Don Colburn

Mortality, with Pronoun Shifts

Closer than you think this very minute
if you’re lucky to have something else
in mind. Closer even, you know now,
than the sizzle of a thunderbolt
out on the glacier, not a tree for miles,
the ice axe a lightning rod in your right hand,
your whole body a lightning rod,
or that time on I-89, ski season,
when with you riding shotgun, no seatbelt,
Chaz steered his father’s laundry truck
into the passing lane and the left front wheel
caught the edge of a drift and we spun
into the foot-deep center strip
and fishtailed, missing the abutment.
Closer now, on this I am bedrock sure,
than when I woke up this morning, still lucky.

First published in Southern Poetry Review. Also in Mortality, with Pronoun Shifts (Main Street Rag: 2019)


Water, bone, bed, bedrock —
whatever is underneath, below what’s below.
Sudden touchable quiet, shadow
of a shadow. Weather. Sadness turning
ordinary. Nameless illness coming on.
A knock at the door so gentle
it could be anything. Distance.
The just thing not said, or said too late
or said exactly and without mercy.
Wind rising. Whatever might rise.

First published in Ploughshares. Also in Another Way to Begin (Finishing Line Press: 2006) and As If Gravity Were a Theory (Cider Press Review: 2006).

In The Unlikely Event of a Water Landing

US Airways Flight 1549

When the pilot told us to, I couldn’t
take my glasses off and put my head down
between my knees. I wanted to watch
to the last moment before smithereens.
Closing your eyes won’t help, not like in music.
The eerie part wasn’t death touching down early
but how quiet it was, how smooth. We were gliding,
the buzz and rumble of engines gone,
and I could hear everything —
the crying (less than you think), Hail Marys,
the man up front trying against the rules
to call home. An old woman many rows back
sang beautifully in Spanish, maybe to God,
I don’t speak that language. I wish I had known
they called the captain Sully and how Sully
was a glider pilot too. We had no idea
why it was happening, no inkling
of geese or gulls, but we were losing
altitude and the quiet sounded terribly wrong.

After we banked left, Sully brought us down
easy onto the river. The trick is
to ride the thickening air down slow
and plow into the water, head up like a duck,
not to nosedive, jackknife, cartwheel, burn.
When we didn’t die, some panicked.
Suddenly there was time, and ice water
sloshing at our ankles, our knees. How long
can a heavier-than-air machine float?
Someone named Josh knew to knock the door out
over the wing. I didn’t notice the guy carrying
his garment bag or the lady screaming for her shoes.
I just remember getting pushed toward a hole
in the side of the plane and tumbling out
into the cold gray blinding afternoon
which held me. I came to my feet
on the submerged wing with the others
and we walked on water.

First published in River Styx. Also in Because You Might Not Remember (Finishing Line Press: 2010).


Part of me no more
yet must bear the whole
weight of what’s left.
Snippet of flesh, bit of bone
or dab of mucosa, one bloody
grandiloquent specimen of cells
taken in for questioning.
Can I say I don’t miss you?
True, I think of you more than ever,
afraid what story you might tell:
turncoat, scapegoat, alibi, snitch.
More accomplice than bystander
if you ask me, which they won’t.
Good riddance is one answer
for us both and yet if good
then bad — see what I mean?
Days since they made off with you,
star witness. By now, stained
and smeared on a glass slide,
magnified, you’ve had your say.

First published in Southern Poetry Review. Also in Because You Might Not Remember (Finishing Line Press: 2010).


Awesome! she said as soon as I spoke
a few words for coffee. Can I get your name?
Don, I said, D-O-N, and felt stupid
for spelling it out, until she said Cool!
It was raining and my desk job
three blocks away, four stories up,
so I said Make that extra hot
and she said No worries — how’s your day so far?
OK, I mumbled, and she said Right on!
Anything else with that today?
I was about to say no thanks but my eye
caught on the bouquet of biscotti
and I pointed to the ginger one.
Excellent! she said, your total comes to $3.50.
Which is ridiculous for a small paper cup
of steamed milk and a biscuit to stir it with
but I counted out three ones a quarter two nickels a dime
and five pennies and she said Perfect!
My drink was on the bar — Eight-ounce extra hot
skinny no-whip one-pump mocha for Dan
and I carried it out into the cold rain,
the awesome unsung day.

