Ten Poems

Once You Name It

Once you name it grass,
the new-mown
aroma will see you through winter.

Once you name it
hard durum wheat, it will feed
the world.

Name it & you assume
you can stop looking. Though snow
shows only one facet
of flake or storm or bank, powder
one quality of the slope
we’re sliding down.

Once you name it Mozart, you expect it
to save you.

Once you name it
it’s yours. You’ve claimed it.
Now you must tend it, watch it grow
into its name, then grow
out of its name, come
into its own.

Once you name it home, it will live in you
no matter where you live
no matter how you live
as long as you live.

Once you name it enemy, you devote your life to it.

Once you name it friend, it will forgive you.

Once you name it love, you begin not to know.

Name it blood, & you see how you’re related.
It thickens, rich pudding
after death, after birth.

Name it death & you step toward it, just
as you did before it
weighed down the tongue,
melted like a wafer
or a mouthful of snow.

Once you name it birth, you breathe
first breath
& cry, cry
for the world you’ve left, harder
cry for the world
you’ve come to, wide
awake, helpless, unclothed
but for your cloak
of blood, hungry
to put it to your mouth,
that whole world
you’ve yet to name.



The rigid baby wrapped in rags
is all tucked in. The child amputee

moans softly. The insulated rich
enforce a peculiar quiet,

shushing seismic rumbles
from distended bellies. One day

we will all of us yield
to the attraction of the earth,

the little plots we’ve left.
Sullied water

seeks its own level
far down and still.

The spirit without a vocabulary
shrieks into the night like patriots

welcomed home.
Somehow we never get around

to talking about it, the pull
to be the quickest draw,

the holster unsnapped always.
It’s the code of the West,

stranger. If you’re new
to these parts,

listen up. Manifest Destiny
just got an oil change.

We’re aimed downhill,
ready to roll, all pumped up.


Decisive Victory

The way the black Lab races for the water
quick as the leash-clip snaps off his collar.

The way the tanager circles above sunbathers.
Jet ski, the way the redhead’s straight ponytail whips

as she spins donuts on the water, bucking
her own wake. My God, the way we show off

what we carry inside. Each grain of pollen
a medieval mace, a weapon against breath.

The way we gather our violence, so the explosion
comes across as involuntary. The long way

home. A child strapped to her wheelchair, the way
administrators who have never met her

find cost effective. Clipped grass,
rubble walk, the back way. Rhubarb

in the front yard, the way the inside of a shoe
worn too far wears down the foot,

the inflamed spot spreading, the weight
of our own steps too much to take.


Braided River

Under the ice, burbot glide
as if giving birth
to silence.

Someone who held the augur straight
drilled clean through
to moving water,

set gear, then hurried home,
chilled blood pulling back
from the surface, circling deeper

toward the center, the sacred.
As all winter the heartwood
holds the gathered birch sap

still. Ours is only one bend
of a wild, braided river.



Quite suddenly
in the Apostles’ River Valley
the acacias flower.

Their taproots throb,
touching secret waters
under sand so hot

even vultures suffer. Up one trunk
the honey badger turns his head
tooth-grip and claw-lifting living

shakes of bark, burrowing
after the skink underneath.
Cradling the lizard

across the pads of one paw,
the badger regards her, noses
her transparent belly.

The skink lies quite still,
playing dead, her lungs flattening
like leftover wings

too small to lift more than the chest,
too delicate to admit
that the graceful curve

insinuating itself inside
her torso matches the curve
of the badger’s nail.


July on the Chena

Red fox on the riverbank
leaps downed birch—
two, three—
what he’s after
scrambling, invisible
from our riverboat.

Red fox, skinny
shins flailing,
dives out of sight. Moist
dirt shelters him,
absorbs the inked tip
of his lavish tail.

His secrets are his. Bright
secrets too. Beavers chew
vein-rich silver alder,
every mouthful a word,
a world untold.


Polished Table

When this koa tree stood,
honeycreepers nested among its burls,
hopped and waddled where they wanted
to go, tightroped along roots
stretched over forest floor.

When this koa tree fell,
mongoose darted nest to nest.
At twilight, stowaway rats
nosed windfall guava,
papaya, passionfruit.

Feral pigs yanked out
tender fiddleheads, new shoots
of ti, o’hia, maile.
When this koa was milled,
the honeycreeper’s song

echoed—laughter of cousins
splashing barefoot in ocean,
children long gone, dressed
in the long sleeves of their lives,
their eyes now and then closing

to let in the song
of winged ones
unnested, gone.


Gnawed Bones

If language is bones, hard parts
of speech, what do skulls of pack rats
crushed into owl pellets
have to tell us?

If this delicate pelvis
once balanced a gravid
javelina, what word passes on
to her shoats?

If cicada shells hang on
like single mothers starved
for touch, what does hot
wind whisper through them?

If every day
re-enacts creation,
if we live
here, now

in the first world
and the last,
let us speak
in our bones

languages of water
from all skies, from
deep underground.
Let our bones quench

the thirst of history,
thirst for all we yearn
to sip, marrow
of each dry tongue.

Basilisk Lizard

Lusty jitterbug
amplified by
corrugated rust

scares the bejesus
out of us. Before
roof flakes

settle, freckle
tiles, you skitter

toward water. Your toes
hinge over, longer
than your feet.

Little king, named
for a made-up
mess, part rooster,

part dragon, part
snake, you’re very much awake
cooling your tail in the pool,

lifting, alert,
to every footfall,
wing beat, breath.

With a single glance,
the story goes,
the basilisk

could stop
a heart. One step
too close

and you’re
panic incarnate—
Jesus Christ

Lizard zipping
zigzag on hind legs,
kicking up

trails of rain,
salvation’s sip sip
sip into mist.

for Bill Kloefkorn



Thirty feet up, even
slower than we thought, honey-
blonde three-toed

spans the great Y
between branches. Arced

claws unfold, cutlery
close at hand.
She hangs wide

open, a great gold X
crossing paths with
the bloodied man

thorn-torn in cathedrals.
Her tongue dangles
moist leaves.

Foot over hand, her
gradual shifts

She’s at home
in dense fur.

We groundlings
suffer dripping
coats of salt.

Why should
her pace
suggest sin?

Her quizzical
face, placid
as faith

that one day
visions might catch up
to endless questions.



“Once You Name It,” “Gravity,” “Decisive Victory,” and “Braided River” are reprinted from Wings Moist from the Other World, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994.

“Taproots” is reprinted from The Circle of Totems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.
“July on the Chena,” “Polished Table,” and “Gnawed Bones” are reprinted from Gnawed Bones, Red Hen Press, 2010.

“Basilisk Lizard” and “Sloth” are reprinted from Toucan Nest: Poems of Costa Rica, Red Hen Press, 2013.




Peggy Shumaker's new and selected volume of poems Cairn will be published by Red Hen Press in 2018. She was honored by the Rasmuson Foundation with its Distinguished Artist Award, and by the National Endowment on the Arts with a fellowship in poetry. She served as Alaska State Writer Laureate. Shumaker is the author of eight books of poetry. Her lyrical memoir is Just Breathe Normally. Professor emerita from University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Shumaker teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA at Pacific Lutheran University. She serves on the Advisory Board for Storyknife, and on the board of the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation. Shumaker is editor of the Boreal Books series (an imprint of Red Hen Press), editor of the Alaska Literary Series at University of Alaska Press, contributing editor for Alaska Quarterly Review, and poetry editor for Persimmon Tree.  Please visit her website at


  1. Thanks for these poems. I love the interplay of animal lives with human life and the close observation that makes meaning of both.

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