Chickadees, snowshine, tourmaline skies;
Blue jays, jack pine, solitude mine.
Chickadees, snowshine, tourmaline skies;
Blue jays, jack pine, solitude mine.
of a star
on the dark glass
of the river
just before dawn
ebbs and flows and
falls and falls and falls
on the crooked pine trees and the roof,
on the old swing set and the black driveway,
on the cold, wet burn barrel and the American flag
at the hundred year old house on Shady Lane
where my parents live
In the basement,
a dehumidifier pulls water from the sodden air,
dutifully filling and re-filling the pan.
Two sump pumps run full time,
a generator stands at the ready.
The water is carried by a snaking black hose
into the low-lying woods surrounding the house
and seeps back in again, later,
like a teenager after curfew, quiet,
up through the cracks in the cement basement floor.
The stone walls
press large boulders against the earth
like praying fists.
It’s never rained this much before
this time of year.
My mother, 72 years old,
raised by practical German and Norwegian folk
on the Minnesota plains,
already sleeps with one eye open to make sure my father,
six years older and soaked years before
by Vietnamese monsoons and Agent Orange,
isn’t swept away into the woods,
over his head.
She now sleeps with the other eye open, too,
straining to hear any absence of the motors,
then the other,
like twin chambers of the heart,
one ventricle pulling in the tired gray water,
one aorta pushing it out, clean and quick.
It’s hard to listen for, it’s hard to hear
And meanwhile the rain keeps falling
drop by drop,
drop by drop,
drop by drop
on the turning leaves,
on the feathery moss,
on the withered corn,
on the rivers already swollen,
already tired of carrying things away.
It’s the melancholy tail end of summer,
a Wednesday night with waning light
when I walk into the basement meeting room of the fire department
on County Road 342.
It smells like 50 years of bureaucracy and a musty bathroom
and my claustrophobia tells me there is only one exit
but I sign my name with the pen of the man in line behind me
who’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt
and sit in one of the 18 metal folding chairs
while the clock ticks toward six.
The board, three women and two men,
(one with white hair under his Air Force baseball cap)
approves the last meeting minutes, discusses bills to be paid, and then
opens the floor for public comment
on the mine corporation’s proposal
to trade grant writing services
for an irrevocable promise
never to oppose the mine,
a gaping hole waiting for cyanide and sulfide
to distill particles of gold, silver, zinc
100 feet from the river.
One by one, they speak:
The grandmother who speaks of her grandchildren,
the volunteer fire fighter,
the Menominee sisters who speak of breastfeeding from the earth,
the man from Flint who speaks of broken promises and bottled water.
I speak too, not just of lost beauty but what I hope is
tourism dollars, lost property taxes, lost opportunity.
I don’t live in Mellen township, but my heart is here on the river, I say, finally.
I hear the end of my sentence turn up at the end,
Sandy, Fran, Bonnie, Holly, Tom sit stone faced, listening.
And then when we are all finally done, they say:
We live here, too. We represent you. We don’t want this mine. We have grandchildren.
We told the mine “no.”
And we all applaud.
Giddy from relief, we all stay for the rest of the meeting:
The fire department reports two water rescues on the river, accidents on Highway 41,
EMS services at the fair.
The Park is up next:
The Special Olympics is using the bocce court for practice.
Someone dumped recliners but after Tom posted a $100 reward for violators (out of his own pocket) in the paper, they were taken away.
The park needs more mulch – the kind that’s finely ground. There’s a low spot in the yard. Terry has a Bobcat, he can fill it in this fall and spread some grass seed.
The push lawnmower died and they bought a new one at Paidl’s Hardware.
It’s 6:55. They call it.
We walk into the parking lot in the golden evening,
thinly spread across the fields and wilds behind the fire department,
the Wallace Pub where Judy cracks another Bush light for Rick,
the ruins of the church on the corner,
Gary’s grocery store.
There are men in DC who see only things you can buy or sell,
who would treat with contempt this gathering.
But this night I saw in this world
that is slowly ripping apart at the seams
people who are holding carefully
some borrowed needle and thread,
stitching together what they can,
and that was enough.
over the glassy
of the river;
a narrow pocket
drowses in the lake of the summer sky –
dreaming of wings
That afternoon at the cabin
we sat by the river
after I had cut up those small trees
that you dropped at my feet with the tractor –
(an offering, a challenge,
one that I tore through haphazardly with the new chainsaw,
black and yellow like a drunken, terrible bumblebee).
It was quiet after all that noise,
the dog (our fourth) now gone, our offspring absent-
(one washing other people’s dishes in dirty water for $7.75 an hour,
one in the throes of new love, thrashing in the shallows, and then
one that has swum out to her own sea)
so we sat without them
on cheap and dirty plastic chairs
that had sat outside all winter
and swatted at mosquitoes,
talking a little but mostly just
watching the male bass
swim back and forth around its nest,
guarding the 20,000 –
give or take a few hundred –
eggs ditched by the female – leaving him
to patrol the nest alone, watching for
panfish looking to gorge on eggs coming in from the left
while he is preoccupied with crayfish coming in from the right –
there are always more predators.
(Five bass fry will live long enough to grow ten inches long;
it’s better that the father not consider these odds,
yet, how can he not?)
A muskrat broke the perimeter –
rat-tail moving side to side like a pink snake, but
the bass didn’t break patrol.
A father knows, or thinks he knows, what is a threat.
Really, I had almost certainly just waded right through the nest
through the muck and rocks and branches
(a sweaty, mosquito-repellent covered Godzilla
sending translucent globes helplessly into the current).
But we kept watching the bass,
circling his trampled nest while the sun
slowly arced to the west, and north,
the surface of the river sparkling like
glass from a broken mirror.
Behind us, up the hill,
no one tended the fire;
and though it was light, still, for so long,
in that week leading up to the solstice,
it was too late for us
to go home.
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
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 –
bald eagles, herons,
sturgeons lazily nosing their way along the shore, unafraid;
painted turtles, otters, kingfishers,
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,
sunscreen, beer, soda, mosquito spray, Doritos, magazines, chairs, part of a dock –
he’s borne it all,
washed all of it away;
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
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
Driving toward the river in the new autumn dark,
(carload of cheese and bread and plans, clean towels and swimsuits
that won’t be used, a guitar, a bike, assumptions and wine)
Winking lights ahead cast a curious spell on my watchful eyes,
Blinking from what I daylight know to be the country cemetery;
Solar lights, from dozens if not hundreds of graves,
Shine like Christmas and aim at the stars,
Guiding the way for a midnight picnic for the dead:
They spread tattered blankets in the grass,
Crossing bony femurs like unlit cigarettes and regrets,
They, the dead, hold chipped china cups of nothing, or less,
In the indifferent moonlight,
Remembering the ordinary;
Driving to work, singing along to the Beatles,
setting the table with turkey, potatoes, things unsaid,
feeling the wafer stick to the roofs of their mouths like doubt,
being tangled in sheets in love, in childbirth, in old age,
feeling their children’s heads rest against their shoulders (warm, alive)
while the fireworks burst above;
They watch the cars come over the hill,
Headlights casting arrogant, sure light on the cracked road,
Taillights fading to black;
While the deer stand in the ditches outside the oval of light,
While unseen cells stretch and bully, monopolize conversations and multiply,
While keys drop to the sticky floor and church bells chime;
And so they, the picnicking dead ,shove over, sighing, and leaving room,
While the great round earth pulls its black cape around to the other side.