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Heather Bourbeau: California Poets Part 7, Four Poems

Heather Bourbeau

July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

Heather Bourbeau

Four Poems

Between the Storms


The tenth day of Christmas, 10 lords a leaping, the ground is green.

So green the hand aches to pet it, to coax the lush into staying

longer than it should. Like me, here, overstaying my inspiration. 


Storms have brought dried branches down, orange lichen, green lichen,

new shoots, willow buds, common cat’s ear, subterranean clover.

The chuppah has been taken down, the eucalyptus are peeling.


In Japan, two days ago, a tsunami warning. Poseidon means “lord of the earth.”

Not just over water, he rules over dry land, known as “earth shaker,” “stabilizer.”

10 lords a leaping. He is angry. He is frustrated. He is bored. He is, he is.


High winds have brought high surf. From this hilltop, I can see

the chopping water of Tomales Bay, imagine a life on the water, near the water,

of the water. No, I can imagine simply a different life. Wet, lush, and in season.




Water unearths riches. As a child,

rusting cake tin in hand, hose dripping

onto dried lawn, I would pan for precious metal,

magnet ready to catch fool’s gold.


There is a sweetheart candy on the sidewalk.

It is white and smooth. Its message worn off.

I want to eat it, to stuff sugar and faded love

into my hungry, hungry mouth.


The lemon blossoms trigger my saliva,

my tongue readying for acid.

There are moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds.

All are male.


When I was born, did my mother see me staring

with love and confusion and realize

she needed to do better,

to love herself as much as I did?


Lines on my face have come in

while I was looking elsewhere.

The Oak Fire has spread. I long

for lakes and ponds and the melt

of High Sierra snow.


The Stag


The stag has entered my yard, looking for my nasturtiums, the ones I pull like weeds each May, the ones that first delight, then take over and wonderfully suffocate the oxalis, which if I am honest, I would like to see wiped out. My earth dug and cleansed of each of their oxalis seeds. And if I am honest, I am not proud of this feeling of simple, pure hate of a plant, even though it chokes my dreams of a yard that can thrive in drought, nurture robust blooms, and feed the bees and my soul.


The stag with his young horns in peak adolescence, walking slow and solitary, has entered my yard, bent with the same relaxed pace to press his brown and black mouth down to the green and yellow and orange of my nasturtiums, and eat the leaves as if they were left just for him, as if this were his land and I the interloper, as if I had taken months to prepare this feast of flowers for just his palate, and in many ways, I had.


The stag has entered my yard, holding my gaze while he pisses on the remnants of a cherry tree before moving to the nasturtiums that once filled me with pride, having raised them from seed to start to blossom. I did not know they need so little to burst forth and spread, the yellow and orange and sometimes crimson petals swirling around the jade, climbing the ficus. I learn from these plants what I couldn’t in so many of my relationships—I could have given less of myself and they would have been just fine.


The stag has entered my yard, uninvited but I am grateful. He has stopped my breath, brought wonder in exchange for flowers. I fear his horns. I ache to touch him.




We are Coming for the Transcendent

The earth, reptilian in its cracks. The rabbit’s furtive crush of branches.

The last songs of crickets, first calls of birds.

Bursts of firethorn, echoes of laurel.


Pluto has oceans running underneath,

the rumors of its desolation proven false.

Distant, unknown, unwelcoming

until we are desperate.


It is through the chimes

that I hear the wind.

It is through your absence

that I feel my love for you.


July 22th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Heather Bourbeau, Poet, Fiction Writer, UN Contractor

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: The work you do goes far beyond poetry—as a communication strategist you’ve been involved in many of the key problems the world is facing. What concerns you most about developments today?

HB: I am most concerned about the rise in fascism and other extreme views that are gaining ground around the world, as well as the global powers that are stoking such views (through disinformation and fear mongering), particularly as people reel from the devastating impacts of climate change (e.g., a rise in the number and intensity of natural disasters, greater food insecurity, and forced migration).

We are losing perspective, compassion, and empathy. As a result, we are seeing threats to basic human rights, seeing a rise in violence, and losing the ability to work together to solve our greatest common threats, particularly climate change.


DG: To what extent do you see overlap between the work you do on a professional level and the creative power of poetry? Do you see the latter as a communication strategy itself or is art in some way separate from politics?

HB: My work often informs my poetry. Even when I am writing about a specific location or natural process, I may weave in socio-political themes, either obliquely or explicitly.


DG: You have worked in UN peacekeeping missions across Liberia and Somalia. Can you talk how long you stayed there and some of the things you did?

HB: In Liberia, I was a Political Affairs Officer with the United Nations peacekeeping mission. I monitored and analyzed political developments, as well as trends that impacted the democratic processes, peace and stability in Liberia and the sub-region. My primary portfolio was the legislature, covering every session and liaising government officials, political parties and key political actors in Liberia, including meeting with each presidential candidate before the general elections.

