Back to Issue Seventeen.

other succulents



Morning arrives in the Gila Valley.
The sky is unresponsive, pale, made of memory,
mussels broke open in the sink before dawn, a father
sees his little girl in reflection, a dark window.
The knife slips inside, the sea keens, a little lemon, a little wine.

To the outside world, what looks like desolation is
the succulent life of secrets. The lush unspoken grows quietly wild.
In the dawn of the new year, a cottonmouth yawns its dangerous yawn.
Trumpets open their throats to any drifter any rain any sky.
A lesser goldfinch alerts the naturalist to our presence.

To the outside world, it’s easy to see
Tonya Carter as a recluse. But Carter, 32, a former shadow of a statue,
is better known to locals as the Desert Doctor. This is my island
in the sky, Carter said, as I accompanied her
on her morning rounds, poking her head in
on a family of saguaros. How are you feeling today, Pete?

I wanted to know. What do you say to those people,
your mother and father, for instance, who accuse you
of turning your back on the world? I never had a mother, Carter said sharply,
before recovering her characteristic smile.

It sounds like you’re saying home. Home, yes. I long ago abandoned the notion
as one unmovable place. I live in the procession of shadows
of clouds across the desert floor.

They know where to find me. And they do.
All matter of animal shows up at her door
with twisted tails, missing talons, still-born babies.
Anyplace is good for a grave, she said. The matter
of factness endemic to desert life can be
unsettling to outsiders. I wouldn’t say
I’m healing the desert, no, the desert is healing me.

It’s the ultimate irony, says the Desert M.D.,
as a kid I was always afraid of needles.

We’re a long way from the ocean aren’t we?

Out here in the modern nowhere it’s easy
to feel you’ve gotten to the bottom of something.
The weight of everything above, the speed of the descent,
drums beat till bursting, cold water fills the canal, the shape
of the tornado forms and pulls on its coat and turns up
its collar and takes the kids with him. Away is a long way.

That’s not uncommon
given the unusually harsh conditions atop the mesa, Carter assures me.
I see it every day.

The only thing that survives is what, over time, over generations
of not getting it right, greedily keeps its tiny bit of everything inside.

She pauses for a moment to look up at the sky.

We love what’s too tall for us.
We love too far, from too far away.


Brian Russell‘s first book, The Year of What Now, was published by Graywolf Press in 2013. New poems are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Boston Review, Another Chicago Magazine, cream city review, and elsewhere. Brian is the managing editor for Phantom Books and lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and daughter.

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