Rain on the River: Selected Poems and Short Prose

Rain on the River: Selected Poems and Short Prose

by Jim Dodge


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While Jim Dodge is internationally known for his fiction, his first and abiding passion is poetry. After eighteen years of publishing anonymously and reading only to local crowds in the Pacific Northwest, he began to issue occasional limited-edition letterpress chapbooks with a small press, as well as occasional broadsides and, since 1987, a winter solstice poem or story, most given as gifts to friends. Rain on the River contains work collected here for the first time, as well as three dozen previously unpublished poems. Dodge's poems and short prose offer the same pleasures as his fiction — a splendid ear for language, great emotional range and subtlety, a sharp eye for the illuminating detail, and a sensibility that encompasses outright hilarity, savage wit, and tender marvel, all made eminently accessible through writing of uncompromising clarity and grace. "Like being at a nonstop party in celebration of everything that matters." — Thomas Pynchon "A rollicking, frequently surprising adventure-cum-fairy tale. It also has a sweetness about it and an indigenous American optimism." — The New York Times Book Review "Diverse, savvy, passionate.... Poetry should be a pleasure, and Jim Dodge's work is just that." — Gary Snyder

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802138965
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/28/2002
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt


Learning to Talk

Whenever Jason said "beeber" for "beaver"
or "skirl" for "squirrel"
I secretly loved it.
They're better words:
The busy beeber beebing around;
the grey squirrel's tail like a skirl of smoke along a maple branch.
I never told him he was saying their names "wrong,"
though I did pronounce them conventionally.
One time he noticed, and explained,
"'Beeber' is how I say it."
"Great," I told him, "whatever moves you."
But within a week he was pronouncing both "properly."
I did my duty and I'm sorry.
Farewell Beeber and Skirl.
So much beauty lost to understanding.

The Cookie Jar

Coddington Mall was clogged with Christmas shoppers as I waited in line at the Cookie Jar, a bakery devoted to my favorite confection.

It was just after noon-lunch break-and a single clerk was left to work the counter, a young woman with a strained, scattered smile. She was working as fast as she could, but the line moved slowly. I was passing the time with the sports page, idly considering whether the 49ers were worth $100 and three points against the Rams, when my attention was drawn to the elderly woman in front of me in line. By her stoop and wrinkles I figured she was in her early 70s, or a hard 65 at least. She was wearing a grey dress, but it was nearly obscured by a heavy black sweater that hung almost to the hemline. She was leaning forward, weight on her cane, her nose to the display case, examining the cookies with the calm, fierce attention of a hawk. Taken by the force of her concentration, I folded the sports page and said pleasantly, "It's always tough to decide."

Her gaze didn't flicker.

I couldn't blame her for ignoring me. Why should an old woman, in a culture of muggers, rapists, and rip-off artists, encourage the idle conversation of some bearded and obviously half-demented hippie from the hills, where he probably grew tons of marijuana and did Lord-knows-what to the sheep. I felt the little wash of sadness that comes when your good intentions are blanked by cultural circumstances. I didn't persist.

When it was the old woman's turn, in a thick Slavic accent she ordered three chocolate chip cookies. "The big ones," she specified, tapping the glass to indicate her choice.

The harried clerk dutifully plucked out three of the saucer-sized cookies with a confectioner's tissue. I noticed one of the cookies had a small chunk broken off its side. So did the old woman: "None that are broke!" she commanded.

The clerk gave her a smile on automatic pilot and replaced the defective cookie, slipping them into a white sack and placing it on the counter. "A dollar-seventy-six please," she told the old woman.

The old woman turned her back to me and began fumbling in her purse, which was the size of a small knitting bag. After much muttering she finally produced two dollar bills rolled together and neatly bound with a yellow rubber band. She addressed the clerk with a staunch formality: "Also I would like some peanut butter cookies. The little ones. Twenty-four cents of them."

The clerk, with a look that pleaded God, I wish my period would start, scooped out three small peanut butter cookies and, without bothering to weigh them, slipped them in the bag with the others. The old woman rolled the yellow rubber band off the two bills and spread them out on the counter, pausing to smooth them flat before she secured the white sack in her knitting-bag purse, dropped in the yellow rubber band and the receipt, and left at a brisk shuffle. I lost sight of her in the flow of the crowd as I stepped forward to place my order.

About a half hour later, however, while I was sitting on a bench at the other end of the mall, still pondering the money and points as I polished off a last hot dog, the old woman appeared and, after considerable maneuvering, plopped herself down on the far end of the bench.

