[for Birk Sproxton]

you and I would talk about this kind of seeing. this distinctive scan/sweep that true prairie people do on winter highways. the yellow Deer Crossing signs so much a part of our travel we almost don’t see them any more.

we’d make jokes on this long drive Medicine Hat to Swift Current.
careful! silhouettes of deer leaping against a bright yellow background for the next ten K!

in summer, our eyes spending more time on wheat and on red-winged blackbirds swaying on tall bulrushes in ditches than on the asphalt ahead. low, curved letters and vibrant gang tags on trains shunting alongside. in winter, watching for the prick of ear, the flicking tail of sudden motion. snow tossed up behind hooves. feet hovering over brake pedals.

they’re east and a hundred yards from the highway. or were a few seconds ago. what draws them so quickly to this March ditch, white rumps lifted? to the thick drifts, the buried vegetation. the black and blue roaring beasts that encase us on the long strips of gray they insist on crossing.

(does he know he cannot outrun me? that bobbing and weaving will get him killed even faster?)

you’d have said,
see what you see, Beach. it doesn’t matter if they don’t understand you. you understand you and so do I. they’ll try to pigeon-hole you. you’re a poet. or you’re a fiction writer. god forbid you try to do both in the same book. CanLit might explode on the spot if anyone tried that shit.

the antelope now at the six-at-night highway’s edge near the Maple Creek turnoff. skittish, both of us. I slow, eyes up and backwards on the semi growling up behind me at one-twenty. I need more eyes. the animal steps into the road and I’m able to swing to the fast lane seconds before it paws the hard surface full with snowblind light and sprays of slush.

(what does he think I am?)

ditches thick with ears and hooves. dirty with the twist of metal and spray of windshields from last night’s crashings. a blue Charger on its roof, its guts splashed, yellow police tape and dust of snow.
you’d have called me.
meet me at the bar. we need to talk. “the bar”: our table in JB’s Lounge at the Black Knight Inn. you’d have poured me more wine. you’d have said, don’t write poetry. don’t write fiction. write Books. just write everything and toss what doesn’t work. don’t forget it takes a heap of shit to grow a single rose.
in the slow lane, I watch backwards, powerless. the antelope crosses the path of the swerving semi. I want the driver to stay on the highway safe, more than I want the animal to live.
my note to you:
but what if they rip me to shreds? what if they don’t see what I’m doing and they kill me?
your note back: always a gentle admonition. why aren’t you writing, Beach? our way of each crossing over into the solitude of the other, a prod, a shove forward into danger, you shoving me more often than the other way round. because at the moment, I’m answering your note, “Doctor Sproxton”.
our eyes in continuous motion across medians, into ditches, scanning the fields of hay bales. our eyes the long green wand that sweeps the radar screen, the
blips the deer and pronghorn antelope we squint at in dusk.
(they see me. they only need me not to run them down.)

you’d have said,
it’s not “what if” they rip you to shreds. it’s “when.” toughen up, girl. have you got what this takes?

I didn’t know then. I don’t know now that you’re gone. what I know is that I can’t see ahead. the road is wilting with snow and ice. the antelope tries to outrun the weaving semi. a desperate back and forth in the fast lane, hooves and tufts blurring against white. the grill’s teeth slash at the buck’s hindquarters, legs thrashing in air as the animal spins through the sideways snow once, twice, three times, four. horns to the sky briefly, then clattering on pavement. I turn back to the road ahead, narrow my eyes to see something. anything but what I’ve just seen.
you know I dream of you often. you come to me just as you were. clean cotton and love. you give me writing advice that vanishes as I open my eyes. you hug me. I wake up crying, my shoulders still warm. your small kiss of beard tickly on my cheek.
forty-eight years of country living and highway driving, stuck to blacktop and plunging into dusk, backroads and four-lanes and never, not once have I seen the collision. as a girl, I asked my mom why the deer like to lie down in the ditch. don’t they have a bed to sleep in somewhere with their sister and brother? my own sister and brother leaning either side of me in the back seat, road-bounced into sleep and drooling. lolling heads and blue mittens on the floor.

no bullshit from mom.
they’re not sleeping. they’re dead. a car hit them. I began my scan/sweep seeing a decade before I could drive.

ahead of me the warp-speed stabbings of snow in the dusk of headlights. behind me is death. behind me is fur and blood and more animals waiting in the ditch.

(do they grieve? do they see the dead one in the ditch on the other side? do they cross to be near him, their whiskers thick with frost nudging the flesh of the buck?)

the truck’s hindquarters swerve on the oil of ice and salt. it rights itself, pulls over.

I can do nothing. but how to unsee this.

a few kilometres ahead, the white rump of a semi sticks itself into the roadway, its nose buried in ditch snow, lights still on. I swerve around its ass end, exhaust in plumes from two rattling pipes.

you’d have said,
they’re going to cream you, no matter what. so just write what you need to write. you’d have said, you don’t need me any more. you know what to do. you’d have clinked your glass to mine. you’d have handed me your new poem. you’d have hugged me to you, your white whiskers at my throat.

I only know to keep driving. keep going forward. into what, I can’t see.

* This poem first appeared in
Prairie Fire, 34:3 (The Birk Sproxton Tribute Issue)