Amber Sumrall Logo  Amber Coverdale Sumrall

Poems from Refuge


My grandfather’s fish pond
lived beneath an avocado tree.
Leaves of green. Fruit of green.
Red flame of the fish.
I filled my lungs with air
from the damp grotto,
walked the cobblestones
slippery with moss,
tossing pebbles and pennies,
wishes swelling my chest.
Time stretched a single afternoon into days.

Grandpa brought tall mugs
of steaming green tea from China,
sat beside me on the old stone bench,
smoking his hand-carved bamboo pipe.
We listened to wind rub branches together,
the songs of vesper sparrows, mourning doves,
and the long unbroken silence of the fish.

At the bottom of my heart,
goldfish floated up from murky green depths,
carrying my dreams on their backs.
My dreams were not the same as my prayers,
which rose like clear bubbles of breath
and never stopped breaking the surface.


Common Brown Birds  

In the time it takes for a full breath
you may miss them: birds the color of tan oak,

sun-crisped weeds, baked summer earth,
flying low across a meadow,

their assorted buzzes and whistles
like tea kettles, kitchen timers, going off.

Wren, thrush, towhee, finch, sparrow,
as if any bird could be called common.

They blend into manzanita, hide in blackberry bramble,
invisible to eyes desiring more exotic vestments.

Humble as monks in simple brown robes, they open
each morning with praise, swell the air with uncommon grace.



What Can't Be Said 
for Steve

All the words I’ve used, day after day, year after year,
choosing carefully, filling the blanks with just the right one.
This poem, that conversation, this letter, that prayer,

only to find them scattered in the air now,
a flock of blackbirds dipping over a field at dusk,
the dark alphabet of their wings now invisible
as they turn and bank sharply into what is left of the day.

I write love, ache, hunger. I say sweetness, you, now.
I multiply them by a thousand, a hundred thousand,
they fly through my hands to you and still
they are not enough, will never be enough.




Poems from Litany of Wings

Grandpa’s Cellar 

We climbed down steps narrow as the rungs
on his orchard ladder: Grandpa leading
with the lantern, me clutching the belt loops
of his wool tweed pants, down into darkness
thick as the molasses he spooned on his cereal.
Spiders scurried as the cellar pulsed with shadows,
their webs clinging to my hair like tiny veils.
Jars of sage honey, apricots and peaches floating
in syrup lined the rough splintered shelves.
Grandpa scooped wheat kernels from a wooden bin,
poured them into the grinder that gleamed
like the silver lady on the hood of his black Packard.
He lifted potatoes, beets, rutabagas,
from storage in the loose soil. the underpinnings of the house
dirt stretched out in every direction.
I wanted to bolt for Grandma's sunny kitchen
but stayed, fear rising like a flight of stairs
I could not see to the top of.
Years later, after he put the gun to his head
I remembered how comfortable he was in darkness,
wrapping himself up in it like a well-worn sweater,
teaching me to find my way through it,
trusting a light which did not yet reach me.


House Finch

Red feathers flashing, he dances above her,
songs streaming like creek water over stone.
She drops her first strands of nest,
takes to the air. They weave in and out
spiraling up beyond oak and redwood.
The sky floats them.

And you, somewhere in the high country
lured by solitude, the promise of golden trout
hidden beneath layers of ice.
Both of us skidding through winter’s long thaw.

My heart stirs deep in its cage of bone.
I think how it will be when you return:
this lifting of feather
     this spreading of wing.


Orcas Island, Late Spring

Anacortes recedes in the distance,
blends into the mainland as we cross the Sound.
Cormorants skim water in the long wake of the ferry.
Above Vancouver Island a pink fog hovers.
The days begin and end with water, nights with sky.
There is no true darkness: at midnight the twilight deepens
to teal, at five the stars disappear into a colorless sky.

We awake to the kingfisher's low rattle
as he scouts the cove, flying from dock to dock.
A cold wind whistles the meadow,
scatters sparrows and goldfinches.
Beyond Broken Point the churning sound
of the morning ferries funnels up the cove.

Last night the first distance between us, unexpected,
like encountering the fallen suspension bridge
at Deer Harbor. Your strange silence louder
than the creek frogs. I stood beneath the eagle tree,
watched you brood inside the cabin.
You tell me the stillness here is driving you crazy.
All this water and no rush of waves.

You are like the Sound,
calm then quickly clouding over, in minutes the rain.
My body seeking shelter beneath you.

Sandpipers like wind-up toys scour the tideline.
We walk the strip of beach collecting empty shells.
Fish break water, a bald eagle skirts Massacre Bay,
lands in the dead tree. What I want is changing again.
Oh, the promises I have not been able to keep.

The stooped fisherman in his red rowboat
brings up crabs with a pitchfork. Herons and egrets
feed on the mudflats with tai-chi grace.
So much beauty yet my heart contracts
with the certainty of loss. We think we will live forever
until something reminds us again.

As we climb the mountain I take your hand.
A raven hops up the trail behind us collecting crumbs,
its broken wing spread like a fan.
At the lookout tower you hold me tight
as if I would fly from you.

From here we look north to Canada, west to the Gulf Islands,
east to Mt. Baker. It's what we cannot see that haunts me:
the expanse of water beyond the islands,
the fast moving currents I know are there,
the flurry of a hundred thousand wings.


Wild Prayer

My red-engine heart has been racing all day.
Too many women I know are dying too young.
A face seen last week or even yesterday, gone.

The cool calm of night calls me out. The sky is a sieve of lights.
A star drops straight down, then another, trailing blue smoke.

For years I’ve heard the mystery noise at dusk or midnight,
a whoosh like breath escaping all at once;
thought raccoon, skunk, bobcat, but never saw a shape.
Whatever it was had vanished or never was.

Tonight, the sound again, like a wild prayer on the loose.
I look all around and see nothing.
Then closer it comes, a soft whistle, a churning of air,
and I look up to see glorious white wings pass over me.

When it’s time I want the barn owl to come for me.


First Light

All night, rain.

Assorted fears,
uncountable failings,
parade through my dreams
in garish masks
and clown hats,
blowing tarnished brass horns.

At dawn
a fiery star arcs to sea.
My heavy heart swings open.

Compassion is being fully
with what is.

On the way to Vigils
the grey fox again crosses my path.

Stone and fallen wood
on wet earth. Silence
tolling its iron-grey bell.

One by one, the monks enter
the dim chapel, take their seats.
White robes rustle softly,
prayersong rises from stillness.

Grace jump-starts the morning.


  © 2004-2016 Amber Coverdale Sumrall. All rights reserved