Vire-en-Champagne, April 1919

Two months shy of a century ago,

it’s been raining in France,

great sheets snapping like sodden flags across the farmer’s field –

And my grandfather’s father,

a child of German immigrants,

sits down in soldier’s boots, and looking at the crops with a farmer’s eye,

writes a few lines to his brother

in Barnesville, Minnesota.

He writes nothing

about the rescue of the Lost Battalion

after five days surrounded by Germans in the Argonne forest; but

he asks Alfred to tell Ma

that he got through it all right, he guessed.

He reports that the winter wheat

on this farm where they wait to ship out, was yellow, and poor.

He taps his pencil, then adds that

they’d been playing a lot of baseball,

because the Great War, the war to end all wars, was done.

He pauses, looking at the field

where he doesn’t belong, and finally asks

how the Titan is running, and whether they’ve planted, thinking

probably, of the cold black soil

drinking up the snow melt with a fierce thirst,

and the angled sun spreading like butter on the dark bread of the soil

after a long, dark, Midwestern winter,

and of his flax seeds,

thousands of tiny furled, unsent messages, tucked away in dry burlap.

He will come home

and bury them for ten days

until tendrils reach up, and up, into the sky that stretches lazily

across the great Midwestern plain –

each blue flower will live just one day.

But it’s hundreds and hundreds,

no, tens of thousands of them – that will open in wave upon wave across the field,

answering the call of the unbroken blue sky.

Fighting with My Brother the River

My big brother is not like a river, ever-changing, moody,

bringing you along in his current –

he is a river,

the Menominee, and despite his full-time job

keeping Wisconsin and Michigan in their places,

he has also pulled and tangled my hair,

has stolen my towels, sunglasses, one

cell phone, several shirts, flip-flops,

and rarely gives any of them

back without a fight;

he has lifted me up

while i float on my back

moving ever-eastward, southward,

arms crossed behind my head as I

watch white clouds shapeshift

against a cobalt sky.

My brother the river

despite meeting me when I was only four

has tried to kill me, more than once,

dumping me out of a raft in his angry rapids,

pulling me under,

one time pinning me underwater

between a runaway dock and shifting mud,

leaving my forehead scarred and a leech on my ankle

for good measure.

Try to explain that to the nurse.

Seven stitches, no lie.

He is funny, my brother.

He has borne me down

his current on more rafts

than i can count, held me

every summer since 1974 while I

explored the shadowed underworld

with a mask to my face, collecting

clam shells

or had somersault contests with the neighbor kids

who made up my universe until my lungs nearly burst,

Matt, Beth, Colleen, and me all coming up for air

in great gulping gasps.

I held my Snoopy fishing pole

over the side of the boat

I shared with my dad,

listened from below the surface

as my mother called me in for dinner as I pleaded for

just five more minutes;

My brother has sometimes taken a drink of my beverage

or spit into it to claim it for himself –

he has gouged my shins with rocks

has sliced my family’s feet with empty clam shells,

has teased me with snapping turtles –

But, sorry, he shows me

bald eagles, herons,

sturgeons lazily nosing their way along the shore, unafraid;

painted turtles, otters, kingfishers,

raccoons,

and the occasional fox –

I’ve seen deer swim across, and pine snakes,

thin slow slender white snakes in cold fast spring water,

we’ve caught bass, walleye, minnows, more fish

than i can count; have had crayfish

cling to our shorts

like bad habits –

He is patient, my brother

I am older now,

I’ve given my brother the river some of

the ashes of my son,

and some ashes of the man who sold us our cabin and land

(though, overcome, before signing he

pushed the deed away, stood and looked out the window, wiped his silent tears –

My brother the river was this man’s brother, too.)

I haven’t always been

a great sibling, I’ve spilled these things on him,

not on purpose,

but still:

sunscreen, beer, soda, mosquito spray, Doritos, magazines, chairs, part of a dock –

he’s borne it all,

washed all of it away;

And now

my brother the river

doesn’t know he is threatened –

a new neighbor with flush pockets and a keen eye

for silver and gold hidden in the fast folds

of the earth

wants to open a wound, gouge the soil,

bathe those precious metals

in caustic chemicals along my brother’s fragile banks

though he solemnly avows no harm –

and I don’t know how to warn him, my brother, to pack up his currents and move far away, so he doesn’t burn

orange like Colorado’s Animas, so his fish don’t turn over and float into Lake Michigan

like apologies too late;

I don’t have his number,

my brother the river

so instead

I write this to tell him how much I love him

and that i will stand on this playground

and try to fight this bully who comes

with soothing statistics and smooth

promises of jobs and safety,

who will someday walk away

with only profit –

I will try to fight

though i have no weapons

but words.