First published in Cloudbank. Also in Because You Might Not Remember (Finishing Line Press: 2010).

Why I Read Obituaries

I listen for a distant bell
even when the name is one
I couldn’t have come up with.
Today it was Bruce Langhorne, 78,
his right hand missing two fingers
and much of a thumb, blown off
by homemade fireworks when he was 12,
which didn’t keep him from taking up guitar
and learning so well he played with Dylan
and Baez, Lightfoot and Rush.
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
he performed with Odetta before 250,000
the day Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream.”

There were folk-rock gigs in Hollywood
and a mid-career swerve to Hawaii, where he grew
macadamia nuts. Diabetes inspired him
to cook up organic low-sodium salsa
he sold as Brother Bru-Bru’s Hot Sauce.
Death is the one news hook
late or soon we all achieve
but an obit needs a better reason
to tell its story. Mr. Langhorne’s goes back
to ’64, when he walked into the recording studio
carrying an enormous Turkish drum with bells,
and Dylan, in that jingle jangle morning,
he came following, to sing a song for us.

First published in Atlanta Review. Also in Mortality, with Pronoun Shifts (Main Street Rag: 2019)

As If Gravity Were A Theory

Bozeman Airport

Snow is falling everywhere, even
up from the tarmac in the trembling
around the engine barrels.
Two men in earmuffs in a cherry picker
aim pink foam from a fire hose;
the wing melts down to its metal.
An inch from my nose the plexiglass
ticks and stipples into archipelagoes
of water. One of the men waves a broom
as if gravity were a theory
and we slide back, slow in the weather,
to turn. Runway lights like blue matchheads.
The sky kneels down. Bits of sleet
fly off the engines like sparks,
crazy in the winglights. Then a jerky hurtling,
faster, till the airfield gives way
to sheer air. Nothing outside
has a name, the Bridger Range invisible,
ranches big as counties — gone.
No cottonwoods to give the river away,
no river. No earth, no edge. Not one fact
to tell how far there is to fall.

First published in Zone 3. Also in Another Way to Begin (Finishing Line Press: 2006) and As If Gravity Were a Theory (Cider Press Review: 2006).

Local News

Ten years after,
I remember two things:
It was a mild, cloudless afternoon
and the sick boy wore a wool cap
indoors, down to his eyes
which were not scared.
No. Three things. I was scared.

First published Plainsongs. Also in As If Gravity Were a Theory (Cider Press Review: 2006).

Why Sarah Will Never Suffer Writer’s Block

We ordered a medium — half pepper and onion,
half plain, no mushrooms, no meat —
and waited for our number to be called.
I was wishing it could all be so simple
and grumbling how badly the morning had gone,
how hard to get started.
Then Sarah, who’s eight, said Okay,
here’s what you do, go look
in a book, find a topic you like
and whatever it is, make up a rhyme —
like you could go
      the blue whale
            has a slippery tail
She shrugged, rolled her quibble-proof eyes
and turned her hands inside out: See?
Now it was my turn to shrug and our number
came up, but Sarah kept on:
You know — the biggest animal on earth?
But you could pick Halloween or jelly beans
or a ghost. It could be anything.

First published in Explorations. Also in Another Way to Begin (Finishing Line Press: 2006) and As If Gravity Were a Theory, (Cider Press Review: 2006).


