Jessica Goodfellow


My mother’s only sibling, Steve Taylor, was one of seven climbers lost on Denali in the 1967 Wilcox Expedition. These poems deal with the dichotomy between the savage beauty of the park (including the incredible nine days that Denali was visible during my visit) and the tragic family history that drew me t/here.

I cannot thank the park staff enough for bringing me here, and for helping make my stay meaningful.


Park Road

I follow the road my uncle followed
forty-nine years ago. One way.

All day drizzle and dust smear my wind-
shield. Sepia creeps from the edges inward.

A bull moose, solitary on the roadside,
with upturned antlers rakes the rain.

Dall sheep stipple a deeply purpled shelf,
far constellation deep in escape terrain.

Clouds crowd Polychrome Pass, the colors
of Monet’s Haystacks on a Foggy Morning.

Divide Mountain’s outcrops—as long-faced
and open-mouthed as organ pipes—gape.

Ten o’clock at night. The clouds snag
on the backs of ragged mountains and unravel.

Above the cabin, the sun swings a wide arc.
The sky is suddenly brighter, bluer than ice.

Sleepless. Everywhere I wander
is at center in the sun’s lasso.

Day’s end, and our bodies do not
believe it is the end.


Toklat Fractals

Beyond the caribou tracks, the river braids itself
over gravel bars. The rocks that parse the river
also braid themselves with color—gray, ochre,

black. Some are simply banded by a white stripe
into halves: before, and after. Others bear seams
as tangled as lines on a map—a record of all

the forces that have brought them here. Now. I
look up, see Denali, a band of white through
unbraiding clouds—all that has brought me here

is riven in two: before the tragedy, and after.
Around me the Toklat twines itself like the veins
running blood and history through my wrists.

Memory, like cold glacial melt, hauls more sediment
than it can hold, churns, scatters what it forsakes,
strands in splintered islands the truths on which we break.


Mile 55

Mid-August and already
the tall fireweed darkens
into autumn.

The mountainside is dotted
with blueberries, soapberries,
cranberries low to the ground.

Beneath our lifting heels
the spongy tundra
springs back as if

we were never here.
Every day sunset
comes six minutes sooner.

On the ridge, the shadow
of a golden eagle is visible
before the eagle is.

Up here
there is nothing between me
and Nothing.


The Magpie

drags my
gaze around—

a teeter-totter
of blue and black

a wink of stark
white epaulet

crazed-glass wings
a sheen of green

a swaggering wand
of opal tail—

then with a shake
of lacquered beak

and a fling
of fingery wings
is gone


The Wandered

My sister’s drawn to clean-edged kettle ponds,
learning how to tell which pools were formed in basins
left behind by glaciers, and which weren’t.

I’m captivated by erratics, empty-house-sized
boulders stranded in a strange land by ice
that melted out from underneath them.

Erratic comes from the Latin errare,
meaning to wander, to stray, to err. We are
not wrong, my sister and I, to feel kindred—

kin and dread—with what remains after
a mammoth force, no longer visible,
has carved out such a tattered landscape.



All stones are broken stones. ~James Richardson

Someone, or someones,
have littered the window ledge
with river rocks—gray, or black, each
with a white stripe through the middle
like a mirror. On the porch, too, someone
has left an array of two-toned stones.

Wandering the river bars, I look
for an offering to the cabin I share
with my unknown predecessors
and their mineral obsessions. But
each rock I lift from the river is returned,
set back down—some now, some tomorrow.

Northbound means bound for the north,
while housebound means bound to the house.
In this cabin, this northerly house,
what is bound is—like the river rocks—
of two contrasting origins, forged into one:
this relentless beauty and my grandmother’s grief.


Tundra Undreamt

cross fox under a three-quarter moon
crosses the road ahead of me, ground
squirrel dangling from his jaws

we who range the night, in quest of
respite from our hungers, regard one
another under the moon, not yet full


Musings on the Flora of Alaska

An abacus of saxifrage,
wild celery’s geometry,
but to what do you liken lichen?

If bear flowers are a favorite
of the bears, are windflowers
winsome to the wind?

Wooly lousewort or weasel snout—
which name is worse for stalks of pastel
bundled on the tundra?

Black spruce leaning deep green
atop paler green taiga—is it by supping
on melted permafrost they get drunken?

If soapberries are as bitter in the mouth as soap,
what can the person who named cloudberries
know of a mouthful of sky?

Aven seed heads and cotton grass
are like gauzy ghosts floating over the tundra—
to what are you tethered?

Fireweed, ubiquitous fireweed, the color
of elusive alpenglow—so many words for warmth
beneath North America’s icy crown.


