On the Brink by George Kalamaras

High Park Fire, Livermore, Colorado

Say one day you wake up and your wife has cancer. She’s rubbing your arm awake,
sadly shaking her head, treed like a possum by a pack of hounds. Say you’re getting a
second opinion twelve days later, and the waiting room cable news says the largest
wildfire in Colorado history is a mile from your summer home, though—fortunately—
still on the other side of the river. You see the metaphor but detest the cliché—the fire
raging in her right breast. The biopsy must be wrong. The report incorrect. Once you
even read that you used to sleep throughout the night. That the owl nesting in your chest
clocked its head to follow every moment of the moon. Say the moon was your friend.
That it worked overtime to coax the fires back up into the milky mouth of night. Cancer
this, back-burn that. Where do the birds from the Roosevelt National Forest go when
their trees immolate, when their inside-night can no longer nest? And the foxes? The
mountain lions, coyotes, and deer? Yes, they evacuated the neighborhood animals—
Gabriele’s mustangs, Jessie and Pete’s two burros with that sad sad burro stance, small
and complacent with the load. Nineteen wolves up the Poudre River now recline in
caged runs in Greeley. Someone is feeding them road-killed deer once a week to
supplement their meal. Sue calls with news of the Coloradoan’s headline, Glacier View:
Community on the Brink. The doctors are most definite. Evacuation is a must. The
tumor board at the hospital swirls like three fingers of Yukon Jack asking the amber
back-burn to wait. Someone is on the brink, and it’s not just your wife. Something is
always eating you from inside, trying your high wire of light. The weather is hot, your
age report still hopeful at fifty-seven and sunny. Disposition is everything. You follow
the drama 1181 miles away. You follow the drama at your side. How can we ever
understand the gift of thirty-three years together and counting? MRI, PET scan, HER2-
negative. The life-saving burn of radiation. Dye that illuminates the riverous cleansing
of the glands. You’ve always loved learning but some details hurt. Say that hurt was
whole. That the possum up the tree just took the branch toward shiver and splint. The
mouths of the hounds cry joy, even as your marsupial self longs for the pulsings of the
pouch. Say the luck of three, that the third surgeon’s opinion is best. That you walk in
the door from that relief only to hear that the fire jumped the Poudre, tore up your
meadow in a 200-foot high wall of flame, and took the house. All in just thirty minutes.
Life is fair. We have no way of measuring our mouths, the how and why we cry. If we
could just say it right we could save the world with a spur. A five-pointed star twirling,
heel to tongue. Where do the animals? How do they go? How might the night clocking
my sleep draft down and stomp out the spot fires of the brain? The burros look sad for a
purpose. It must certainly be in their job description: Here, humble ones, something must
have told them, carry the world’s emotional load with quiet calm, giving it back to us
with the sad of your bull’s-eye glance. We are always looking into ourselves even as we
look at others? Say that’s right. Say it’s not fair. Say the fire should never have jumped
the Poudre in the first place, that it should have never entered her breast. Glacier View is
burned, burning, burnt. The glaciers in the distance are still there, high above the rise.
Snowcap moan above the singed and stinging earth. What is hot and what is cold. What
is torn and what is whole. What is burnt and, oddly, still most beautiful.


George Kalamaras has published six books of poetry and seven chapbooks, most recently The Mining Camps of the Mouth (New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM chapbook contest, 2012) and Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (Elixir Press Poetry Prize, 2011). He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.