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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 168-170

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Selling Out at the Top ofthe World

Joseph Millar

for John

Nobody spoke in the Arctic cold those mornings we rode
over wrecked lunar fields following tracks to the dynamite shed.
    Not the drillers from Oklahoma in ski masks
and insulated coveralls, not the Eskimos from Barrow,
some wearing only down vests and flannel; not even us,
    the survey helpers, tears and snot
      from the freezing wind lacing our faces in ice.
We'd screw the cans of explosive together, load the steel chain
and transit and start driving north to the line,
    where leads of dark sea water
flexed through the ice like a wound that refused to heal.
Scrabbling across sloped pressure ridges and planting
    wire flags in the crust,
we knew our charts would be sold to Nixon's cohorts,
Exxon and Richfield, that the Revolution had come north
    to freeze and die under the waters of Prudhoe Bay.
      Scattered across the north slope
of the Brooks Range, countless gypsy seismograph crews
    scratched and gouged in twilit shadows,
prospecting the ocean floor. The ice where we lived grew
six feet thick over the Beaufort Sea, and we clustered like flies
    at the top of the world, watching the sun
creep like a slow fuse partway around the horizon, soft light shining
back from the surface, hanging the air with ghosts—
    mountains upside down
at our feet, white buildings hovering half out of the sea,
and the moon on its back, refusing to set
      over the ragged plains. [End Page 168]
If our hearts had been pure we'd have grieved
    for ourselves or found other wages farther south.
Instead we surrendered to spasms of laughter in the anesthetic cold,
    making up names for the Texas bosses—
Black Jack, Sidewinder, Big Tomato—planning the movie
we'd someday write, a noir-Western starring Richard Widmark's
      pale narrow eyes and rictus grin.
Wyatt Earp and Jim Bowie had nothing down on our Okie drillers,
who'd flown here from the Middle East with stories
    we listened to evenings,
of jewelled Arabian sunsets
or the withering sandstorms of Egypt, where Moslem laborers
    were called back to work as they knelt
in their daily prayers,
      by numbers they wore on their backs.
Here we only stopped work to wolf candy bars
    or piss in the frozen tracks of the boom truck.
Nobody wanted to say much about home, though one spoke
of the Sacramento delta where he'd worked as a brakeman
    for Southern Pacific, gone to high school
with the Mitchell brothers before they became pornography kings.
Some were here to escape other lives, ex-wives and children,
    jail time down south,
many just back from Viet Nam. Who knew if they'd watched the live
demonstrations where people like us dodged tear gas, the walls
    of our communal houses on fire
with Che Guevara's austere face or the black thunderbird of
  Cesar Chavez?
    Here the Indians never looked
straight at anyone, and the stiff wings of winter closed
down on us all, as though we'd been born without histories
    to this godless landscape of ice and bent light. [End Page 169]
When we got loose in town we paid whores from LA a hundred extra
to dine with us in the Gold Rush Room of the Anchorage Westin Hotel.
I fell quickly in love with mine, her black nails sparkling
    like onyx rain
as she turned her wrist to look at her watch.
They harvested our amnesiac wages the way pipeliners
    empty an oil field.
None could wait to sell out for a fortune, be rid of the sixties'
experiments—ecology, brotherhood, socialism—except maybe
    the cook from Baton Rouge,
who'd lost fifteen grand playing dice at the Embers
and wanted us to help get it back.
    Not much would ever be given back
to the wilderness beginning to crack and thaw over the bright seams
of moonlight near the drilling rigs on the sea. Not the underground
  swamp gas rising through cleavages
forced apart by the drills, not the patches of...


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pp. 168-170
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