The Narrow Road North

From the earliest times there have always been some
who perished along the road.
—BASHŌ (translated by Sam Hamill)

After two and a half hours of Minnesota flatlands,
the car slowly climbs the long western ridge
of glacial strata, until the great lake
bursts into view—bridges and ore docks
laid like toys across the broad cloth
where the St. Louis River widens to the bay
among the dingy houses of west Duluth.

I rent a cabin at water’s edge, my companions
moss-covered boulders, ancient white pines,
books, coffee, bananas and bug spray.
Leaf shadows shimmer the table.

Open a little space
when you are nowhere
and you can be now here.

I set my tools of awareness on the kitchen
table—this simple sound box
of paper and pen, strings stretched
across the body of the world.

The apple tree’s green globes sway.
A crow carries the night sky.
Even the sun has somewhere to be.

But the yellow tulip cups
three dew-drops—balanced
on a thin green stem for a slender time.

In the lapping blue well, I lose
my self, like ink seeping into
paper’s clean indifference—
and emptied of self, my being fills
with world, an osmosis of perception. 

Today is the ticking kitchen clock,
lake swells, breathing in and out.
The robin sings of nothing but today.

Language transforms landscape.
When bay becomes harbor, breakwaters appear,
a lighthouse rises at the peninsula’s point,
boat slips slide along shore. Train tracks stretch
over water, carrying ore from Iron Range mines
to this westernmost tip of the Great Lakes.

Old-timers drive their trucks to Agate Bay
to watch the ore ships come and go.
And the vast vista of water slaps
and complains at shore, heaves and sinks beyond,
resigned to its limits — no place to go.

We are boats in the harbor, each
distinct, but each leaving a wake
that widens, quells, disappears.

Meaning takes its flavor from layers
of burnish and shine, the sheen of hands
holding each word like a pump handle
or ploughshare’s grip, worn with fingerprints,
fragrant with work, the sunlit presence
of long-gone lives.

Words like yellowed oars,
blades wet and shining, lapped by
the many meanings of lake.

The sound of surf filters through pine trees
to the needle-covered car.  I pack it
in darkness for the drive south to the Twin Cities.
As I follow the gravel road back to the highway,
tires crunch, headlights search.  I drive an hour
beneath the half moon and brightening
east, then pull off at a rest stop.

This misty morning, maple leaves
circle the tree trunk—bright
syllables naming the dawn sky.

Photo by Dimitri Kolpakov on Unsplash.

Daniel Thomas

Daniel Thomas’s second poetry book, Leaving the Base Camp at Dawn, was published in 2022. His first collection, Deep Pockets, won a 2018 Catholic Press Award. He has an MFA in poetry from Seattle Pacific University, as well as an MA in film and a BA in literature.  He has published poems in many journals, including Southern Poetry Review, Nimrod, Poetry Ireland Review, The Bitter Oleander, Atlanta Review, and others.

His long career in nonprofit management includes work as an executive director and a chief development officer.  In addition to writing poetry, he plays the guitar and writes music. For six years he served as vice-chair of the American Composers Forum. Dan is the father of three grown children. After living most of his life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he and his wife, Ellie, moved to Santa Barbara, California in 2015.

More info on his website.