Jeffrey Gustavson

Owls Was The Most Likely Explanation
January 23, 2022 Gustavson Jeffrey


It’s pretty wild to think how long ago
it’s been now since that time disaster loomed
and took a hay rake to my gossamer
scheme for living inconspicuously
off the grid,
and, like a jet-propelled goblin
in a sleepwalker’s nightmare, there I went
scrambling ass over hooch jug back East
to salvage pennies on the voodoo dollars
I’d banked on before they hatched,
a regular tycoon of chickenfeed,
and left my cabin door latched shut crooked
and unwashed breakfast dishes on the floor
next to my thinking chair,
and an old mountain man hereabouts,
Cricket Jake, the scrawniest lumberjack
that ever cruised a stumpage—
right up there in venerability
with the mountains themselves,
and equally implacable
far as monkeyshines with the truth’s concerned—
said he was traipsing past, along the trail
that winds from Kokanee Pond to the ridge
where the blasted pine
from the legendary storm of ’57 stands,
and saw a squad of them feisty grey jays
we still call whiskerjacks around here
(in deference to an abstemious schoolmarm
none of us angelic boys was ever tempted
to cross, nor wouldn’t dream of even now)
sledding down my roof on their bellies,
two of them birds, he swore, clutching
little leafy twigs in their toes—
twigs in their toes!—
and with a glee in their eyes
like beads of obsidian. Rollicking
down the snowy roof of my cabin—
I made sure I canted the pitch steep,
what with our rogue winters that can sock
unshirted hell over this whole drainage—
as close to hilarity as whiskerjacks get,
that old man who never lied said.
Then they’d propel off the eaves in a swoop,
with their wingtips curving up
like a grin greasepainted on a clown,
almost clear down to the ground, then circle
back up to the topmost fringe
of the tamaracks
and land on the peak of the roof
and toboggan down again. He said
the circus went on for a good half hour
before his thermos of coffee ran out
and them zany jays flew off, sated
with their escapade for that afternoon,
he guessed. A power of snow
sifted into the cabin that futile,
desperate month I was away, and forces
a computer’d be fatigued untangling
sculpted a veritable paragon
of a snowbank—
like some sand dune conjured by a genie—
against the bunks,
as I discovered in the aftermath,
when the last of my jigs was truly up
and I was down to nowhere but this place
to ever be. Well, not a few of them tricksters
had intruded their way inside
and thrown themselves a sledding spree here, too,
lavish evidence proved beyond doubt,
so glad, I’m sure, not to have run across
no napping bobcat, let alone
no sardonic snake,
coiled all sly,
smirking at the scales of life
blindly teeter-tottering
season in and season out
the way they do, catastrophe
every fraught instant
just a featherweight away.
Snow snakes, we used to joke
when we were kids
(though the idea was anything but funny
in the claustrophobic hiss
of a midnight blizzard);
but something had to have made those traces
twisting for long stretches atop new snow
with no telltale footprints anywhere near.
Serpents with wings, or the unholy knack
of teleporting themselves through thin air,
fit the known facts near enough to nail down
our pagan consensus.
We’d mostly find them in the thickest woods,
in clearings far away from roads or people,
our favorite bivouacs to scout for,
where we could excavate arrowheads,
plot raids on our enemies,
and feast on peanut-butter sandwiches
free from surveillance.
If we weren’t the luckiest raw scoundrels
creation ever showered with face cards,
I don’t know who was.
We’d lose count of the miles and hours,
and I’d feel numb
not so much from the bitter cold
but from the sheer wilderness dazzle,
warming my bones better than brandy or rum
ever did, and far longer
than my mittens steamed
after a day of capturing sensations
by the scads and myriads
in little caskets fashioned out of air,
then watching as they all broke free
to seethe like frozen diamonds in the sky.
Weren’t those the days, though, paradoxically
weightless ballast destined to keep me sane
through some treacherous years to follow. If only
I were a little more clever with words,
or a little less clever, I bet I
could squeeze a plausible simulacrum
of a poem out of this whole jumble
of mismatched mental furniture—
every ramshackle stick of it
the yokel cousin of a hired-man’s couch,
if not some nail-keg hassock
even less couth—
which ought to be exiled to the attic . . .
and would be, too, if I had one.

Jeffrey Gustavson was born in northernmost Appalachia and has lived in Maine, Massachusetts, California, Minnesota, Texas, and New York. A recipient of an N.E.A. grant, which he used for a residency at the Montana Artists Refuge, he is the author of Nervous Forces (Alef) and has published poems and fiction in Agni, Bomb, Ploughshares, The New Yorker, Poetry, Grand Street, The Brooklyn Rail, The Fiddlehead, Epiphany, and other journals.