CurlyCreative Commons License Kate Russell via Compfight

I wrote a poem to help feel the loss of my friend’s mother, a friend of mine, too.


That afternoon he paused
to lean over his chainsaw and
refill it with gas, oil;
he sharpened,
then tightened the chain;
brushed the dust
from the air filter;
cleared the spark plug.

In the sudden silence,
crickets whispered
from the shade
of the thick grass.
Golden light. A
kingbird paused
on the branch
of a dead elm.

That evening, a mother
would die,
while morphine dulled
the pain in her body.
Her eyes closed
to this loved world,
beyond repair.

Surface Tension

Water Striders j_arlecchino via Compfight

Surface Tension

None better, this golden day
on the bank of Canoe Creek.

Late afternoon slides
into long-shadowed dusk.

A mayfly, as we do,
swoops too close

to the surface, then squirms
to free itself.

And now I see

the water is carpeted in insects,
some wriggling, some not.

One of many, now
they float downstream.

– Steve Peterson

Paper Flowers

Here’s one of my poems that I posted earlier on a long-ago site, inside the dog... You can read more about that trip to Chile here.

A few years ago I found myself in a small cemetery outside the tiny town of Caspana in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile visiting the grave of the mother of someone I had recently met.

Under a bright blue winter sky we told stories, burned some coca leaf, and poured wine into the parched desert soil. As it soaked in, I thought of all of those named and unnamed whose time had come and gone, and whose souls were now scattered across the years.

After watching some of these Poems in Motion, I’ve been playing around with animating poems. Here’s yet another attempt, this time using that poem of my experience in a graveyard outside Caspana.


What I’m Sayin’

The Coffin Works - 11 the justified sinner via Compfight

I’m on a poetic exploration of the Beatitudes (and my own history) for National Poetry Month. You can read more about the project and watch a powerful speech by Rev. Barber, who lays out a compelling moral vision that seems steeped in the Beatitudes.

In the last day or two I’ve been looking into the original Greek for “meek” from the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I’m not at all pleased with the connotations of the English word, meek, although there is a power in humility. As it turns out, some have translated the original Greek word, πραεῖς (praus) as a gentleness that comes from humility, or strength that is under control, or a calm and quiet inner composure.

These twists on the theme of “meek” made me think of a story I heard when I worked on the Rez in northern Wisconsin, and that story made me think of the role humor plays in resistance. Indian humor, is both humble and very, very sharp. Maybe this humble-clear-sightedness is what I can salvage from “meekness?”


What I’m Sayin’

Nearly lost in the dim light
that filtered between the blues
from the speaker over the bar,
the man’s voice lowered to a whisper. You
think that’s a bad job, he murmured —
we’d been talking one of those crazy talks
both funny and sad about the worst jobs
we’d ever had. His eyes crinkled, Out here
on the Rez there aren’t many jobs and
the only ones we get are the ones none
of you white guys’ll take. His words
disappeared into his beer. I swear
this is true. He swallowed.
This guy I know
had the worst job there ever was,
no lie:
You know those crucifixes
they sell in the religion stores? Well,
his job was to nail those little
plastic Jesuses to the cross
as they came down the line. Every day.
Every hour. Every minute. He’d be there
nailing a little-bitty Jesus to the cross.
Day in. Day out.
Try doing that for a while.
See what THAT does to you.
He leaned back to let it sink in,
his arms hung heavy down,
then he leaned forward again.
And you know what’s even
worse, he rasped, that
factory’s closed down now
and the Indians are all gone,
but now there’s some people
working, doing basically
the same kinda thing
‘cept –
they’re doing it in a shirt and a tie,
and they get paid lots
of money to do it,
if you hear
what I’m sayin’?

– Steve Peterson

Inheritance of the Meek

Madrid / Spain: architecture detail wwwuppertal via Compfight

Last week the Iowa legislature answered the prayers of our Governor Branstad when they voted to cut the benefits and eligibility of workers injured on the job. As he signed the bill into law, Gov. Branstad said, “This is a bill I’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

My poem examines the intersection of hard work and the opioid crisis, a health crisis that hits the working poor especially hard. Meatpacking was once a hard, dirty, brutal job where union workers could earn a middle-class wage. Still hard and dirty and brutal, the unions have been busted, the kill and cut lines have speeded up, and the wages have gone down. Repetitive motion injuries are common and, as the book Methland points out, workers sometimes medicate to survive the work.

My first poem in this series on the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount explores my ambivalence toward the beautiful words of Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Inheritance of the Meek

Shove lift              shove slash
send the still gushing
carcass                  head
down on the        hanging
hook to bleed out
in the gutter
in the cold
then again            each day
brings a                 tear
another rip to     shoulder
a cross too heavy
to bear
no, this                life
can’t be endured
for long
without resentment
with patience
without the pills
in the lunchbox
that numb
those                    tears.

– Steve Peterson


My Poetry Month project will explore the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I grew up a preacher’s kid in rural Illinois. While I’ve since drifted from the church, the stories of the Bible are deep in my memory. Even the way I talk and write (I’ve come to see) are connected to biblical language and cadence.

In this project, I will explore some of the stories that inform my past and play around with them to see where they bring me.