Hiking Past Thorofare Cabin

Through chest-high willow and alder,
through thickets beaded with blueberries
that dangle above fresh bear scat—
we see The Great One, cloudless.

Each step in the sodden tundra
forces bubbles out of the mud—
the earth is breathing with us
as we push our way closer.

The cabin is uninhabited—we look in
as we pass, heading toward
the moraine of the Muldrow Glacier
and the river that is its meltwater.

Soon it will be autumn. The brush will explode
in golds, the fireweed in red. The grizzlies
will finish their forage. We will not be here.
The glacier will inch toward our absence.


The McKinley

is a feral river,
a skein of silt and gravel
disheveled by rough waters.

Impediment, irreverent
are those who try to cross,
thinks the river

in its ever-changing mind,
its slow kaleidoscope
of sediment and melt.

My uncle is one
who crossed, baptized
by clouds and polar waters.

This is as close as I’ll get—
on foot— to my uncle’s
unmarked mountain grave.

The river mothered by a glacier
rushes between,
buffering flesh from if,

whether from weather—
a storm is a cosmic accomplice.
Denali in the distance

is sleek, geometric, indifferent.
The river’s flanked
on that far side by breath-

taking grandeur,
on this side by a selvage
of dark pines.

Breathe the beauty in.
Breathe the sorrow out.
Pretend for a moment not to know:

there are in these woods
wolves—two competing packs—
out of sight, and circling,


Nine Views of Denali

The mountains are alive. ~Clay Dillard, pilot

The mountain appears
through a venetian blind
of clouds—stripes of weather,
granite, snow.

Mountain and sky the same
indigoes and whites
as The Blue Marble.
Fast-moving clouds are too high
to hide the peaks, but their shadows
sweep across the ridges—
the opposite of spotlights.

Thick clouds hide all
but shifting glimpses
of the mountain, mottled white
and gray as the fifteen stones
at Ryoanji’s zen garden,
which from no angle
can all be seen at once.

The clear blue slate of Wonder Lake
twins the sky. Counting
the reflection there are two
Denalis. My uncle could be

Fish-scale moon
above Denali at midnight—
iridescent, incandescent,
partly darkled—
a frozen fire
and the spark that has escaped it.

Wind shuffles the clouds
in a cosmic shell game
while we wager:
under which thunderhead
does the summit lie.

The mountain’s north faces
have ridges crisp as datelines—
ash blue todays on one side,
white nothings on the other.

The blank white pages of Denali,
Foraker, and Hunter are smudged
across their bottom margins
by the inky scrawl of smaller ridges—
scribbles of unreadable runes.

Behind us, the park road
winds toward the mountain
like a fuse.


Leaving the Park

we drive a direction
my uncle never did, see vistas
from slants he never will.
From the brush four bears
spill onto the road—
three snuffling cubs and their mother.
I wonder what to say to my mother
about my visit to the park
where her brother’s body lies.
A covey of ptarmigan—eleven,
twelve, fourteen—like nervous thoughts
scatter, dart, convene.
Should I tell how I hiked as near as I could
to where he had been—Wonder Lake,
the Muldrow Glacier moraine?
Out the back window Denali
is cloudier than it has been,
and farther. And gone.
Should I mention the magpies flashing
their blue-black wings at Eielson, where
she once waited, blue eyes dark with fear?
Mile after mile, we scan the landscape
for last signs of fox, moose, wolves,
for anything that moves.
When we speak of him, my mother
answers questions until her face closes—
“I’m finished talking for now.”
Across the taiga a caribou has worried
his antlers on trees till the velvet is torn,
raw, cranberry-bright with blood.

Soon, soon,
he’ll shed his heady load.
But not yet.

Jessica Goodfellow
Jessica Goodfellow

Jessica Goodfellow, a Pennsylvania native currently residing in Japan, has published two books of poetry: Mendeleev’s Mandala (Mayapple Press, 2015) and The Insomniac’s Weather Report (Two Candles Press First Book Award, 2011; reprinted by Isobar Press, 2014). Her poetry chapbook A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland received the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Prize. Her publication credits include Best New Poets, Hunger Mountain, and Copper Nickel, among others. Recipient of the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal, as well as the Linda Julian Essay Award and the Sue Lile Inman Fiction Prize, both from the Emrys Foundation, she’s had poems featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. Her work has been made into a short film by Motionpoems. Jessica has graduate degrees from the University of New England and Caltech, and imagery from science and mathematics plays a large role in her writing. Currently she is working on the poetry manuscript WHITEOUT, about her uncle’s death on Denali, along with six other climbers, during the Joe Wilcox expedition in 1967. She teaches at a women’s college in Kobe, Japan.

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Last updated: March 29, 2017

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