Montana

In 2015, Montana established a state poet laureate position, which is currently held by Lowell Jaeger, who was appointed to a two-year term in 2017. Jaeger is the author of over eight books of poetry, including Or Maybe I Drift Off Alone (Shabda Press, 2016).

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Once in the 40's

We were alone one night on a long
road in Montana. This was in winter, a big
night, far to the stars. We had hitched,
my wife and I, and left our ride at
a crossing to go on. Tired and cold—but
brave—we trudged along. This, we said,
was our life, watched over, allowed to go
where we wanted. We said we'd come back some time
when we got rich. We'd leave the others and find
a night like this, whatever we had to give,
and no matter how far, to be so happy again.

Another Attempt at Rescue

And to think I had just paid a cousin twenty dollars to shovel the walk.
He and two of his buddies, still smelling of an all-nighter,
arrived at 7 am to begin their work.
When I left them a while later I noticed their ungloved hands
and winter made me feel selfish and unsure.
This ground seems unsure of itself
		    for its own reasons.
Real spring is still distant
and no one is trying to make themselves believe
this might last, this last unreasonable half hour.
It is six-thirty in eastern Montana and the cold
	has finally given way.
The time is important not because this has been a long winter
or for the fact that it is my first here
since childhood, but because there is so much else
to be unsure of.
	        At a time like this
how is it that when I left only a week ago
there were three feet of snow on the ground,
and now there are none, not even a single patch
holding on in the shadow of the fence-line.
          We do not gauge enough of our lives
     by changes in temperature.
When I first began to write poems I was laying claim to battle.
It began with a death and I have tried to say it was unjust,
not because of the actual dying but because of what
was left.  What time of year was that?
I have still not yet learned to write of war.
I have friends who speak out--as is necessary--with subtle
and unsubtle force. But I am from
this place and a great deal has been going wrong 
	        for some time now.
The two young Indian boys who might have drowned
last night in the fast-rising creek near school
are casualties enough for me.
          There have been too many
just like them and I have no way to fix these things.
A friend from Boston wrote something to me last week
about not have the intelligence
to take as subject for his poems
anything other than his own life.
For a while now I have sensed this in my own mood:
this poem was never supposed to mention
itself, other writers, or me.
          But I will not regret the boys who made it home,
or the cousins who used the money at the bar.
Still, something is being lost here and there are no lights
on this street; enough mud remains on our feet
to carry with us into the house.

Reading Novalis in Montana

The dirt road is frozen. I hear the geese first in my lungs.
	Faint hieroglyphic against the gray sky.

Then, the brutal intervention of sound.
	All that we experience is a message, he wrote.

I would like to know what it means
	if first one bird swims the channel

across the classic V, the line flutters, and the formation dissolves.
	In the end, the modernists must have meant,

it is the human world we are weary of,
	our arms heavy with love, its ancient failings.

But that was before the world wars, in 1800,
	when a young German poet could pick at the truth

and collect the fragments in an encyclopedia of knowledge.
	There is a V, then an L, each letter

forming so slowly that the next appears before it is complete.
	The true philosophical act is the slaying of one's self,

Novalis wrote, and died, like Keats, before he was thirty.
	They have left me behind like one of their lost,

scratching at the gravel in the fields. Where are they
	once the sky has enveloped them?

I stand in the narrow cut of a frozen road leading into mountains,
	the morning newspaper gripped under my arm.

But to give up on things precludes everything.
	I am not-I, Novalis wrote. I am you.

If, as the gnostics say, the world was a mistake
	created by an evil demiurge, and I am trapped

in my body, abandoned by a god whom I long for as one of my own,
	why not follow the tundra geese into their storm?

Why stay while my great sails flap the ice
	as if my voice were needed to call them back

in the spring, as if I were the lost dwelling place for the flocks?