some levels. There are a lot of parallels. The poet starts out with an idea, a shape in her head, something she wants to accomplish. She takes the idea and makes it into a real, tangible thing— the draft on a page, the horse in the pasture. She gives it a chance, takes some time to be objective about it, tries different approaches, explores how she can make it more into what she had in her head. Eventually there's a point of decision— to further commit, to keep sharing and revising, to start sending the poem to publishers and maybe put it into a manuscript— to keep the horse— or to stop spending time on something that isn't working and move on to something else. Either way, having written the poem that didn't work, or having worked with the horse that isn't right, can be beneficial or destructive. It can harm your confidence, or you can learn from it and use what you've learned to get closer next time. You have to teach yourself to be humble enough to let go of what's not working, but you also have to spend enough time on it in the first place to know whether it will work or not. The trick is in knowing how to get the most out of your effort, how not to get frustrated, how to be both patient and realistic.
And to take it a bit further: just as you can hear the voice of a good poet in her work, you can tell by a horse's personality what sort of owner it has.
Q: My father once encountered a black bear, each of them working along one side of a huge wall of grapevines until they came almost face to face. Both of them fled. Your narrator is preparing to battle a “dangerous thing” that might be just a winter sparrow. Of the many schools and philosophies on nature, where would you align yourself?
A: Thomas Berry said, "The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human." I haven't studied many natural philosophers, but I know that nature is where I ground myself after an exhausting week at work, when my body aches and my head is filled with someone else's finances and small talk, after those five days in a row during which I didn't even know what the sun felt like.
What a relief it is on the weekends to sleep until the coyotes or owls wake me, then to go out and become myself again in the wind, beholden for an hour or two to no one. How much more honest everything seems. How it makes me calmer, kinder, more connected to what is happening all around me instead of in my head, on television, or on the computer screen. It re-centers me and adjusts my perception of the space that I occupy, my role in it.
I find it vastly comforting that someday I will be a part of the same earth that houses everyone who came before me. The natural world, with all its dangers, offers an unapologetic purity that I haven't found in anything manmade. It has its own kind of order and fairness, and even having seen some of its violence first-hand, I would still rather take its brand of brutality than mankind's.
With that in mind, the speaker's nerve might come from the fact that she asks herself if the sound comes from a sparrow, the weather, the trees, a bear, but never another person, who would be just the sort of enemy most likely to tell a story about it.
Q: What other lore or family stories do you have about spiders, especially those “harvestmen” so coolly dismembered?
A: Aside from that vivid incident in the poem, which actually did occur, I don't have many particular spidery memories, although I do remember seeing the harvestmen (we called them "daddy longlegs") sitting quietly in their corners sometimes after that, and that I felt both sorry for them and repulsed by them with that strange childhood brand of guilt. I don't think harvestmen are even actually spiders.
I'll also admit that my first reaction to spiders in general is usually not a charitable one, but I like to think I'm open-minded, and I have finally come to appreciate them for the useful and interesting creatures that they are. As such, I have come to a tacit arrangement with most of them. If one crosses my path, we'll suddenly see each other and pause. There will be an awkward feeling-out: Are you toxic? Are you aggressive? How likely am I to ever see you again?-- If the answers seem to be no, no, and probably never, then we'll go our separate ways peacefully.
Tarantulas abound in my current neighborhood, but I've never feared them because they’re so big they don't seem real. Once when I was little, when we still lived in the city limits, my dad caught one in the garage and put it in a jar for us to see up close. It had a spot of silver paint on its back. After a day or so of observation, we drove it outside of town and released it. A few days later, it walked right back into our garage. That seemed like something a pet would do. I don't want to cuddle with one by any means, but I do enjoy watching the large and docile things going about their lives. In the autumn, you can sometimes see dozens of them crossing the road together, on the way to somewhere I haven't found out. They all walk the same direction with such purpose, like a switch just flipped that day and told them it was time to go.
A beautiful yellow and black orb weaver moved into our backyard last summer. My husband and I watched her build perfect, intricate webs every day or two, spinning the thread out in in widening spirals completely indifferent to our admiration of her. Visiting her became a part of our daily ritual—we’d feed the ponies, water the nearly-wild roses, and then "go and see the spider," who always offered us something new. When cold weather came, she disappeared, but there are signs that she prepared for another generation before she left. I look forward to seeing this year's orb weavers when they are mature spiders with their own webs sparkling in the morning light.
I don't ever seek out the harvestmen, though—not anymore. I still feel that in some way I owe them a debt, and there is such a kinship to them in my memory. When I find one, I lose it again.
Q: When did you begin writing, and what was your first publication?
A: I was raised in a household that loved books, and my mother, an elementary school teacher, is a reading instructor extraordinaire, so I learned to read pretty organically around the age of three or four. I began writing about the same time. I remember writing, on brightly colored scraps of paper, these messy little lyrics about woodland creatures. They made perfect sense to me, but I’m sure they were nonsense and squiggles to anyone else. I really loved Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson early on, because their work has a lot of nature in it and does not generally have inaccessible vocabulary.
By fourth grade, I was writing poetry openly and often (as well as short stories and plays). If I finished my classwork early, my teachers would allow me to read or write, which was really nice of them. If I wrote, they would come by, read what I was writing, and comment on it or read it out loud to the class. Everything I wrote then was about horses. My plays had talking horses in them. My stories were about wild horses being tamed.
My first publication was a horse poem that I sent off when I was in seventh grade. I remember being so excited that it was accepted. I told all of my teachers. It wasn’t until I was several years older that I realized that the publisher accepted everyone who sent a poem with the hope of selling the writer the anthology in which the work appeared. After I found out, I felt completely duped (especially since my kind parents had, of course, purchased the anthology).
In high school, I often sent really terribly sentimental, inspirational-verse-type poems to the local newspaper. Though I took them quite seriously at the time, and would now like to give a shout-out to the high school friends who suffered through reading them, I sincerely hope that they were never archived anywhere.
My first real success came when I was almost 19, in my second semester of college, and I stopped writing only sonnets and couplets on the advice of my first creative writing professor, Bruce McGinnis. It was like an awakening, that I didn’t have to be so constricted and formal. I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. The same semester, some of my work won second place in the Texas Association of Creative Writing Teachers’ annual competition (McGinnis had entered my work into the contest without telling me). The pieces were published in the association newsletter and the college paid for me to travel to the conference that year to do my first reading. That gave me the confidence I needed to start sending my work to legitimate places, to think that maybe poetry could be more than a pastime. My real poet self slowly grew from there, and is, I hope, still growing.