Paul J. Willis

Paul J. Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College and a former poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California. His most recent collections are Rosing from the Dead (WordFarm, 2009) and Say This Prayer into the Past (Cascade Books, 2013). Learn more at

The Virgin and the Museum of Natural History

Out the back of the museum, across the footbridge,
through the native Chumash garden, among the quiet
of live oaks, along the path and up the steps,
and just beyond the sign that says,
No Trespassing: Violators Will Be Prosecuted,
there is a forgotten veranda, covered with leaves
of pittosporum, just beneath an equally forgotten grotto.
And in that grotto, standing on a pedestal
of mortared stone from the creek below,
stands the patient Virgin Mary, robed in white
and hands uplifted, pressed together palm to palm.
Her eyes are closed in adoration,
but you get the feeling she is quite aware
of your presence—you, now, seated on a dusty
ledge among clouds of ivy and wilded roses
at her feet. If someone is going to prosecute you,
she will not be the one to do it. And the Virgin Mary,
through her closed eyes, seems to see not only
your bewildered self, weary and wanting,
but everyone and everything in the canyon below—
the swallowtails in their pavilion,
the tyrannosaurus rex named Sue,
the rambling, silent grizzly bear
in the evening gloom of his display.
She sees each artificial star within the planetarium,
and the man who announces the daily show
on a hidden microphone in the dark.
Through her closed lids the Virgin sees
the woman arranging books in the gift shop,
the children leaping from rock to rock,
the keeper holding a kestrel falcon on its perch
with wounded wing. The Virgin Mary
blesses them all, every one, from her hidden
grotto of ivy and roses, and they do not even know
she is there. And as you rise and as you leave
to place your feet once more secure
on legal grounds, you carry this secret deep
within you, this secret of a mother who watches
through closed eyes, who guards your steps,
who knows your presence on this earth.


Precipice Lake

When my water bottle rolled off
the slab and into the lake, I hesitated
to snatch it out,
and in that moment the breeze took it
silently away from shore,
sailing over the clear green depths.

I thought of returning to my pack
for a trekking pole, but the bottle
was well out of reach. I thought of heaving
a large rock just beyond it
to splash the bottle back to shore,
but I was no Ajax—
the bottle was beyond my range.

So I settled for watching it bob and curtsy
further and further from where I stood
and toward the cliffs, a headwall
that met the lake like a granite curtain,
naturally white but water-streaked with velvet lichen.

The precipice was ribboned with a quiet fall
that dropped from the remnant glacier above
and disappeared with a noiseless splash
as if content to be consumed
by a dark embrace of crystal calm.

And as I watched my fading bottle glint
to the center and beyond, bound for the foot
of those sheer cliffs where there would be
no recollection, I thought of you,
who one day clattered into a cult
before we were well aware,
and even now are drifting toward
the other, unapproachable side.

—Sequoia National Park

Featured Image by: Mark Venner. See more of Mark’ work at Mark Venner Photography. 


(Laryx lyallis)

A few weeks after my mother died,
I dreamed that she was waiting for me
in a ravine of spring-green larches.
There was no worry in her eyes, and
she sat there with her knees drawn up,
content to be in the filtered sunlight.
Funny, because she never lived
among larch trees—my mom grew up
on an orange grove and raised us
in the Douglas fir. I do not live
among them either, apart from my rare
visits to the North Cascades. But when
I’m here, as now I am, sitting barefoot
on Cutthroat Pass among amber larches
bathing every bowl and basin,
I have a sense that she’s okay,
and that I am too, born to witness what
I can within this green and golden world
which still persists, with or without us—
but mostly with us, I’ve come to believe.
Things and people pass away,
but that’s when they become themselves.
There’s a new heaven, a new earth,
around and about us—and not much
different from the better parts of the old.
We don’t live there very often,
but when we do, eternity
ignites in a moment, light in the larches
that shines. And shines.

—Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest