Maybe it was just for this that God pulled
water from dry land: to rescue hoodoo
after hoodoo. That’s what they’re called—
a bastardization of voodoo—
these unrepeatable needles of rock,
geology’s answer to flakes of snow.
A sound enough hypothesis: dark magic.
But I like God’s approach—so straightforward:
the light, the land, the sky, each feat of handiwork
a matter of a single uttered word
(that’s the first version; the clumsy second
was more hand’s on, with dust and ribs required)
though it’s a stretch to claim this place was planned.
Maybe, just like us, God was stupefied;
He rarely knew how any day would end,
had to see things finished to call them good.
Here, He might even have done without
the bric-a-brac of the days that followed
except the fourth day’s (bodies of light)
essential for the colors of the stone,
the greater light especially adroit.
Just watch it nurse a puny flame at dawn
—purple with an edging of vermillion—
by sunrise to a full-fledged conflagration
then temper it to golden-rose by noon,
darker still as day begins to fail.
The oranges go bronze, the reds, maroon,
the whole place solid indigo by nightfall,
except on nights when a full or near-full moon
applies its inlay—mother-of-pearl
on a lamina of coral and carnelian—
or the moon’s a no-show, no stone visible,
just black on black, spikes and spires gone.
That’s when you look up: the sky’s Grand Central
(no light pollution; no clouds; conditions ideal),
rush hour’s hubbub irresistible,
the stars its thronged commuters, check by jowl.
The Park has telescopes (I once saw Jupiter)
but I prefer an open free-for-all,
the peripheral inkling of a meteor
(or was that a satellite?) or diving owl.
Some flora and fauna did make their way here
eventually, swashbucklers all:
Rattlesnake. Manzanita. Prickly pear,
its shock of blossoms at the end of April
slow-motion fireworks, the canyon floor
lost beneath magentas, yellows, reds
or bristle-cone pine, launching spectacular
high-wire acrobatics off the cliff sides,
where that gifted horticulturist,
the nuthatch, a glutton for its seeds,
disseminates them when it stops to rest—
quite ingenious of God, if oddly fanciful
for so inveterate a fatalist,
that is, if God’s mixed up in this at all.
The Park prefers the Piutes’ explanation:
the hoodoos were once the legend people
shape shifters, native to this region,
turned for some unnamable transgression
by vigilant Coyote into stone,
their face-paint still intact, their tradition
of shape-shifting now upheld in unison,
a nonstop frenzy of dissimulation:
now a storm-tossed, now a tranquil, ocean
flocked by scarlet ibis, pink flamingos,
now dreamscape, now valley of the moon,
now ransacked cathedrals’ lost rose windows
now an amphitheater’s hushed proscenium,
now leafless aspens, elms, catalpas, willows
now phantom hollyhock, delphinium,
now flashback, now panicked premonition,
now truce, now skirmish, now pandemonium,
now parachutes (a daredevil battalion
floating toward an ill-fated attack)
now blushing debutantes (their first cotillion)
now parched oasis, now bivouac,
close by each golden tent a golden torch,
now red-robed Russian choirs, now ecstatic
ovations from thick stands of golden birch,
now burnished temple, now tarnished city,
now bands of acolytes—in mosque, in church
or here, assembling legends of Coyote—
scrambling to get down on their untried knees
and thank someone—anyone—for all this beauty,
though maybe it’s the frost they ought to praise,
the real creator, according to science,
how it would melt and freeze, melt and freeze
and then, in a matter of mere eons
(no wind involved, windy as it is),
chisel what must be earth’s most flimsy stone—
limestone, siltstone, mudstone—into this.
Not surprising, really, when you think what frost
can achieve, in seconds, on a pane of glass—
always a revelation, when a miniaturist
takes his genius for precision large-scale:
the landscape behind the Mystic Lamb as Christ
in the Ghent altarpiece, for example,
an exhaustive primer of floral specimens,
rendered in botanical detail,
art both mainstay and intimate of science –
think Leonardo—and science of art.
What fools we were to leave the Renaissance
behind us, to tear ourselves apart
into more and more obscure specialization.
Not that it matters here. Science and art,
even in conjunction with their on-again
off-again confederate, religion,
are speechless in the presence of this canyon.
Even God needs two versions of Creation
at the start of Genesis. Some things defy
a single overarching explanation.
Maybe everything does, if you look carefully.
And what’s a day exactly, when the sun
hasn’t yet been added to the sky?
That third day might still go going on,
everything I’m staring at still raw,
God on overdrive, the frost a madman,
consumed by each imaginary flaw.
Am I a witness? An alibi? A spy?
And what’s this delirium? this terror? this awe?
Is the sky hallucinating? Am I?
Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon, Utah
Just let me stand here with an open eye.
Copyright © 2016 by Jacqueline Osherow. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.