Until I heard the names in my own voice
I never saw them whole: chickweed, toothwort,
May apple, Dutchman’s breeches, Indian pipe.
A list was my father’s way of witnessing;
it made a flower real. And this afternoon
in the weedy meadow by the towpath,
I’m jotting odd names on a scrap of paper
for no one in particular, myself maybe
or my father. Back then I let him teach me
to look down at the ground for stars,
bells, shades of blue. He was never happier
than when we looked up accuracy’s myriad names
and he wrote them out in slanted letters.
Now, over and over, like a child,
I say gill-over-the-ground, gill-
over-the-ground, gill-over-the-ground,
and in the saying see it blossom again
inside its spilled blue name.

First published in The Nation. Reprinted in Cabin Fever: Poets at Joaquin Miller’s Cabin, 1984-2001 (Word Works: 2003). Also in Another Way to Begin (Finishing Line Press: 2006) and As If Gravity Were a Theory (Cider Press Review: 2006).

In the Workshop After I Read My Poem Aloud

All at once everyone in the room says
nothing. They continue doing this and I begin to know
it is not because they are dumb. Finally

the guy from the Bay Area who wears his chapbook
on his sleeve says he likes the poem a lot
but can’t really say why and silence

starts all over until someone says she only has
a couple of teeny suggestions such as taking out
the first three stanzas along with

all modifiers except “slippery” and “delicious”
in the remaining four lines. A guy who
hasn’t said a word in three days says

he too likes the poem but wonders why
it was written and since I don’t know either
and don’t even know if I should

I’m grateful there’s a rule
I can’t say anything now. Somebody
I think it’s the shrink from Seattle

says the emotion is not earned and I wonder
when is it ever. The woman on my left
who just had a prose poem in Green Thumbs & Geoducks

says the opening stanza is unbelievable
and vindication comes for a sweet moment
until I realize she means unbelievable.

But I have my defenders too and the MFA from Iowa
the one who thinks the you is an I
and the they a we and the then a now

wants to praise the way the essential nihilism
of the poem’s occasion serves to undermine
the formality of its diction. Just like your comment

I say to myself. Another admires the zenlike polarity
of the final image despite the mildly bathetic
symbolism of sheep droppings and he loves how

the three clichés in the penultimate stanza
are rescued by the brazen self-exploiting risk.
The teacher asks what about the last line

and the guy with the chapbook volunteers it suits
the poem’s unambitious purpose though he has to admit
it could have been worded somewhat differently.

First published in The Iowa Review. Reprinted in Hard Choices: An Iowa Review Reader, edited by David Hamilton (University of Iowa Press: 1996); In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop, by Steve Kowit (Tilbury House: 1995); The Portable Poetry Workshop, by Jack Myers (Wadsworth: 2005), and The Starving Artist’s Survival Guide, by Marianne Taylor and Laurie Lindop (Simon Spotlight Entertainment: 2005). Also in Another Way to Begin (Finishing Line Press: 2006) and As If Gravity Were a Theory (Cider Press Review: 2006).


in memory of William Stafford

There was your knack for sounding regional
in every region and the way you swam out
past the single-minded, past the blocked on shore
belaboring their alibis. Such gumption

could hold a poet afloat in the cold sea
or start a car on ice,
the poems sifting down like snowflakes:
differences made of tiny differences.

I think of you in your brim hat,
white shirt and old jeans,
a morning’s words in your shoulderbag,
crossing the grass to sit with us

in a circle outside the old Fort Worden
schoolhouse. It was the summer of ‘84
and I wanted to be your student. But you
were tricky like wind and nearly

drove me crazy when you refused,
coyote-faced, to praise or blame.
You wouldn’t let us, any more than generals,
use your mind. You steered us back

toward recklessness and I’ve just begun
to understand this need to give a poem up
not to miss the next one.
No one had ever leaned on me

to lower my standards, make grammar
an enemy, greet failure gratefully.
All these heresies – a life – in harmony
under the voice. A poem finds its way

the way you’d listen as you roved a field
alone, alert for local differences.

First published in Prairie Schooner. Also in Another Way to Begin (Finishing Line Press: 2006) and As If Gravity Were a Theory (Cider Press Review: 2006).