Aja Couchois DuncanAja Couchois Duncan

Working Note

I wrote In Situ while working in a State Park as a naturalist or as the Park Service calls it: an interpreter. Interpreting what, I don’t know, the mysteries of the environment, the foreign tongue of tree, creek, deer. I was also asked to present living histories, narratives drawn from the lives of those who lived within the territory of the park. I was given stories about Italian and Spanish explorers, Russian cartographers, Irish immigrants. I was told no native people lived in the area, passing through only occasionally, gathering berries on the way to the sea. At the end of the season, a mortar was “discovered” on a slope of rock. Clearly, they said, an indication of enduring native presence. And what of the other stories, other lives, the Chinese farmers, the Californios, the slaves and free blacks, the Miwok, Yurok, Ohlone people who were enslaved after California became a state and before the Emancipation Proclamation made this practice illegal. The list is endless and I staggered under its weight. I read and wrote and unearthed myself, another object, its inquiry.

in situ (adv): in its place. in its original place. in archeology, finding objects where they were last placed, dropped or buried.

proxemics (n): the study of socially conditioned spatial factors in ordinary human relations. 

human (n): a cantankerous animal prone to violence, greed, and other acts of group obsession and destruction. sentient and prone to write about it.





In Situ

pluvial or pleistocene 
fossilized cloak of night
masking population lush as willow
the shadowing, what we
alone    recover

land a narrow tongue nestled
against the sea, rivers swallowing

granite, silt, cyprus roots, her legs
thrust open, a passage among trout, kingfisher 

antelope trails snaking the swollen flesh 
her mouth opens to hermit thrush, swallow

exhale hawk and bear, the pink salmon
feed only when you are hungry

talk of stubborn children tossed to sky
outline the shape of dusk and wait

they will speak of you always
wretched diggers


a method of dating
kitchen ware, weaponry, human hair
relative to wind       pollen
drought or slaughter
how they explain so much damage
as if two worlds, empty and full
moving in-between



snow dusts the canyon its seasons of church, people
flushed west as cow replaces buffalo, timid sheep 
hunting each other or waiting for the truckloads of men
snow mobiles and shotguns blasting this shape of america, a study of horse
meat and syphilis

wind as white river or charcoal smudged across the page of trees darkened by ants
moving along the nude bark as small colonies or herds of cattle bend their heads
towards grass buried by snow knowing what lies beneath but waiting as she waits
for him to return or to die beneath the blanket erasing his shrunken body moving
from one white field to another explosion of snow the force of desire its nucleus





Lake Ines and Alba two sisters who drowned
in the spring the forest
mourned mountain lions
tearing at the cold flesh
raw scar of wood




four point buck shot
with obsidian two inches
from thunder, legs fold
wading through swamp
the coyotes survived all winter
on mice their young nibble the strips of meat
torn like bacon from the deer’s
hind legs, clumps of hair
blood, drained free






empty school yard children locked inside tucked behind desks their toes tapping the wood floor he writes help with the point of his shoe while the teacher reviews the vocabulary words he misspelled manipulate but his ears are their own language of punishment small and malformed as brussels sprouts the green wounds





3 wool blankets
3 axes
3 hoes
some clothing
glass beads


antelope        the bowels or entrails
                               a severed tongue

                               dangling snow


a science of waste and wonder
she weaves baskets of redbud and willow
stitching coils, human intestines

nocharo mu    
              don’t touch me





made human by franciscans mapping nudity in wool her newborn daughter twisting the umbilical cord running her soundless cries her breast so full of milk she has to stop and bleed her wings drowning her husband still bent knees in the chapel mouth tacky with barley soundless prayers his wife in hell the priest tells him not walking the trail from field to church mourning infant of one breath even if he feels her next to him at night bound to the bed the last three months of pregnancy more restless than before only hours free to birth a world she must bury her palm erasing color of landslide

whose name do you carry the sloped shoulders of a father his back crisp beneath the sun almost purple as a beet his arm first cousin to another paper person who harvests sugar from soil make strange sounds with your tongue and remember you chose this place california is gold mountain this land its breast and valleys a ghost moaning its limbs breaking apart




woodpeckers wake their knock a small child to pace a tree’s fallen length this animal must test her strength a fawn hungers eight miles from the golf course can’t miss the stop sign its hue must cross between cars maintain an even speed the night a truck turns two wheels airborne one hand in his hair his wife tangled among the curls the fawn has four legs to contend with two more than she imagines match her stride count them off to yourself her mother taught her rhythm motions her siblings so quick the fawn still straddling the bank and singing night one two bounding across the street one leg bends back she falters three her head turns away from the truck a bird chasing ground her eyes capturing light

burden a rock or the knocking train its roar of moon and stumble no animal can imitate its reach or bind the miles of tracks thrust east or is it hands their trust in rows a sick engine runs its own language across mountains the stitched earth claims who lives here not the girl sleeping alone in the compartment dreaming of a tomato vine yellow and feverish but two fruits their shocking red skin and her return to a place filled with death how she knows of its rough tracks and echo her diction such an ugly language sound when darkness must be vista or thought and motion its chance to rest 





this business of airport security as if protection was possible from accidents of flight of rage of pale legs covered in pinstripes tucked behind the rows of chairs as docile as children held hostage the raised blue carpet against his cheek soft as her breath before she began her morning list of complaints a mantra which helped him focus his anger except now imagining the stoic faces of the jury he wishes he could present another picture than the baby crying his startled face trying not to breathe the gas or the bullets of men laughing almost science fiction this way of dying as machines surprise air

the clouds touch as if just resting a hand on her hip oblivious to the humming promises beneath lithosphere and gravity’s hunger
slivers of bone


Bio: Born of the valley, Aja Couchois Duncan lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains where she practices the three R’s: reading, running, and writing, and teaches poetry through California Poets in the Schools. Her writing has been published in Clamour, Fourteen Hills, MIRAGE/PERIOD(ICAL), Prosodia, San Jose Manual of Style, Superflux, and Transfer. New work is forthcoming in Five Fingers Review and Mungo vs. Ranger and on-line at Narrativity and Blithe House Quarterly. Sections of In Situ were published in Tinfish (edited by Susan Schultz).

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