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.

Midwest Poultry Show

Behind me a man at the Minneapolis airport

says: “I’ll see you at the Midwest Poultry Show”

except what I hear is not that but

“Midwest Poetry Show” which makes

 

slightly less sense but it’s too late,

I am already thinking of their sleepless night,

all the poets waking before dawn

and coaxing their balky poems into cages

 

lined with torn strips of newspaper

that are soon bunched into nests and absently

pecked at and read while they, the poems, make

derisive crowing comments to each other as the poets

 

drive their dented trailers carefully into the sunrise,

drinking bitter black coffee from the Hudson or Farmington

Kwik Trip until they arrive at a metal barn, bleary-eyed

and hopeful, now with combs and scissors and spray bottles

 

in hand they are fluffing out long metaphors and snipping

at tufts of too-flowery and winding prose, was that

too much? Well, it’s too late now, it’s all over

but the crying as bespectacled readers circle the cages

 

skimming unfairly, squeezing the stanzas and

splaying the words out at the ends, looking for

allusion, alliteration, allegory, imagery, rhymes

and near rhymes, iambic pentameter and free

 

verse while the poets stand silently near, cups of coffee

long gone cold under the giant ceiling fans, kicking stray

punctuation like curses along the concrete floor, already

reading the look in the readers’ eyes, thinking about next year,

 

when, surely, but surely,

they will place.

 

 

 

 

 

At the Nick Offerman Book Reading Event In Milwaukee

 

There is a man built like a hay bale in the row in front of me,

a blue flannel shirt, he comes in alone, jams his long legs

behind the seat in front of him, and

much like a bale of hay, he speaks to no one

but stays hours and hours to have

Mr. Offerman, Ron Swanson himself, sign his book

As the crowd dwindles slowly;

My daughter and I watch the girl with blue hair and

A white bow in it who has snuck down to have her book signed

ahead of her assigned row in the balcony; we are Midwestern,

we bear the injustice stoically;

We talk to the couple next to us,

A teacher from Johnson Creek and her husband,

The kids behind at grandma’s, they are reveling in their

Night out and late dinner, yawning and drinking Red Bull

And I am doing the math, about 10 signing seconds

per fan; there are more than 100 people left when equity breaks down

and many of those seated behind us who have moved down

are called ahead of us, and despite

Having spent two hours waiting already,

The cost-ratio benefit falters, and we head for pajamas and sleep –

Bidding our new friends goodbye and

Godspeed;

The man in the blue plaid shirt

Standing stoically in the place he has taken,

holding his book in his arm like a talisman

warding off foolishness, loneliness, youth,

no one pulling him toward a warm bed,

only the wind across the unbroken spring field

will welcome him home hours from now.

Dark Rides

Dark spreads like blood pooling beneath the bruised skin, but warm –

Or as though the earth is an eye, lids closing slowly and shadowing inward,

And in this swelling night, in this place slowly cooling to the touch,

The air compressor blasts and growls, channeling breath into the long-resting tires,

So they may ride a little longer, though they hiss and squeal;

Cacti stand vigil in the Arizona landscaped yards, or recline passive,

Rows of inanimate thorny paddles, Mickey Mouse ears, teardrops;

From the lawn chair she hears the crickets counting time in the purpling air,

Asphalt throws the heat of the day back into the moonlit sky,

caught now and then by the smooth belly of a lizard;

All curtains drawn, all garage doors shut like tombs but this one,

the night gathers in the folds of the driveway apron, but I take one of the bikes

and my middle aged self, and ride down the middle of the smooth, deserted road, the moon enough –

Turning, watching the ranch houses with their windowed eyes shut tight,

Not a breath to fog the mirror on the handlebars,

Not a penny to hold fast the eyes;

I ride on borrowed air, slowly, weaving life into the still night,

Standing on the pedals, saving the old-lady cushioned seat, grudging bouncy tires slow and thoughtful,

Thinking about nothing, thinking about riding on though I know I will turn back into that driveway,

will swing one leg over the bike and stand on one pedal before jumping off,

will check again the skittering pulse of the night,

will smooth the sheet of wan moonlight across her lap,

will turn the fevered wind into a deep breath

while the night’s black fingers crawl westerly across the Rocky mountains,

bleeding dark across the vast and deep Pacific ocean,

racing around again before long toward the Midwest

and our empty beds.