Judith McCombs


Maricopa, fall 1948

Not a dream but the bed
shaking me awake, and Herky
just lying there, not barking—so I knew
not to try to get out while our home
lurched on its axles—there couldn't
be anyone outside shoving
our walls, or towing us away
with no chains.
                          Next day the loudmouth
rigger from two trailers over
was out by the clotheslines, bragging
how he'd been rollered high
as a carnie ride, just trying
to find the head in the dark,
he got pushed to his knees not knowing
what kind of wildcat was heaving
inside him.
                  Oh I can imagine,
my mother giggled, setting our washload
on the ground—but how could she, when Dad
never drank ever? Then she straightened
her face to say hadn't he worried
about his wife, left on her own
in an earthquake? Horace just reckoned
the women knew how to ride trouble
better'n him. Mother got me busy
hanging socks, but I was halfway wishing
he'd push up his sleeve and ripple
the snake on his Tokyo Rosie—
what would Mother do then?
                                               Even Dad
was perked up that day—he'd been talking
to the survey crew, no damage
near us, just the Tehachapi prison
walls broken, and the women awarded
two months off their time if they didn't
run away. Last night's elevations,
after the slippage, could tell us
a lot, if the chief would just send him
out to refigure the surface.

    ["Earthquake" appears in Territories, Here and Elsewhere
    (Mayapple, rev. ed. 1996).]


She's hung pretty high, your oak. Stay behind me, says Roy,
that's eighty feet up where she's caught, in that hickory—see
how it's already started to crack? Where's your property line?
We'll drop her through here if we can, and spare your azaleas—
but a tree like that could split or spin out anytime—
I know a guy who's wearing a brace forever.
We can't climb her at all, can't rope her worth spit.
Tim, the one with the chainsaw, he'll do what he can.
Tim called me 4:30 this morning—he's a friend from way back—
Did I have work? Do I ever, me and my cousin
got trees out our ears with this storm, and Tim's a great climber.
We thank you for waiting, but I got priorities—
people with trees on their houses and driveways come first.

It's Tim who walks up to the base of the slanting oak,
beside the ropes that Roy and his cousin have tossed
and fished round the trunk, before they backed off up the hill.
It's Tim, bent over, who cradles the chainsaw, touches down
and pulls back, touch wood and pull back, it looks as easy
as a knife slicing cake, or a surfer shaving a wave—
I can't see the ripple or splint that changes it all—
why he's leaping backwards in air, kicking out
like a Cossack, almost falling downhill, the chainsaw still whirring
flung off to one side while he leaps, still facing the tree—
and now we can see how it's moving, it's freed, the crashing
thuds down, bounces and thuds, right where Roy said.

Tim's a real good friend, and as good with the saw as my cousin,
says Roy as he figures the bill. But John's my cousin,
that's family, you see, and family stays back with the ropes.

       ["Priorities" appears in The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected and New
        (Word Works, 2005).]

Judith McCombs
Judith McCombs grew up in almost all the continental states, in a geodetic surveyor's family. Her work appears in Calyx, Nimrod (a Neruda Award), Poet Lore, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Potomac Review (Poetry Prize), Prairie Schooner, Prism, Sisters of the Earth, and elsewhere. She has held NEH and Canadian Senior Embassy Fellowships, and Michigan and Maryland Arts Awards. The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected and New (Word Works 2005) is her seventh book. She teaches at the Writer's Center in Bethesda MD, arranges the Kensington Row Bookshop poetry readings, and served as the 2005 poetry editor for Potomac Review.



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