Eliot said that April is the cruelest month,
time of year when when lilacs were bred
out of the dead land. It’s not hard to grasp
how this bleak proposition is substantiated
within the context of Eliot’s unique times.
In our time we have zombie apocalypses,
children going door to door on Halloween
dressed as Dracula with his bloody fangs,
Frankenstein, Darth Vader, ugly witches.
Here in California Octobers are cruelest.
By then the state’s hills have turned crisp,
which winds will whip, down power lines
and start voracious fires. Come Halloween
thousands of acres to burn north and south,
houses eradicated and people left charred.
At Mammoth Lakes Indian summer prevails
this mid October. Jewel of the Sierra range,
the idyllic Alpine ski resort a favorite spot
for haute L.A. and Bay Area elite in winter.
Monstrous Mammoth Mountain is treeless,
its ominous wide, steep, and concave slope
buried under packed snow provides thrills
for the Olympians who come to train here.
Tomorrow I’ll stand up close to El Capitan
and Half Dome, in awe of sheerest splendor.
But here and now, as I check into my room
at Mammoth village, anticipation runs amok.
Under the foot of Mammoth Mountain builds
a gigantic lava dome, its magma pushed up
eon after eon. One cruel day it will explode.
I absorb its energy, am ready for the rapture.
I’d like to watch from aside as the caldera
blasts more powerfully than a billion bombs.
I want to see Earth’s miraculous entrails sky.
No lilacs in the fields, but many wildflowers
purvey superb emoluments. Minaret spires
can be viewed from the overlook near town.
Eyes jet across miles unto peaks sheared by
glaciers end of the last ice age. Take note of
an earthquake fault made when Inyo craters
erupted. Discover little hidden lakes where
you may see people fishing, photographing,
canoeing, having a picnic, or in silent prayer.
Pretend you will never be dead, that no devil
could ever make you shed the fleece of time.
Early morning I step out onto the motel deck,
sun gradually rising above the tall Ponderosas.
Streetlights still beam. I scan pavement below,
learn that at 9000 feet in the Sierra it can get
plenty chilly even during an Indian summer.
Alas, Devils Postpile is waiting for me. So I
get in high gear, shower, pack, drop off key,
wondering if old Beelezebub himself might
pop up from behind some big volcanic rock.
There must be a reason they named the place
after the devil. I expect evil lurks, maybe a
pellucid phantasm that wants to steal souls
and use them to populate a horrid domicile,
one where the individual has lost all rights,
trapped in a dungeon of eternal damnation.
At the parking lot a large family of Chinese
gets out of a van in front of me, heads down
the half mile path toward the infamous pile.
They’re prepared, bundled up in winter coats,
while my teeth are practically chattering, me
with only a windbreaker. I don’t feel the heat
one would expect when approaching a devil’s
favorite hangout. I think about how this place
is buried deep in snow all winter, impassible.
I want to reach my destination in amazement,
challenge the devil to a duel of wits if he will.
At such elevation the air is thin and my breath
a bit labored. A quarter of a mile more and I’ll
arrive. Then it’s an eighth mile, when at last I
countenance this rock beast and my jaw drops.
Sixty-foot-tall pure basalt hexagonal columns
form a quarter-mile-long wall utterly stunning.
Over eighty thousand years back lava flowed
from the guts of Mother Earth. It was so thick
with consistent mineral composition that when
it cooled it cooled slowly, and then contracted
into symmetrical pillars. Afterwards glaciers
cut the top that now resembles polished tiles.
At the base blocks are stacked, ton upon ton,
columns collapsed over the several millennia.
Had I been there when the eruption happened
I would have witnessed a genuine hell on Earth.
No sign of Satan. Who needs him now anyway?
What’s done is gone. What will be not undone
by a devil’s illusory and nefarious solicitation.
In Les Misérables the despicable villain, officer
Javert, didn’t have it in him to forgive the lowly
beggar Jean Valjean for stealing a loaf of bread
to feed his famished kin. When no bread is left
to feed humanity, when the sixth extinction has
reached the point of no return, and species drop
like flies into a hellish aftermath of past thought,
then we will feel the anguish penitent Javert did
when he leapt to his death and his soul lamented
days spent down deep embracing the devil’s lair.
Hugo leaves it to us to decide whether his victim
was but a product of nature, or instead prompted
by a diabolical force, supernal being boiling deep
within the bowels of Earth, hot, brisk, rumbling,
its main goal to accommodate mankind’s demise.
Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly. His poetry and interviews have appeared in publications internationally, including Florida English Journal, Poetry Salzburg, Mandala Journal, Poetry Quarterly, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Boston Poetry Magazine. He has published a travel guide, Best Choices In Northern California. His most recent poetry books are Ballad of Billy the Kid and Monterey Bay Adventures.