Without any acknowledgment of my presence, she opened the white bag from the Cookie Jar. At a bite each, with slow and luscious enjoyment, she ate the three small peanut butter cookies. When she'd finished, she peered into the bag to check the other three, the big ones, and then, as if to confirm their existence, their promise of delight, she named them one by one:

"Friday night.

Saturday night.

Sunday with tea."

Things Thought Through

The path of water is not noticed by water, but is realized by water. -Dogen

Thinking things through.
Thinking through things.
Things through thinking.
Through thinking things.

On Balance

At fifteen,
the imagination torments;
at fifty,
it consoles.

Another transformation changing nothing.


I don't know and I don't know

what to do about it.
I simply hit a point

where I lost heart for judgments and was swept

into the voluptuous, harrowing complexities composing a single breath.

Psycho Ecology

An Homage to Walt Whitman

Reality is the work of imagination.
Imagination, the flume of emotion.
After all the tears and laughter,
emotion empties into spirit,
and spirit condenses on reality like dew on a leaf of grass.

Life of the Spirit

A salmon leaps.
Transcend what?


Vicky and I were steelhead fishing on a secret riffle of a nameless Pacific Northwest river, perhaps the best ironhead water between the Russian and Bella Coola, to which you may receive directions for a thousand dollars cash. It was late afternoon, the sky the color of wet ashes, the river high but beginning to clear. I was drifting a roe-glo through the upper stretch of the run when I felt a slight pause in the tick-tick-tickity rhythm of the pencil-lead sinker bouncing along the stony bottom. I set the hook. The rod tip bowed and began to pulse, the heavy, solid throb running through my shoulders.

"Fish on!" I hollered to Vicky forty yards downstream.

She turned and looked at me, yelling back, "Really?"

For some reason, this is the usual response of my fishing companions, leading me to believe they regard me as either an astonishingly inept fisherman or an insanely reckless liar.

"Really!" I assured her at the top of my lungs, lifting my doubled rod as proof before turning my attention to the battle.

Actually, it wasn't much of a battle. The fish was sulking in the strong mid-channel current. I tightened the star drag slightly and applied some pressure; the fish turned lethargically and headed downstream. I lightly thumbed the spool; at the added resistance, the fish swung toward shore down by Vicky, who had just reeled in and started walking my way, no doubt to offer encouragement, counsel, and general assistance.

As my line sliced toward her, she stopped and peered into the water, then shook her head. "Hey," she called, "you've got a big ol' sore-tail salmon."

"No," I begged her.

She pointed emphatically a few feet offshore. "I can see it. Big, beat-up sore-tail."

I took the Lord's name in serious vain-no wonder the fish wasn't fighting-then tightened the drag to reel in the fish for quick release. The fish offered little resistance until it was about twenty feet away, then made a sullen move toward swifter water. When I clamped down, it swung back, passing in front of me. Sure enough, it was a spent salmon, its rotting fins worn to nubs, the battered body mottled with patches of dull white fungus.

But something wasn't right. The sore-tail was languidly corkscrewing along the bottom, a movement that didn't match the steady quiver I felt through the rod. Then I saw why: The sore-tail, in blind expression of the spawntill-you-die imperative, was engaged in a last-gasp courtship of the fish actually connected to my line, a steelhead longer than a yardstick and as deep as a Dutch oven.

Hearing Vicky move up behind me, I whispered, "That sore-tail you saw isn't the fish I have on. It's trailing my fish, which is one humongous hog of a steelie, putting on some spawning moves."

"Sure it is," Vicky said.

I worked the steelhead a few feet closer, telling Vicky without turning my head, "Step up easy and see for yourself."

Vicky stepped up easy, very easy, but not easy enough.

The riffle was about fifty yards wide. With the power of a nitro-fueled dragster, the steelie crossed it in one second flat, leaving me blinded by the mist sprayed from the spool mingled with smoke from the drag. Struck dumber than usual, I simply stood there as the whopper steelie made a sharp right at the opposite shore and streaked downstream. I watched the line melting from the spool. I felt like my nervous system was being stripped from my body through my solar plexus, a rush beyond sensation toward something as clean and empty as my spool was about to be if I didn't stop the fish. But I didn't want to stop the fish. I didn't want the feeling to end.

The spool was almost down to the backing when the steelie abruptly swung back into the heavy current and dove to the bottom, slowly lashing its head.

I wanted to tell Vicky to go home and pack some grub because I was going to be there all night, but when I finally got my slack jaw working I discovered I couldn't utter the few words I could remember.

Train wreck in the cerebellum. Synaptic bridges collapsed.

I concentrated on the basic sounds, managing something close to "Biffeegaaaagh."

Vicky cocked her head. "You what?"

"Big," I gasped. "Godzilla."

