Greg McBride: “Bitterroot”



Can a father give his son
what he himself never possessed,
or lacks the courage to wish up from his own deprivation?
—Galway Kinnell


The wind poured down Bitterroot Range
sprinkling a cloak of white across the flatland
ironed out to the far horizon where the edge
of that big blue sky opened to receive
the upward thrust of trees and boys
who fed on Idaho’s high, white light,
just as Shoshone boys ran the land,
the land of their fathers, till came
the Oregon Trail and Massacre Rocks.
Great cumuli gathered and reared, stately
in their drift onward toward the Great Plains.
Clopping sorrels flicked black tails against
the horse-fly storms, startled at the roar
and spew of Model T’s. My father and his brothers
ran the shallows near the falls where the river
began its arc, and fields furrowed deep to black,
dirt roads rutted through spring grass.

In 1878, my father’s father, Sören,
was born to a Danish mother who spoke
no English. He married Eliza,
a sail maker’s daughter from Yorkshire,
my father one of her bairns, one of her many.
He was five when the town abandoned
American Falls and rebuilt on higher ground,
leaving every home and shop and general store
submerged for the new Snake River dam.
Sören worked as its foreman for fifty years,
their small company house perched out over the river.
On a clear day, they could peer into the deep
below, the corner market, the pathways,
their old home. All the places wavered up
to them through the ceaseless current.

My father alone survived boyhood.
Richard climbed onto the iceman’s turning
wagon wheel; it snapped his neck. Merlin
was crushed beneath a falling horse,
my father, four, watching from the wagon bench.
Another died in infancy, another
a miscarriage. Sören’s grief, so crushing
he could not father my father. My father
never spoke his brothers’ names, never spoke
of his father. Standing at his coffin,
I leaned over where he lay, proud
in his shiny dress blues, and kissed
his still-smooth forehead, cold and hard.



Greg McBride is the author of Guest of Time (forthcoming from Pond Road Press, 2023), Porthole (Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry, Briery Creek Press, 2012) and Back of the Envelope (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2009). His work appears in Alaska Quarterly, Bellevue, Boulevard, Gettysburg Review, I-70 Review, New Ohio Review, Rhino, River Styx, Salmagundi, Southern Poetry Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. His awards include the Boulevard Emerging Poet prize and Maryland grants in poetry. He is a Vietnam veteran and founding editor of the Innisfree Poetry Journal.

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