For UNICEF Somalia, I would research and write the annual report on children and armed conflict in Somalia for the Secretary-General to present to the Security Council (per SCR 1612). For this, I researched security and political developments, interviewed people working on Somali children’s rights and security issues, examined international responses, and analyzed hundreds of interviews with victims and victims’ families.


DG: Let’s talk more about your creative work. Your latest project, Monarch, is a poetic memoir of the American West—in particular California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. What fascinates you about the region and to what extent did poetry liberate you from telling that history in less traditional ways?

HB: I was raised in Nevada and California, my mother was a multi-generational Oregonian from Central Oregon, and my father was a second-generation Washingtonian from Spokane. I grew up traveling throughout the region to visit family several times a year. I was raised in those four states: CA, NV, OR, and WA, and starting in 2018, as I revisited some of the places we would go, I realized that while I felt deeply connected to the landscape, I was unaware of so much of the history, including my own family’s role in that history of the region. Monarch is a collection of the histories I wish I had been taught as a child. These histories would have helped me understand the greater context of where and how I lived.

By virtue of being more condensed and sometimes more personal, poetry allows readers to not feel so overwhelmed, to digest and reflect on some hard truths, and to learn about inspiring overlooked heroes. I believe well-researched poetry should be included in high school and college history courses as a way to tackle topics that might otherwise seem too abstract or painful.


DG: Your 2022 collection, Some Days the Bird, was a collaborative effort with Anne Casey, an Irish writer living in Australia. For 52 weeks, you engaged in poetic dialogue as a way to deal with the pandemic. Did writing come easier or was it more difficult during this period, and to what extent did this book change your writing habits?

HB: For many years, I had thought about doing this project (inspired in large part by Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lace and Pyrite), and when Anne and I agreed to do it, we had no idea what 2021 had in store for us in terms of the pandemic, politics, or our personal lives. Because I knew I had to give her a poem every other week, it forced me to be more disciplined with my writing, and more importantly, because all of our poems were rooted in our garden, I was compelled to sink into the slowdown, notice and appreciate small changes in the flora and fauna around me, and finally really learn the names and habits of creatures, plants, and trees I had been living with for many years. That focus, that exercise in noticing and gratitude, and that rhythm in writing, as well as my consistent correspondence with Anne, saved me during that difficult time when we were physically isolated from so many other people.


DG: Apart from California, which is your home, you’ve also lived in New York. Did the work you produce in these respective environments differ greatly or do poems always come from something more internal, above all?

HB: I have lived in a number of different places and each has had a profound impact on me. While there are themes that are consistent in my creative writing, the details and my emotional responses reflect my experience in each particular location.


DG: As a native English speaker, you also have a good command of German and French. Do you read poetry in those languages and which of the two would you find a greater pleasure to translate?

HB: I do read poetry in both, but I am much more comfortable in French and find myself returning to certain French poets regularly, for instance Jacques Prévert. His poem “Déjeuner du matin” gets me every time. The economy of words, the rhythm, the gut punch. I would love to translate works like this.


DG: As a poet without an MFA, you have a graduate degree from Johns Hopkins in International Studies and a B.A. in Mass Communications from Berkeley. The idea of an MFA is practically non-existent in Europe and people really write because they love to do that, not because it’s a career. At what point did you start writing poetry consistently and was there perhaps a specific poet—or even poem even—that made you want to do that?

HB: I started writing poetry at age eight, after my third grade teacher (shout out to Mrs. Kaiser) introduced us to haikus and asked us to write our own. It was like the skies had opened up and I was shown how fun language could be to play with. I am forever grateful to her, the other teachers, and my family who encouraged me and posted my earliest works. As a result, poetry has always been something I have engaged in (writing, reading, listening, discussing).


DG: If you could address the General Assembly for twenty minutes, what topic would you speak about?

HB: The immediate need to address climate change. We are the only animal that actively is working against its own survival. But the early response to COVID demonstrated one profound positive thing—we can join together and pause harmful activities when we see the need for collective survival. We did it, however briefly, and for a moment, animals came back, skies cleared, and we marveled. It is possible. 


DG: If you could read them one poem, which one would you choose?

HB: Perhaps “Thirteen Way of Looking at a Glacier (after Wallace Stevens)” by Craig Santos Perez or “Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield.


DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

HB: I am working on a land-based collection, with poems borne out of projects I am doing with land trusts, national parks, and other protected lands.

Author Bio:

Heather Bourbeau’s award-winning poetry and fiction have appeared in The Irish TimesThe Kenyon Review, Meridian, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. She has been featured on KALW and the San Francisco Public Library’s Poem of the Day, and her writings are part of the Special Collections at the James Joyce Library, University College Dublin. Her collection Some Days The Bird is a poetry conversation with the Irish-Australian poet Anne Casey (Beltway Editions, 2022). Her latest collection Monarch is a poetic memoir of overlooked histories from the US West she was raised in (Cornerstone Press, 2023).


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