Category Archives: Genesis

Turtle Hill, San Francisco

Like the striations of a turtle’s back,

this red rock reveals the layers

of time encrusted on this high peak


of a hill that was once the floor of an ocean.

It overlooks the painted sides of houses:

the gravel beneath this leviathan’s hoary feet.


Their color is not like the white and yellow alyssum

sparking these rocks with small fires of life,

or like the white-gray-green bark on the strands of eucs


that huddle on this windswept hump of hill.

Even this red-tail seems a distraction — his rose-red

feathers a dilution of the maroon stone.


This is the hard rock of what lives inside me today:

a discovery, an outpouring of blue sky, a place

I had never seen before so close


to my old home, a deep red vein

bursting up on the forehead of this plateau,

like the blue vein growing more visible each day


on my forehead, telling me to burst

into truth, into song, into alyssum, into prayer

before it bursts and sends me packing,


humping my way, in turtle fashion,

to some cold and lonely hill of heaven.


by Paul Totah

March 1, 2000



These were barely trees

low scrub cypresses, distressed by winds,

standing on sandy ground.

Even a typical wind

blowing off Ocean Beach

could topple them, expose naked

root nerves to just anyone.


But it was all we had, all we knew.

We built forts in the bushes below,

moving in with transistor radios,

old plates and cups

that our mothers let us play with,

a Bowie knife our mothers didn’t know about.

Above we’d nail two-by-fours to the trunk,

climb to flat branches, woven

among three trees, step on a live platform.

Springy branches supported our supple limbs.

Jays, wrens, robins laughed at us.

Sunlight, unfiltered, lost itself into twilight.


There, in this green world where we belonged,

exalted, at home, clear-eyed and alive.



Three Trees

Barbara Walters once asked a president:

“If you could be a tree,

what tree would you be?”

Barbara, you took shit for that question,

but I will answer you in words of green syllables

as veined as a maple leaf.


I could live as a madrone,

twisting below the taller redwoods,

stunted, peeling purple bark like old scabs,

spreading evergreen leaves to pocket sunlight,

twining my roots with my taller neighbors,

hiccuping berries for birds to eat

and plant my children away from my dangerous shade.


Or I could be a laurel tree, crowning myself

in glorious scents, smelling of peppers and lemon,

sending vertical shafts of branches

off a horizontal span, fingering through

the beams of light timbering the forest.


I could live my long years as a redwood,

spiraling every three months one more notch

toward the forest canopy

until I could branch past the Douglas firs and dwarf oaks

to taste the first light, each dawn

and see first the fog wall avalanching down

toward my thirst and voluminous hunger.


I would choose from among this holy trinity,

despite bacteria, fungus, flood, fire and loggers,

just to live my life above and below,

in the network of roots and stars

in the lair of the raccoon,

in the canopy of the forest.


by Paul Totah

October 23, 1999

The Mothering Ocean

Out here in the tide-pool rush

I twist my thoughts into sea-caves

where emotions hide, trying

to pry them loose, poke them

into open air where

cormorants, hawks, sea stars, otters

might attack, pry, gnaw to the bone

leaving only dead shell.


Breakers twist fingers of foam,

smelling of sardine.

They are my desires.

They lull me, lure me

with songs of uterine bloodswell

singing me to the safety

of a cormorant’s cry, of my daughter’s exalted cry

as hands pulled her

from her first ocean

and now I see these emotions

clustered like gooseneck barnacles,

gray grapes ready for the plate,


and I know what I’m feeling,

have felt this half year now —

watching my mother growing old,

limping on her plastic knee among her roses —

is fear as ragged as these waves

torn by clusters of tor,

that she may die before I know her

as I should, love her as I must.


by Paul Totah

March 31, 2000

The larvae in the dead acorn

The larvae in the dead acorn

white, full of life, swimming

in its gray excrement

eats the green heart of the

living seed.


Brian cracks the shell

softly with his sole,

then uses a stiff fallen feather

to prod it toward a new light


where, blind, it wrestles

with death, drowns in air,

not hearing my friend

softly apologize

telling his students

that he trades death for knowledge


so they might know

about the minimals

sprouting at their feet

green and white and alive.

Staring at the Chrysalis

My children downstairs thrill with news

of hanging caterpillars,

scream up to me,

“Come look!

Another one is in its chrysalis!”


I ignore them. I’m after bigger game.

The fog strays into the valley,

wraps gray gauze around tall Monterey pine,

cypress, scrub hills.

I wait to see what will emerge.


Today, the newspaper claims

the universe has a top and a bottom

as this ultimate place

prepares to squeeze back into a ball,

roll itself toward some infinite split,

come crashing out as an Einstein butterfly,

doing loopty loops beyond the boundary

of our glass jar.


Even my children have sprouted

into their shining bodies.

They discard their old skins somewhere,

or swallow them whole

so I can’t worship what they were.


Then, as everything flames to change,

I walk downstairs to see one caterpillar

fixing itself in a pea pod, a space suit, a scabbard,

hanging by the thinnest filament of time.


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.

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