At the moment, though, it felt more like I was hooked to Godzilla's heart, thirty pounds of pure throbbing force, the rainbowed rod pulsing steadily as the fish hung in the current, gathering power for another slashing run.

Then the hook pulled out.

I felt like a lover had just hung up the phone after telling me, "I'm sorry, but it's over."

Like I do when the Dream Joker whispers, "You won 100 million in tonight's lottery," and I wake up broke as usual.

Unplugged a heartbeat short of Divinity, a nanosecond shy of Solid Full Circuit. Lost. Looted and left behind. Mentally exhausted, emotionally gutted, spiritually bereft.

Vicky helped me back to the car.

But as I fell asleep that night, I remembered the wild power of the steelhead's cross-river run, remembered it from my bones out, in nerve-meat and blood, that rush of glory as I emptied into the connection, joined for a moment, each other's ghost, then blown away like mist on the wind. And my gratitude for that moment's nexus overwhelmed the despair of its loss-as if one can truly possess or lose anything, or the connection ever break.

In fishing, as the moment of experience enters the future as memory, it's prey to seizures of enlargement and general embellishing. I feel sure, however, that that steelhead weighed close to twenty-eight pounds. It's possible-and, given a few more years of voluptuous recollection, almost certain-that the fish would have tipped the Toledoes at over thirty, making it easily conceivable that I'd hooked what would have been a new state-record steelie. But even taking the distortions of time and memory into account, ruthlessly pruning any possibility of exaggeration, carefully considering the Parallax Effect, the Water Magnification Variable, the Wishful Thinking Influence, and the El Feces del Toro Predilection, I would lay evenmoney in the real world that that steelhead weighed at least twenty-six pounds, and would gladly wager a new car of your choice against a soggy cornflake that it was twenty-four minimum.

In that spirit, I trust you will understand that I offer a blessing when I wish for our coming years that a big one always gets away.


The way is The way it is Because that's the way It is,
And why.

To Be


Loins and breath.

Moonlight melting In the throat of a calla lily.

Thickets of young maple Just breaking bud.

All you have to be Is who you are,

Naked beyond the body,
A touch at a time.


All you have to be Is who you are?
What could have I possibly Meant by that

If part of you Is who you dream you could be If you weren't the piddling little dimwit You actually are,

As if the "real you"
Is the one who sits around wondering who The real you is–

Or if you've ever wished you were Someone else, anybody–

An accountant in Coronado,
A dishwasher in a second-rate Omaha steakhouse–

Or if you can follow this,
Or still care,
You're probably really screwed up

Or close enough To be welcomed as a friend.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It exacts the strictest discipline To truly take it easy

Yet still retain the minimal Quiver of ambition Required for consciousness.

That's what I've been working on all morning,

Stretched out on the couch By the cabin window at Bob's,

Watching the rain,
Without pattern,
Fall on the pond,

Just me and the dogs.

Wisdom and Happiness

The wet crescents left by the dogs' tongues licking spilled cat kibble from the cabin floor;

the strand of light, finer than spider-spun,
unspooling from the center of my chest as a 20-pound steelhead slashes downstream through the celadon waters of the Smith;

the gleam of water on Victoria's flanks in that moment of stepping from the sauna into a wild Pacific storm–
vapor-wreathed shimmer, body gone;

the elegance of an elk track cut in sandy streamside silt;

red alder bud-break in early March;
venison stew and fresh salmon,
garden corn coming on;

Jason asleep on a school night,
his bare right leg dangling from the bed
(geez, he's getting big);

sliding a chunk of madrone into the firebox on a snowy night,
damping the wood heater down for coals to kindle the morning's fire;

the way the terriers sneeze and leap and race deliriously through the orchard when they know we're going on a walk;

raindrops still cupped in huckleberry leaves hours after the rain has stopped:

I made 55 years today, still hanging on,
and though only fools lay claim to wisdom I don't know what else to call it when every year it takes less to make me happy,
and it lasts longer.

Red Sails

I sit at my desk and for no apparent reason start singing, badly,
Red sails in the sunset…
sing it until I sail out of myself,
whatever a self is,
crazier than shit,
you bet,
and deeply grateful.

Squall & Commotion

You've reached bottom when you understand there is no bottom to reach.
And just rock there drenched on the ship's bow,
watching the rain fall on the ocean.

Slow Learner

Know the plants.
-Gary Snyder

It's been 50 years, most oblivious, but now,
if only in glimpses, I can look at plants and feel the light composing them.

Falling asleep, I comfort myself with a little prayer of their names:
alder, larkspur, thimbleberry, salal.

