My Former Student Dies in a Mudslide

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My Former Student Dies in a Mudslide
La Conchita, CA, 2005

I.

In California, rain and fire
undo the living. In separate seasons,
infernal winds whip truant sparks
into crematory fires
that jump

from ridge to ridge, and nonchalant rains
loosen the hills and bluffs till the land
falls free of its bones.

II.

A friend called to say sodden cliffs
collapsed—sweeping Heather away while she napped
on a couch at home, her neighborhood
in the toe of the slide, purged
by the unbearable
speed of mass.

Another resident,
a man, drove to the store for milk
and returned to find his whole family
gone—all the furniture, fixtures, and foundation
of his life no longer defying
the altered angle
of repose.

III.

I have to move so many layers of debris to find her—
a dozen hard years of marriage, two babies,
dissertation, new jobs, bottles and bottles
and bottles of wine, diapers and wipes,
a dead dog and son, loud voices
in the tunnel of the night,
my own bad heart—
not sure even now
I can recover
her face.

IV.

In this, I conduct my search
and rescue, shining the halogen light
of words into the long-gone night when I called
Heather and her feckless friend down after
class for their animated
and ceaseless chat—
such youthful energy and gall.

One more plank moved from the rubble of my life,
and I see her incredible outrage,
the flushed and freckled face,
the brown curls wound tight
as springs, the shock,

the injustice
of it all.