Poetry Month Project 2017

Each year poet-teacher-friend Mary Lee Hahn asks folks to write with her during National Poetry Month. Each year she has a different focus. You can read about her project here. Definitely check her website to see her develop her ideas about the art and life of Malvina Reynolds.

I’ll participate again this year as much as I am able. I can’t really write a poem a day, but I’d like to try to write once every 2-3 days. Words appear slowly these days.

My project will explore the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I grew up a preacher’s kid in rural Illinois. While I’ve since drifted from the church, the stories of the Bible are deep in my memory. Even the way I talk and write (I’ve come to see) are connected to biblical language and cadence.

After listening to Rev. Barber talk about the moral purpose of his politics, I began to think again about some of the central values I hold, values that put me at odds with some religious people. Yet, as I listen to Rev. Barber speak I heard a language that I could understand and with a passion I could feel. While I’m not likely to go back to the church I am impressed with the man.

At the very least, I’d like to explore some of the stories that inform my own past, especially during these times when a vision of connection and common good is so important to find.

Some Memories Trace an Oval

Been thinking about my own anger and outrage at the current political situation and, also, seeing more clearly how outrage and anger are situational, that my sense of prior peace was, in many ways, bought at the price of ignorance, or, better yet — ignore-ance.

via Unsplash

Some memories trace an oval

Some memories trace an oval,
a parabola that returns
to where it started –
like that exercise in geometry class
where you slice a cone
with one mighty whack then
trace its edge with your pencil
until your arrival
at the end of the line finds you
at the beginning again.

Back in ‘68, on the sidewalk next door,
old man Korter clutched his broom,
swept his walk in the summer dusk.

Cicadas sang from the treetops.
Through my bedroom window,
I listened to the summer settle in.

Murders, then riots.
I did not know
the desperation of those years.

Each stroke
cleared clipped grass
from the chipped concrete,

his fingers wrapped tightly
around the handle. A man
dead on a balcony in Memphis.

Sixty-miles to the east,
Chicago burned.

The walkway clean. A
screen door slapped shut.

– Steve Peterson

Some 1AM thoughts under a winter sky

I woke up the other morning to this headline in the New York Times.

Iowa doesn’t make the Times very often, mostly only on election years, so we get pretty excited when others take notice.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of press that’s good. And it’s a reminder of just how much easier it is to destroy than to build.

So, here’s a poem. From a teacher.

Some 1AM thoughts under a winter sky

After her urgent appeal
at the bedroom door,
the old dog and I dashed
out into the cold night.
Irritation rose behind my eyes;
my bare feet freezing
in barn boots, hastily donned.

I wish I could say
an epiphany waited
under the moonless sky, out there
amongst the rustle
of the dry red oak leaves
that still clung to the trees;
that looking up I saw at once
the heavens and felt
the embrace of the stars,
that I was filled.

Out there, perched on the
early-hour edge
of a new year, the dog’s nose
tilted to sniff the air and
she paused to stare
with blind eyes
into the darkness.

– Steve Peterson

“Small Thing” Poems from School

The dog and his manCreative Commons License Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu via Compfight

We’ve begun to write “small thing” poems in class using Valerie Worth’s poems as mentors.

Thought I’d post some of the ones I wrote as mentors for the kids along with the short free-writes (I call those DISCOVERY WRITING) that I used to generate ideas for them.

Here is a link to the Google Doc that I used to help explore “small thing” poetry.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

DISCOVERY WRITING: blank paper. There is nothing quite like that feeling of a blank piece of paper, or a blank computer screen just before writing. I am scared of that, but, if the paper is like a farm field in the winter, then maybe I can plant something in that “field” when I start “ploughing” away?

blank paper

This piece of blank paper
sits on the table
like a snow covered field
waiting to be planted.

First letters grow into words,
words grow to sentences,
and sentences become stories
that give food for the heart.


*swift, cunning, smart, intent, focussed
DISCOVERY WRITING: Fox…I think of a video that I once saw of a fox hunting.

I want to catch that intensity in the poem. I wonder how I can create this intensity? I read a poem once that used very short sentences to help create a feeling of anticipation. I might try that to help me.


Fox cocks his ears
blinks his eyes
and hears
beneath the snow
a vole scurrying.

Stop. Crouch.
Lean. Leap.
Jump. Thump.

He buries his nose
and snaps.


Dog collar
DISCOVERY WRITING. Dog collar – old and stained, but I remember when I first got it. Now has been on the necks of two different dogs. Was worn by the first one when he died. The second one is very old now and I am thinking of the good times we’ve had together.

dog collar

A dog collar
woven tight,
bright blue
smelling new,

around the
dog’s neck
grows old,
picks up
the stains
of life.


telephone pole
DISCOVERY WRITING. telephone pole. Simile: a telephone pole can look so tied down like a person filled with worries and fear. Sometimes, though, the telephone pole can seem to sprint on by like someone who is on a quest. Maybe I’ll play with that idea of being stuck and then free? Personification might be the way to go…I could have the telephone pole “be” a person who is stuck and then finds freedom…?

telephone pole

you stand,
feet buried
deep in clay,
your arms
tied by thick
heavy wires.

But sometimes,
when I glance up
from my own
down the road,
I see
you sprint
past me –
and free.