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.

Like a Tree

Heavy Work Maureen Barlin via Compfight

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.

Bait Shop (Minnesota, 1970)

penguins_2013-IICreative Commons License andronicusmax via Compfight

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.

— Steve Peterson

Drawing the Circle

singing-frog-in-watercolor-by-frits-ahlefeldt Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig via Compfight

Summer is winding down. I can see it in the trees’ leaves, the way they turn ever so slightly towards yellow, as if they are tired from the effort of their summer’s work. But everywhere, too, compulsion and desire.

Drawing the Circle

They came
like a division of tanks
shiny and clattering
these dragonflies
clearing swaths
through the insects
that left the safety
of the prairie grass,
propelled toward the light
a cotillion of swallows dance
through the dragonflies
and higher yet,
on the far side of the valley,
tired from the long summer days
shadows lean heavily
on the east side of trees
faded toward yellow,
spent from their obligation
to make something
from next to
now stands in the way
of the growing darkness,
the trill of the
toads’ desire
to draw the circle

–Steve Peterson

Storm Lessons

shades-of-grey Jeremy Hiebert via Compfight

Here is a poem I wrote earlier this summer after watching a storm come across the lake at the family cabin. Thunder echoes off the trees that surround the lake.

Storm Lessons

What can I learn
from a summer squall
that rushes across the lake,
whipping up whitecaps
and turning the soft, blue water
a sullen, spattered gray?
That darkness
arrives quickly sometimes?
That both calm and tumult
can occupy
the same surface?
That what moves in
also moves on? These are
important things to consider
on a late afternoon
while the dragonflies
wait out the rain
under the eaves.

– Steve Peterson