Bathing Joe

An Elegy for Bob, 1946-1994

The summer of '94 at French Flat, on a scorching afternoon in mid-July, my brother Bob suggested we bathe his dog Joe, a sixteen-year-old Kelpie. Since Bob held intractably to the notion that bathing dogs more than once a year destroys their essential skin oils, I hustled to gather the leash, towels, and doggie shampoo before he changed his mind.

Joe-112 in human years-truly needed a bath. He suffered every affliction of elderly canines: deaf as dirt; a few glimmers short of blind; lumpy with warts and subcutaneous cysts; a penis pointing straight down; a scrotum so saggy his testicles banged against his hocks; prone to drool; given to a seemingly constant flatulence that would be banned under the Geneva Accords; and possessed of what the genteel call "doggie odor," which in Joe's unfortunate case ranged between gaggingly rank and living putrefaction. When Joe dozed by the wood-heater on a winter's eve, enjoying dinner was difficult-considering one's watering eyes and the instinct to cover the food.

So I had the leash on Joe before Bob, whose right leg had been amputated near the hip years earlier, could get up on his crutches. With Bob herding from behind, I led Joe around back of the cabin, where we'd set up an old bathtub for starlit soaks. We hadn't used the bathtub lately, so I scooped out the accumulated litter of madrone leaves and pine needles before I lifted in Joe. As I slipped off his collar, Joe grunted and sat down, settling into what we called the ODZ, or Old Dog Zone, where Joe seemed to be watching methane sunsets on Jupiter, or flights of birds invisible to human eyes. I turned on the water, hot and cold mixing in a single hose, while Bob opened the shampoo.

I asked him, "Want me to put in the plug?"

"Jesus, no," Bob said. "Rising water freaks Joe out bad. In fact, better make sure that drain ain't clogged."

"How could it be?" I reminded him. "Remember when you couldn't find the rubber plug one night and hammered in that chunk of redwood for a stopper? Knocked out all those little cross-pieces?"

"Aw," Bob dismissed the memory, "they were rusted all to shit anyway. Besides, the tub drains on the ground-not like there's a pipe to clog." He squirted some shampoo on his palm. "You gonna stand there yakking or are we gonna get on it-it's broiling out here."

Joe returned from Jupiter when the stream of water hit him. He bolted for safety but couldn't get traction on the tub's slick bottom. Bob grabbed him around the neck and Joe slid to the front of the tub. He held still, warbling softly as I soaked him down.

"It's okay, Joe, you're okay," Bob comforted his pooch, working the shampoo into a grey lather. Joe struggled again, scrambling to get his back legs under him, then suddenly stopped. His yellowish dingo eyes began to widen.


Excerpted from "Rain on the River"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Jim Dodge.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Notes and AcknowledgmentsXI
Selected Poems and Short Prose
Learning to Talk3
The Cookie Jar4
Things Thought Through7
On Balance8
Psycho Ecology10
Life of the Spirit11
To Be17
Practice, Practice, Practice19
Wisdom and Happiness20
Red Sails22
Squall & Commotion23
Slow Learner24
Bathing Joe25
Mahogany China30
The First Cut Is the Deepest31
Waiting for Houdini to Come Up32
The Countessa33
Venison Stew35
Winter Song37
On Humor: On Mating Donkeys and Onions38
Watering the Garden on the Hottest Day of the Summer39
Palms to the Moon40
A Firmer Grasp of the Obvious41
The Work of Art42
Steelhead Fishing, Smith River, January43
The Third Bank of the River45
Green Side Up46
One Thing After Another47
Unnatural Selections: A Meditation upon Witnessing a Bullfrog Fucking a Rock48
Fishing Devil's Hole at the Peak of Spring51
Getting After It55
How to Catch the Biggest Fish56
Hard Work57
There It Is58
Knowing When to Stop59
Vacation Expenses60
Basic Precepts and Avuncular Advice for Young Men61
Death and Dying63
New Poems and Short Prose
The Banker67
The Real Last Words of Billy the Kid69
The Moving Part of Motion71
How About72
Necessary Angels75
Prayer Bones76
Magic and Beauty78
Day Moon80
Karma Bird81
The Tunnel82
Hagerty Wrecks Another Company Truck84
Love Find86
Thanks for the Dance88
The Stone89
Woman in a Room Full of Rubber Numbers90
Reason to Live91
An Epithalamium for Victoria95
Falling into Place97
Job Application99
The Mouth of the River100
The Prior and Subsequent Heavens101
Old Growth103
Three Ways to Get the Carrot on the Stick107
Eurydice Ascending108
The Drought of '76110
True Account of the Saucer People111
About time112
Jack o' Hearts Shopping Mortmart119
Holy Shit120

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