John Morgan

The Hungers of the World: Poems From a Residency

 

I had been to the park many times before, but this visit I felt from the start that something extraordinary was happening. Being “in residence” means, in a sense, being at home, and having the wonderful Murie Cabin to live in made me feel a part of the wilderness whenever I stepped outside. These intimations culminated, toward the end of my stay, with the experience recounted in the poem “Vision.” The philosopher William James has written that one of the basic qualities of a mystical experience is that it cannot be captured in words. He may be right, but I felt I had to try. It was unlike anything that had ever happened to me before.

Most of the poems in “The Hungers of the World” are based on a journal that I kept during my 10-day stay. Two come out of earlier visits to the park. The forms used include free verse, accentual verse, and, in one case, a sonnet. I hope they begin to capture the range and suggest the impact my experiences had on me.

Acknowledgements

“The Denali Wolf” first appeared in the magazine Ice-Floe and “The Unnamed Lake” was originally published in The Northern Journal.

I wish to thank Park Superintendent Paul Anderson, Ingrid Nixon, Chief of Interpretation, and Annie Duffy, Arts Coordinator for Alaska Geographic for making my residency possible. I am very grateful to Tom Walker for putting forward the idea of having writers spend time at the Murie Cabin. Also great thanks to my wife Nancy for suggesting the idea to Tom during a field journaling class we took with him in 2008.

— John Morgan, 2009

 
 

Arrival

Denali National Park, 6-19-09

Fourteen caribou at Sable Pass,
pestered by a pair of long-tailed jaegers—
bright barbs of ruckus, territorial,
they swoop down like spear-heads,
loop, wheel and shout.

While focusing ‘binocs,’ my
elbow hits the horn and
baffled by the blare,
fourteen caribou stop dead and stare.

Perched in flinty stillness on
the porch—cupped
ears and stubby tail—a resident
ground squirrel sizes me up.

These green and ochre hills
dotted and streaked with white,
backed by the snow-splashed
peaks of Polychrome, shift
in softening light.

While foxes den a hollow
hillside by the river,
magpies flit, a rabbit
grazes and moves on.

Browsing the cabin’s logbook,
ten years of visitations,
the tribute of one artist
draws tears to my eyes: “It’s
as if you dropped me off in Paradise.”



The Unamed Lake

(from a field journal)

In memory of Charles Ott and William Ruth

Slogged over tipsy muskeg, past a “moose
wallow,” grizzly tracks, to reach this breeze-
rippled lake, where, through waving horsetails,
a golden-eye, her pesky offspring in tow,

preens and dives. Across the sky-flecked water, spruce,
then tundra meadows mount toward jagged Zs
of rock. Like specks of white-out, Dall sheep line
the ridge. If this place had a name, it’s been

erased, in homage to two men whose ashes
seed the hills nearby. They staked their lives
on wildness beyond naming. Can we go back,
reclaim the power of unaltered place? Blue
and luminous, a damselfly lights on this page;
two kingfishers weigh in, wheel off down the lake.



Higher Powers

Scanned across the East Fork
with binocs and on a distant ridge,
that funny-looking rock’s

a golden eagle, eyes fierce and
head erect, bill hooked like some-
thing Roman, regal, as two

more eagles circle in. Their
wings straight on like wispy Vs,
a child’s scribbled wings, but

through a 60 power scope—
unearthly things, Renaissance
angels sifting toward the sun.



The Denali Wolf

Near the East Fork of the Toklat
in the season that’s never dark
I lugged my gear back from the road

and while I slept through dusk
a noise like trash in the suburbs
being clattered away woke me up.

When I stuck my head out of the tent flap
the hoofed creatures were gone
but what I saw at eye-level,

like a fury sculpted in ice
brought me to my knees.
Once I’d wanted to paint a canvas

some huge fanatical blue
where the hungers of the world
could settle and be soothed.

Ten feet away, ears pricked,
nose flaring, the silver-gray
pursuer stared me in the face,

then sensing I wasn’t prey
whirled off along the river,
and I watched him shrink to a point

in imaginary time
fleet as the fastest athlete
I’d ever seen in my life.



Day Six Journal

Woke to heavy rain, low clouds,
the wet-rag sky wrung out
with little hope for change. But hey—

it’s the park. Let’s go!
And driving toward Eielson, the rain
does change—to snow.

There on a hillside, a mother
grizzly playing with her cub—
delighted with each other

and by the frosty white,
they roll and wrestle in it.
At Eielson, a snowball fight

pits kids against the giddy bus
dispatcher. We take a hike.
And later hike again near

Stony Creek, noting a mound
of grizzly scat beside
a stretch of torn up ground

where the ravenous bear
rummaged turf for
ground squirrels—earth

gouged, mined, ripped, rocks
tossed aside like
ping-pong balls, a thorough

thrashing of the region.
Wild nature on a tear
alters our perspective (after

the playful grappling of
mother and cub) on the crushing
strength and menace of a bear.



Vision

Followed a fox toward Polychrome.
Red smudged
with black along its lean rib-cage,

it rubs its muzzle on a former meal,
ignores the
impatient poet on its tail.

Then nearing the overlook, sun shearing
through low clouds
transmutes the view to glitter. Everything’s

golden, scintillant. I feel like a seedpod wafted
into space and
check my shaky hands on the steering wheel.

As the road crests over its top, boundaries
dissolve. Beside that
sheer intractable edge, I greet my radiant center,

discharge all my terms. How easy it seems
to channel between
worlds, my old self dying into a new,

with nothing firm to hold me here
but love. And that’s
what nature has it in its power to do.



The Head

Nature, great creator, full
of invention, fabrication.

Day ten, went for a good-by look
to the bank of the East Fork, glacial

river, thick gray water. Suddenly
a head pokes up. A fish, an

otter? There’s no telling—
barely seen, it vanishes.

Dream? Illusion? Was it
just a mental bubble?

But then that same queer
head pops up again, followed

by the long-necked mottled
body of a duck. Duck in a panic,

flapping, paddling, launches
a mad-dash for shore, and seems

about to make it when
the silted channel swallows it again.



 
John Morgan
John Morgan

John Morgan moved with his family to Fairbanks in 1976, where he teaches in the graduate Creative Writing program at the University of Alaska. Denali’s first Writer-in-Residence, he has published three books of poetry, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, The New Republic, and in many other magazines and anthologies. Visit his website.

 
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