NEA Literature Fellowships

Robert Hill Long

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(2005 - Poetry)

Dead Horse Point

A thousand feet above the Colorado we sat
in a shallow arroyo of redrock and sand,
drinking a bottle of ruby shiraz
that gave off the high smell of a horse
ridden hard through miles of darkening sage.
Last light vanished off your red hair
like flame off a live coal: I wanted
to warm my hands in it but held back,
touched you only in passing the wine.
You tried one name after another
for what was just beginning to push
your belly outward. None of your names
lit and no others came to me: swifts
shuttled overhead through a violet chill.
Red mesas to the east went gray, night
rose to the brim of the river canyon.
We were left moon-whitened sand
to light us out of the arroyo to the tent.
Ten years have gone dark since that night
and I have enough darkness behind me
to know we had no language to name
what was about to become of us.
A child, we say. It was a country
taking shape in us, redrock and sage
and swifts and canyon light taken in,
compressed: blood, bone and breath.
That country looks out through the eyes
of our son and sees us dying to come back.
Its white water runs through his laughter,
its sage and dark wine is his sweat.
As he grows that country grows wider
and darker: when he leaves, it will be
a step away in any direction. Each white
hair I lose ends up threaded into
a swift's nest there, each trace of skin
you rub off against me falls into
moon sand where no one else will walk.
So much still to be weathered, scarred,
leveled and scattered: erosion
is strong as love, and longer than memory.
At Dead Horse Point I wanted the red
and the white dust of us to be so mixed
together that dying means I go where
you can close your eyes and find me
drinking wine by a fire, waiting

to warm my hands in your hair.
Where all we know about love is the brief
red cactus flower closing up for the night--
closing faster because we touched it.

Robert Hill Long was raised in coastal North Carolina, where his poetry was first recognized by Donald Hall at Davidson College in 1975. In 1984 he helped found the North Carolina Writers' Network. He has received fellowships from North Carolina, Oregon, once previously from the NEA (1988). He directs the Kidd Tutorial Program in Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.

His books include The Power to Die, The Work of the Bow (Cleveland State University, 1987, 1997), and The Effigies (Plinth Books of New England, 1998). His work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry, Flash Fiction, and The Best of the Prose Poem, and in numerous journals across America.

Photo by Ranee Ruble

Author's Statement

Picture the guy in the photo - nearsighted, long hair silvery, beard chalk-white - at a picnic table on Cape Perpetua, a lava headland 800 feet above the Pacific north of Yachats, Oregon, pop. 625. The table's in a Sitka spruce clearing: a southerly view of miles of coastal headlands. He's bent over writing until the sun peaks; breaks for lunch, stretch, a walk; resumes working until Pacific turns from daylight jade to evening pewter, then heads down to the sea-level campsite: dinner, wine, read Yannis Ritsos, write by lantern-light before crawling into the tent. Tomorrow he'll do it again; maybe shift to that picnic table above the Yachats River, where crows cajole scraps of bread, and cheese rind.

This was my routine the summer of 2005. I crammed a year of writing into three clear dry months. Why? My academic year is full-time teaching - poetry, fiction, nonfiction, running a tutorial program for advanced undergrads. After 15 years at this job, I find what's required for good teaching and good writing seems to arise from the same reservoir; at age 53, it's no longer bottomless. From October-June, I teach, revise, read; July through September is when I jam. In recent years, I've grown to love writing outdoors - a cabin on the McKenzie River, tent-sites above the Pacific, on coastal lakeshores. Keeping the interior reservoir in sight and earshot of water.

I wrote 65 poems this summer: half of them narratives about the walking wounded, ex-soldiers & citizens damaged by contact with war—the rest, character sketches of an obscure, cranky jazz guitarist (in the manner of Weldon Kees's Robinson poems). By next spring, I'll have two book manuscripts from these drafts. I'm tremendously grateful to the poets who selected the 2005 Fellows, and to the NEA, who underwrote my summer writing, from sun-up to lantern-douse.