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the deep dive

The Deep Dive is vox poetica‘s newest feature, in which poets take a closer look at the world around them by exploring a theme, an image, or a historic or current event and writing about it at length. To inquire about submitting to the Deep Dive series, email with the subject line DEEP DIVE.

In this edition of “The Deep Dive,” we hear from Howard F. Stein, who wrote the following to introduce this series of poems:

Howard F. Stein, a frequent contributor to vox poetica, is professor emeritus in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where he taught nearly thirty-five years. He served as facilitator for the American Indian Diabetes Prevention Center, Oklahoma City, from 2012 to 2017. As well as a poet, he is an applied, psychoanalytic, medical, and organizational anthropologist, and organizational consultant. He is Poet Laureate of the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology. He has published thirty-two books, of which ten are books or chapbooks of poetry. Many of his Ghost Ranch poems have been published in vox poetica.

His two most recent poetry books are Centre and Circumference (2018); and Light and Shadow (2nd edition, 2018). He can be reached at

For at least two and a half decades, I have attended the Annual Fall Retreat of the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology, held at Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center, outside Abiquiu, in northern New Mexico. Owned and run by the Presbyterian Church since 1955, Ghost Ranch is located about sixty-five miles northwest of Santa Fe. Situated at the eastern end of the Colorado Plateau, it is part of the Piedra Lumbre Basin (“Valley of the Shining Stone,” specifically, quartz), once a Spanish land grant. Characterized by numerous largely sandstone mesas with parallel layered and multi-colored strata, the entire region was spared the violent uplifting and folding of the Rio Grande Rift to the east. Nearby mountains include Cerro Pedernal, a slanted, flat-topped ancient volcano, inspiration for many of the famous paintings of long-time Ghost Ranch resident artist Georgia O’Keefe.

Ghost Ranch consists of 21,000 acres of mesas, buttes, canyons, gorges, spires, steep cliffs, grasslands, plains, the Arroyo del Meso, the Chama River, and much more. 165 million years ago, it was part of a shallow inland sea near the equator, and home to dinosaurs and ferns. Today, it is high desert—it may be arid, but it is not devoid of life. It is home to ponderosa pine, pinyon pine, juniper, cottonwood, mesquite, gambel oak/scrub oak, blue gamma grass, chamisa (rubber rabbitbrush), sagebrush, and numerous species of hearty wildflowers. It has a time depth of more than 200 million years.

Ghost Ranch’s lodging structures and all other buildings are rustic and are designed to blend into the vast landscape, not compete with it. Ghost Ranch attracts writers, artists, poets, musicians, spiritual pilgrims, philosophers, hikers, who come as individuals, couples, families, and groups, often for year-round workshops, conferences, retreats, and tours ranging from archaeological dinosaur sites to Georgia O’Keefe’s home. Except for the incursion of occasional dramatic thunderstorms, Ghost Ranch is a quiet, serene, meditative, and creative space. (Lesley Poling-Kempes’ book, Ghost Ranch, University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, 2005, is an outstanding place to start in understanding Ghost Ranch history and sense of place.)

Ghost Ranch’s immensity, its sense of both vastness and enclosure, its grandeur, its sedimentary cliffs’ ever-changing color with the angle of the sun, its uninterrupted sky, and its hundreds of millions of years of history, have inspired me and my poetry since my first visit. It is the most spiritual place I have been. The rocks may be inanimate, but they are not dead. Ghost Ranch is inexhaustible in its gifts. It keeps bringing me back for sustenance and renewal. Over the years I have written over a hundred poems in which the setting and mood are Ghost Ranch. Many of these poems are published, including in vox poetica. I hope they evoke in you the sense of place, and not merely describe it. I hope that they both immerse you in it and bring it to life. I hope one day to be able to publish an entire book of Ghost Ranch-inspired poems.

7 Poems from Ghost Ranch
By Howard F. Stein

Fugitive Hues, Ghost Ranch, NM

On the mesa’s steep face,
On the canyon’s deep walls,
Each slight change
In the sun’s angle
Provokes a new color
For which no name
Can be found;
The tone vanishes before
It can be fixed in sound.

So swiftly do colors
Arrive and depart,
The largest box
Of children’s Crayons™
Could not fathom
Sandstone’s story
Of daily rhythm
In this high desert sun—

Futile to try to pin down
In words
Fleeting color,
Fleeting time,
Each glance,
Both a perishing
And a renewal.

A Mesa and Its Moon, Ghost Ranch, NM

A gibbous moon ascends
As a faint haze above
The blinding face of the
Sheer sandstone cliff,
Lit by a late afternoon sun.
As the moon rises toward night,
Sky darkens; brilliant colors
Of the mesa fade into shadow
And vanish.
A now-blinding moon
Rules the sky—
Moon and mesa,
Partners in a conversation between
Darkness and light,
Appearing and disappearing,
To the strong pulse
Of this ancient place.

Night Music Among the Mesas, Ghost Ranch, NM

In the valley of the mesas,
night draws its ruddy curtain
upon the grassland stage
as the black sky-drape opens
to a pleroma of singing stars
in a double chorus
four-part fugue
Bach wrote in Leipzig—
passion of earth-sky,
in no hurry
for morning and the sun.
Night’s parted veil stays open
as long as it can,
until the turning earth
compels a change of scene.
The curtain closes at dawn,
and the celestial choir
retires until night again returns.

Furrows, Ghost Ranch, NM

Ruddy furrows,
Sometimes mud, sometimes stone,
In parallel rows
On mountain foothills,
Beneath tall buttes—
These sandstone gullies
Carry time as well as water
In rivulets
Carved by each new rain.

Rain shapes the furrow,
And the furrow directs the rain.
Do they, then, sculpt each other?
Each cause, an effect;
Each effect, a cause?

Transient trenches
Give away the fate
Of more noble buttes
That rest upon them
Like a crown.
All kingdoms
Eventually fall,
Just as all bleeding
Eventually stops.

Immediacy and Memory, Ghost Ranch, NM

Juniper and mesquite,
Deep canyons and sandstone cliffs,
The Chama River and Piedra Lumbre Valley,
Embraced by a forever sky—
My companions and kin,
As close to me as I am to myself,
Until I must leave for
Ordinary place, ordinary time,
Vowing to return,
But uncertain I can keep
My promise.

How to transform
Presence into memory,
Knowing I must leave the badlands behind?
Remembering takes over for immediacy,
And will have to suffice,
Though it can never can
Soothe the sting of absence.
I had never thought to grieve
Old rock and dead tree
And hardscrabble land—
They would grant me new life,
If only I could return.

Overnight, Ghost Ranch, NM

Under night’s cover,
a cold front swooped in,
turned green, leathery
scrub oak leaves to
bright, brittle yellow and gold.
Next day, I witnessed
newly flayed leaves
float slowly downward
and be hurtled about
by a strong northwest wind.
Trees swayed widely
as future winter
forced its way in.
Back-lit translucent leaves
glowed in afternoon sun.
I could hear Beethoven’s
Pastorale Symphony
as I watched this change of scene.
I felt privileged to sit
in the audience of this drama
of peril and delight.

Not Enough, Ghost Ranch, NM

No poem is ever enough
To exhaust this
Inexhaustible place—
There is always the next poem,
And the next,
For every mood of the mesa,
Every angle of the sun,
Every shadow distinct
From all others.

These cliffs and canyons—
Living fonts of poems
Waiting to be received.