Art Elser’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies. His books include a memoir, “What’s It All About, Alfie?” and five poetry books, “We Leave the Safety of the Sea,” “A Death at Tollgate Creek,” “As The Crow Flies (Haiku), “ “To See a World in a Grain of Sand,” and “It Seemed Innocent Enough.” 

The following poems are from “It Seemed Innocent Enough.”


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When Friends Have Asked Me  

After Lisel Mueller

When friends have asked me how I came 
to poetry, I’ve usually lied to them. I’ve told   
I wrote to free myself of pain and guilt 
from time at war, flashbacks that I had. 

But I came to writing poetry more quietly, 
from my grief the night that Nanny died.  

I sat in a chair in the next room as she slept, 
keeping watch, attending to her needs. 
I dozed, then woke, startled by a harsh rattle, 
and knew that now her death was near. 

I nodded off and woke hours later to silence,
broken only by a lonesome cricket’s chant. 
The cricket stilled. I listened for her breath. 

Then the wind chime above the barely 
open window softly, very softly, tolled 
the passing of her soul. Then silence.  

I allayed my sorrow with paper and pen, 
setting it to that night’s soft, soft music 
of a wind chime that tolled grief’s start. 

It Seemed Innocent Enough  

A man and woman in their 70s sit in the dark, 
sipping coffee. Lightning flashes from a line 
of thunderstorms to the west of Bahía Banderas, 
where the bay meets the ocean. Lightning splashes 
off the black waters of the bay, but the thunder 
barely growls in the pre-dawn quiet. 

He remarks that the lightning makes him think 
of the first morning that life was created. How the 
lightning sparked life in volcanic primordial stew. 
She nods but doesn’t reply. 

  After a bit she says 
the lightning reminds her of sparks at a party 
they attended forty years before.

She sat alone—her husband playing water polo. 
He also alone—his wife had begged off the party. 
At first he wasn’t sure who she was, sitting there, 
alone. She didn’t remember him. 
Both had changed 
since they last met. And when he asked to join her, 
she nodded yes. They struck sparks that night
as they chatted by themselves for a few hours.

As dawn comes to the bay, steam rises from 
jungled slopes where rain had fallen earlier.  
Small fishing vessels inch their way out 
to the mouth of the bay. Pelicans skim 
the waves. Frigate birds grace the blue 
above the bay. Couples stroll the beach.

They laugh as they sip their coffee, talk 
about the sparks struck that night. How old lives 
ended as they created this love-filled new one. 

Only the Bones Are the Same 

(with a nod to Wislawa Szymborska )

Suppose I met that young man whose picture hangs 
in the back hall. In it he stands tall, cocky, jauntily 
leaning against his airplane, small though it is, 
his hand resting easily on the pistol at his side. 
He’s clear eyed and smiling. 

Suppose he asked me to sit with him in a coffee shop. 
How would I feel this half century later about him 
and the things that he did? 

Would I be awed by the fearlessness of his days, 
or would I be angry that he didn’t give a damn 
about saving time for me so I could live a full life? 

Would I shake my head at his naiveté, believing 
the lies his president told? Or would I be proud 
of his conviction in doing what his country asked 
of him? Proud of his willingness to die for the men 
he supported on the ground? 

Would I be appalled at his quick elation in killing, 
not thinking about the mothers, wives, children,  
families who would never see those men again? 
Or would his saving the lives of his countrymen 
balance his lack of grief over the lives he took? 

I’m sure he was unaware then of the pain and grief 
and guilt I later would feel for the things he had done. 
But I am glad that he has passed on to me his sense 
of honor and integrity wedded to these same bones. 

October 5th, 2017, 8:30 PM 

High thin clouds fade from light pink to gray, 
and cumulus on the etched black mountains 
burn a fiery red, as the sun slides down. 

In the east the night spreads its dark wings 
and a hawk glides to its roost on a cottonwood. 
A pair of nighthawks starts their dusk patrol. 

A nearby meadowlark finishes his evensong, 
and all but a solitary cricket joins the hush. 
As dark creeps farther west, a soft light stirs 

in the east and the gold harvest moon eases 
over the horizon, lighting the silent scene. 
In the cottonwoods by the creek, an owl hoots. 

Its mate hoots back softly. A lone coyote from 
a den beyond the creek, yips twice and throws 
a long, quavering howl into the prairie night. 

