Two Poems

Kathleen Bryson

Photo Credit: LindaDee2006/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)


The forests were burnt down when I was two.
By the time I was a child,
we called the trees matchsticks.
Slim charred trunks topped with tumors.
If the God of Alaska reached
down and swiped a tree against
flint, to see it burst into
sunsets, dawns and campfires,
northern lights.
Set the land ablaze,
gave us all electric shock
until numbed, dumb and slobbering,
the deity would stub out the matches
or blow away the flames
and the mapped land was left dim and ashen,
the trees dead lollipops smoldering for decades,
and us, drooling for them, in the asylum, in the dark.

Then as an adult
returning at intervals to my homeland,
I’d notice how, subtly,
the matchstick trees were disappearing,
the ones that had survived grew funny with moss
their deformed branches sprouted and
grew weird but viable sprigs,
and generally the forests thrived,
and you had the odd revelation of
every tree being taller than it was
when you were a child,
the reverse of everything else.

I stayed away for a long time
and the trees got sick.
Spruce bark beetle chewed them
and spit them out,
they were grey
and the land was scalped
as it had been when I was very little.
The God kept quiet
or had given up smoking,
had been chewing Nicorette,
or had become diseased itself,
bundled away to the asylum.


Nikiski Midsummer (Alexandra Palace, Spring Equinox, 2010)

The fungi on the birches big like heads and the
trees spur up and then grow tight too close and the
ferns those prehistoric drifts and their
braille-lumper undersides and the
devil’s club broad like the
lilypads waxy and hovering with
orbiting flies and the
light rain and the soft rain and the right rain
to make circles on circles in the
small lakes left over from the glaciers.

Now there are these trees
these tight trees these wrong trees
and these mushroom wounds on birches
sucking drafts on scarred caucasian trunks
and past them the fire pile hooked with stumps and brambles.

The fire, a fire is a fine thing.
A fire is a wood thing, a bad thing.
The humans are a crazy beast
a mad thing, a good thing

The animals dance and pound palms on hide
hoist moose skulls high in air on staffs
to say, here comes the light, our ball,
we are a strange thing,
we are from here, this wood,
these lakes, my birch,
their ferns, the cocky stupid moths
the animals brush away with thumbs
so as to stare unencumbered at the fire, get closer
to the light, from sky from ground
It will burn our eyes out. I will not look away.
You will not look away. I won’t.
You will not. The sun. The sun’s still hot.


Kathleen Bryson was born and raised in Alaska, and as an adult received her Ph.D. in Evolutionary Anthropology from University College London. She studies prejudice and currently is a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University. She has had three novels published previously (the most recent being The Stagtress, Fugue State Press, 2019), as well as over 100 poems and prose pieces in other publications. Read more about her fiction, art, film and research work on her website. Her poem “Nikiski Midsummer” is based on a new tradition that has sprung up in the last 20 years in her rural hometown area on the Kenai Peninsula, where summer solstice celebrators drive deep into the woods to drum on oil drums through the whole “night” (all few twilight hours of it) and a moose skull is paraded on a broomstick. It is not official but many from the wider Kenai and Nikiski communities attend. The poem “Smoking” concerns the spruce bark beetle, which due to global warming, new territories and natural selection continues to ravage the same land. Email: kathleen.bryson[at]

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