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.
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’?
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
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
no, this life
can’t be endured
without the pills
in the lunchbox
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
cleared clipped grass
from the chipped concrete,
his fingers wrapped tightly
around the handle. A man
dead on a balcony in Memphis.
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
of a new year, the dog’s nose
tilted to sniff the air and
she paused to stare
with blind eyes
into the darkness.
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?
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
beneath the snow
a vole scurrying.
He buries his nose
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.
A dog collar
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…?
deep in clay,
tied by thick
when I glance up
from my own
down the road,
past me –
This prose poem is one I wrote several months ago based on an event I witnessed as a young man. I revised it recently and wanted to collect it on this site. I still like it.
Like a Tree
Once upon a time I was young and on the lookout for metaphors. They’d appear like boxelder bugs; I found them everywhere. About that same time, I hiked up the Rose Lake Cliff that overlooks Canada. On top, 400 feet above almost everything, the wind blew hard and fast all the way from Lake Winnipeg. It pummeled an old spruce tree that grew like Yoda from the rocks, battering it this way, yanking it that way. I imagined how many winters this tree had endured, exposed to the icy blast of Arctic snow, how it tapped a meager living from the cleaved rock. Its will to live was great. Its fortitude vast. It personified sisu, a Finnish word my aunt Nedra said means perseverance beyond reason. While I observed and pondered, the tree uprooted in the gale, and disappeared over the edge of the cliff. Several years later, I scrubbed greasy fry pans deep beneath a Minneapolis restaurant. Turns out, one of the guys I worked with was just like that tree. I think I understood him better having met him earlier as a metaphor.
Been thinking about those things that separate us, one from the other, and the imaginative leaps that connect us. And fish.
Bait Shop (Minnesota, 1970)
a whole mess of them in a tight bundle
unravel and flutter, searching
for a meal under the cold water
that fills a handmade concrete basin.
In a wooden box,
worms lie in rich darkness
under mouldering newspaper,
beneath a fluorescent light
that hangs from a chain.
Even at 10, I had begun to see that
while I lived most of my life
on the familiar side, in the sun and the wind,
there was much that lived
in the unseen and barely imagined;
that even a small garage
along a dirt road in northern Minnesota
hid secret knowledge
of what happens beneath;
that like the old fisherman who shuffled
from his house to the shop
when I opened the door,
a guy could spend a lifetime
learning to see
beneath the surface.