Night Sky, Sand Dunes, July 1987  

My son and I lay out in sleeping bags 
to stay warm in the cold desert night.  
We let our eyes adjust to night’s dark. 
We have lived for years on the edge 
of a small city’s lights and he has never 
seen the night sky this clear, this huge. 

We are suddenly overwhelmed 
by the shattering stillness of the night, 
the cold light of the billions of stars. 
We try to orient ourselves, look for  
the big dipper, the north star, summer 
triangle, Scorpio’s red eye, curled tail.
They are lost in the night’s brilliance. 
We lay there silently, in raptured awe. 

My son wishes that the thin veil 
of high clouds across tonight’s sky 
weren’t there so he can see better. 
He’s stunned to learn he sees clearly 
for the first time the Milky Way. 

This morning at breakfast he tells 
me that he felt for a while last night 
that he was adrift in that brilliant sky. 
I tell him that our sun is one of those 
dust motes in the Milky Way and we  
were all adrift in last night’s sky.

If You Sit Still Long Enough in Nature 

the gods may smile on you, but you must 
be quiet, make all your movements slow 
and next to your body, so you become 
a large rock or a mound of earth. 

Once, on a quiet, sunny, September morning 
the gods conjured Coyote out of wheatgrass, 
down the slope from where I was sitting quietly, 
absorbing the nature around me. Coyote appeared 
suddenly, cutting across the faint trail I had used 
to get to the depression that once had been the well 
for a homestead where I sat, feet dangling. 

Coyote stopped, froze, looked at me with frightened 
eyes. I spoke softly to her, told her I meant no harm, 
that she was beautiful, thanked her for visiting me. 
She relaxed and trotted off rather than bolting, 
running, fleeing. I think the gods were pleased 
and smiled on me again some weeks later. 

I walked the prairie to a low spot that blocked view 
of most signs of man’s hand and sounds of his activity. 
I sat on a cut bank by a dirt road, became a mound 
of grass, leaned against a rock, closed my eyes, took in 
the peace of the morning, smell of grass, scent of sage
I had walked through, the sun’s warmth on my face, 
the tingle of soft wind on my arms. 

My body slowed its rhythms, breathing, beating 
of my heart, and I opened my eyes. I turned  
ever so slowly to see what the prairie might offer. 
A movement at the top of a low ridge north of me 
caught my eye. A pronghorn buck grazed at the top 
of the ridge. I watch as he became six, nine, twenty, 
thirty-six pronghorns moving slowly toward me. 

Ahead of the main herd was a doe and two fawns, 
fawns born but four months before, just half the size 
of their mother. They still wore the spots of youth. 
Like children in a toy aisle, the fawns moved faster 
than the herd, their mother keeping up to make sure 
they were safe. They came within thirty yards of me. 

I dared not speak for fear of spooking the entire herd, 
and worried that they would walk right into me. 
The buck leading the herd, or the gods, turned the herd 
and they ambled their way back up and over the ridge. 
Once again the gods had smiled on me. 

Meditation on the Death of a Spider 

As I shave, I reflexively swat at a tickle on my hip 
and crush a tiny spider crawling there. Was he there 
because I walked through his web and caught him up 
or was he blown there by the breeze of my passing? 
His death means little to me, but I do offer an apology, 
saying his death was accidental, without my intent. 

As I think on that spider’s death it seems little different 
from the drunk driver who doesn’t see the stop sign, 
hits a car killing a mother, her three-year-old daughter, 
sparing her son who will grow up without his mother, 
leaving her partner who will grieve for their deaths. 

What kind of God allows this senseless mayhem 
to destroy lives? Does this God cause or allow 
the earthquake that devastates a poor island, 
killing hundreds of thousands of sleeping people, 
or a tsunami that kills tens of thousands more?
And the wars. Oh God! The never ending wars.  

How can I square these events with the all-loving, 
all-knowing, all-powerful God of my catechism? 
The God who knows when a single sparrow falls, 
dresses the lilies of the fields in their spring finery. 

Why does this God allow gratuitous violence to take 
the lives of so many of his children, dooming those 
who love them to lives of grief? Does he not care? 
Is he not there? Have we had it wrong all this time? 

Did the Greeks, thousands of years before, get it right, 
the three Fates determine our destiny, one spinning 
life’s thread, one measuring it, and one shearing it, 
as I sheared the thread of that tiny spider’s life? 

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