Reflections (as seen at the Exploratorium)

My children refract light,

trailing rainbows that echo from

the arcs of their arms

between silvered screens.


They are prisms. Crystals.

Clear quartz, angled, imperfect,

attracting light to their

beating hearts, beating

footsteps, oscillating in blues, reds

undersea greens.


They draw light,

release light. They laugh

in undulate colors.


Poetry Is

Sex with God;

He, teasing me with first

lines, first longings, letting

me respond in kind

words, lines, we seek


the names of things —

hollyhock, rosemary,

milkweed —

testing syllables,

rhythms until we

consummate and create

new life, old meanings,

new vision, old beauty.


And we surrender to the song.

Peeling Back the Layers

The layers of mussel, sea stars and limpets

I saw on the rock at low tide

I see echoed in the layers here at Horse Camp Trail,

looking into the vista towards the shore.


First the soft fog, tinged with pink,

then the darker hills in the distance,

the serrated blade formed by trees.


The closer ridge, softened by light

into a gray green brown

dappled with shadowed pines and redwoods.


The closer ridge, each tree distinct,

each bark face clear in the half light.


The trees just down the hill from me,

the madrone covered in Steller’s jays,

wax wings picking berries, drunk with life.


The low coyote bush just at my feet,

white tipped, patient, placated

by sun and wind.


Then my self, layered

with 42 years worth of ringed worry,

old fears self-pruned, no longer of use,

old dreams realized, forgotten,

still cherished, like a hard candy rolled in my mouth.


To this layer of time, without troubles,

breathing cold air, seeing for the first time

living waves of light


to a deeper layer where I synthesize the light

into prayer, into lightening,

into words yet to burst like berries

onto my mind, onto my tongue

into poem turned prayer turned breath turned song

that will save me just when I need it most.

Glen Canyon Park, San Francisco

Too many creeks run underground,

making low sounds that rumble submissively

through concrete slabs.

But here, Islais creek openly combs through willows

through this city’s heart, talking

in syllables to lone women walking their dogs.


The gray weave of willow branches

tinged with brown and olive green

tunes my nerves to a looser pitch

quiets my worries over schedules,

safety, human noises, the groans, screeches,

sirens of my speech.


Here on this clear day, I surrender

to birdsong, to the hum of insect wings and legs,

to the slow notes of white rock that

bubbled up once from the sea’s green wash

while, right now, the creek speaks the one word

in clear words over and over on the gauzy stones.


by Paul Totah

March 1, 2000


So small, huddled behind the

damp paper towel, the slender salamander

does not move until Dan wets his finger,

touches it to life; I can’t see its four toes

past hinged legs, so small. Only

its sideways eyes, copper and black,

shining with fear

in his clear, Tupperware world.


Brian found it under a log

in its damp home, prescribed by four-foot cliffs

it will not plunge past.

He brought it here to show students

its elusive beauty, snakelike, coiled

in on itself, and shows us

its picture, painted in an amphibian book,

his first book bought with his own money

when he was 10 and in love with mud and ’mandering,

catching larval great salamanders

in the heart of San Francisco.


Now, 32 years later,

they are dying, all of them,

from clean rivers in Costa Rica,

to California, where they breathe poison

straight through their skin.


He tells us, they are canaries,

that they have stopped singing,

that we must help bring back

their damp and loamy song

because there’s no escaping this coal mine,

the only home we have,

shared with, blessed by

these living tongues of flame.


by Paul Totah

April 1, 2000


This hard-scrabble ground,

ice plant

pampas grass

scotch broom


all come from somewhere else

settles here in the spaces

that split the fog

in a clearing that is not a clearing of the mind

in these gray scale days where spirits sink

weighted by the merest breath of mist.


Like a fairy circle tree,

I am second-generation seedling,

coming after my father, the alien refugee,

who planted himself on the sand dunes

of San Francisco’s Sunset District,

one block from an immigrant church,

having faith that shallow roots

will draw water

through homes

that shoulder each other up

to keep from sinking in the quicksand

of the 50s.


The non-native plants now crowd

the creekside park below my home,

choking out the long grasses.

The fog obscures this grief, erasing memory

of time green and immemorial.


— Paul Totah, August 26, 1998



Good and Evil

This inextricable mix

of good and evil

a filigree weave

of dragon’s teeth

and gold. The earthquake

in Kobe, 5,000 shaken

off the bough

and the others know

all is as it should be,

this pruning,

golden shears passing

in the moonlit night, a

flight of diseased birds

beautiful in their descent,

ascending like prayer past

misery, blood, loss,

to the heart of the buried seed bleeding

new tendrils, new whiskers

sewing life and all its boundaries

that make us belong.


It’s this suffering that

redeems us, polishes and

ripens us,

picks us clean

of meat, and bones

dance only to God

at night, painted with

ivory light and

thoughts of the

spaces between each rib,

the rushing in and out of blood

and will,

desire and light.


These things I know

having suffered in

small degrees and

touching a pain

greater than my own.

Elephant Song

Elephants singing boulders of notes

Below the skies of our hearing,

The mud of courtship, the cry

Over a dead one-year-old,

The trunks touching his

Soft skin, in procession

For three days,

Trumpeting grief, waking

The forest birds

And poachers,

Telling the water

More sorrow than the broken forest

Can hold.



Cat Angst

My cat, Spot, 14-year-old female,

questions, with a gesture of her curved tail,

the meaning of her life. She surrendered

the cat-and-mouse chase a few years back,

evidenced by the droppings in our pantry.

I wonder what angst has gripped this cat

who has taken to mewling her complaints at 3 a.m.,

looking for fresher food, distractions,

the attention of a scratch behind her velvet, felt ear.

She spends her days seeking fruitless change,

complaining on both sides of the front door

that each moment and place lacks grace,

each day holds only circles that spiral nowhere.

If she could complain in words, she would,

often, and ask me to turn the TV to the Nature Channel

so she could watch a tiger’s futile pursuits

and feel better about her own enclosed world.