At first I saw the mountain only as
a hunk of granite with a ridge of snow,
imperfectly reflected in the lake.
I’m taking field zoology courses,
trapping mice and netting mayfly nymphs,
learning southeast Wyoming’s habitats.
The air is thin and cold on the alpine meadows,
where spruce and fir grow stunted and dense
in the lee of lichen-covered boulders.
Summer never comes here, only spring,
Tiny ground-hugging flowers bloom quickly.
It won’t be long before the snow returns.
I look at this, I’m back in Ice Age Europe,
a hunter with fur clothes and flint-tipped spears,
stalking Irish elk on the cold soaked land.
Glittering on a microscope slide
in drops of Cuyahoga River,
filaments of green algae,
vorticellas bouncing on their stalks,
suctorians waiting for something to suck,
and here’s the huge incredible thing,
a ciliate five hundred microns long,
which I later identify
as Spirostomum intermedium.
Intermedium? How large is large?
Water fleas, of course, are even bigger,
whirling arms like propellers,
single compound eye like a raspberry
turning inside its transparent head,
tail that kicks like a jackknife.
My undergraduate research project
is mutating from identify to photograph.
My professor’s writing a textbook
about the Cuyahoga River
and needs some good photos.
In the catalog of class offerings
was a graduate level course
in comparative vertebrate morphology.
As a senior, I could take this,
with the professor’s approval—
so there I was in his office,
excited by the lungfish swimming
slowly in a big glass tank,
a survivor from the Devonian
with slightly leglike paired fins.
In the student union I met Chris
and babbled ecstatically to him about
this yard-long wonder of evolution,
while the juke box played Judy Collins
singing about a young rodeo man.
Chris was a social studies major
with a radical but offbeat attitude.
“This revolution is hassling me—
let’s go get stoned,” I heard him say
in the middle of the student strike,
when everyone else was totally grim.
Of course he’d never heard anyone
enthuse like this about a lungfish.
When he told our friend Tess,
she was inspired to write a poem
about my lungfish experience
splitting her weariness with light.
Like the lungfish, I was somewhere
between separated realities,
misty prehistoric mornings,
electric literary nows.
I don’t know what I was thinking,
sitting behind a Magnus organ
that was little more than a toy,
playing simple arpeggios
swimming through a flood of chords,
singing songs that someone else
could have written and performed better.
I got reactions I didn’t expect.
Doug wrote a poem about me
“contending with the keys to make
the organ moan something like his mind,”
and Jane asked me not to sing the song
about the sailor and his lover on shore
because it depressed a friend of hers.
I wrote it when I was seventeen,
pedaling a bicycle down a brick street,
singing, “the brine will wash away
a thousand of my tears.”
The wind rose each time I sang the chorus.
My organ arrangement opened
with low notes like a foghorn.
Removed from fluids of life,
it floated in formaldehyde
with a gallon glass jar for its skull.
“This was a human mind,” I thought,
while we eight students gathered near and
the professor pointed out its parts.
Talking about brain surgery,
he explained why a patient
must be fully conscious during
an operation, why this is
not painful, and what has been learned
from probing the brain with electrodes.
“But what if something goes wrong
while your patient’s awake?” asked one
of the women. “What would you say?”
He had a friend, a brain surgeon,
who was removing a blood clot
and cut too far, severing
an artery. The patient asked
what was wrong and the surgeon said,
“You’re all right; I’ll be right back,”
went out of the room and scrubbed up.
“What else could he have done?” asked
the professor. “If you’re a surgeon,
you save many lives; your skill
and knowledge are valuable.
You can’t afford to punish
yourself for losing a patient.”
A leprechaun through frogeyed glasses
looks up from fingers riverflowing
the neck of his classical guitar,
grins at a flood of notes and sings
of a land of sleepy dreams and rhymes,
taking us far from this coffeehouse
of smokerings and poems on paper plates.
He talks fast, makes passes
at a different woman every night.
If nine out of ten slap him in the face,
so what? The tenth makes it worthwhile.
He drives her in his rusted car
through streets of maple sugar snow
past warehouses and old apartments
to a tiny, soot covered house.
He lights the burners to warm the room.
With music, hashish, and laughter
he charms her into his bed.
copyright © 1982 - 2005 Carl Miller
Drawing, “Medicine Bow Peak”: 2004, gel pen on paper, 6 x 10 inches.