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by Peter Dale Scott


If you want to change your life
     burn down your house
  Before we left for the beach

Ronna took off her rings
     placing them on the basin
  with the rest of her possessions

the hot offshore winds
     meant it was warm and cool
  as we waded on the wet sand

through the agitated air
     a day that was just right
  Ronna rehearsing her solemn

procession up the aisle
     one arm crooked up
  on her imaginary father’s

the other with an imaginary bouquet
     surrounded by frisbees
  a day happy enough

to forgive one’s own karma
     forget that of others
  under a blue sky

which as we returned
     over the Devil’s Slide
  was divided like a flag

half blue half ominous black
     the dense smoke a message
  to speed home

over the Bay Bridge
     to the miles-wide storm cloud
  fringed with dots of flame

increasing in darkness
     until it was almost night
  headlights the flashing emergency

warning our freeway was CLOSED
     towards the house where
  (we did not yet know this)

Cherry our unsuspecting
     house-mate from Taiwan
  had just narrowly escaped

through a burning rain
     of eucalyptus leaves
  with no more than her stuffed bear

and a few yards up the street
     eight people burned to death
  rivulets of metal

from their melted cars
     over the burned asphalt
  We were the last to make it through

we heard from one survivor
     who had jumped in the back
  of a stranger’s pick-up

in the hushed exchanges
     as we waited for coffee
  next morning at the bed-and-breakfast

with nothing to do that day
     but to tell our tales
  (the woman two doors down

had loaded her car to the roof
     and now it was too late
  to go back inside

and find her car keys)
     that were only fragments
  The fourth afternoon

we were taken there
     in an Oakland police car
  a wreath where our neighbor died

and the thick layer of ash
     (Could this be all our books?
  the stove? the refrigerator?

the two sets of china?)
     as unpossessed
  as the Huron potsherds

in the black corner of an autumn field
     the burnt tiles of that Roman villa —
  impossible to explain this

hard just to keep in mind
     that we all must die
  In a bravura gesture

of letting-go
     Ronna took out her key
  and threw it back to the Devas

we were driven away
     the three of us crying
  like ancient warriors

or pre-adolescents
     dry sobs that since
  have come back in therapy

divorce my mother’s death
     choked us that week
  at each glimpse of the naked hillside

as labile as children
     who have not yet the illusion
  we are in control

dazzled and shattered in turn
     by the ominous beauty
  of say a sunset under rainclouds

from which it was a relief
     to go back to teaching
  Pound’s tears at Pisa

watching the spider at work
     the tent-peg’s moving shadow
  the moon through laundry

to the nine-through-fiveness
     of a twentieth century
  the unassailable defenses

of a presentational self
     as if in one week
  we had lived two different ages

two habits of living
  except when caught off guard

my cheek unexpectedly wet
     from reading in the Chronicle
  of Tibetan prayer wheels

on the hillside
planted where homes had been


Peter Dale Scott is a writer, researcher, and emeritus English Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Crossing Borders: Selected Shorter Poems appeared in November 1994. Together with Czeslaw Milosz, he has translated the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. (1999)

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