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

Bait Shop (Minnesota, 1970)

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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)

Leeches
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

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

A Photo of My Mother from Years Ago

Recently, I spent some time at the family log cabin in northern Minnesota. The cabin is filled with lots of memories; my folks bought the place the year I was born (1960) and it is the only place on Earth that I return to every year of my life. The trees I planted when I was in grade school are tall and wide now. The rock walls my father built are covered with moss and lichens.

In an old photo album, I found a photo of my mother from a trip there that she and Dad had taken years ago while she was still teaching. I vaguely remember the trip except for a feeling that they were heading north at an odd time of the year. I was busy with my own life, I guess, so it didn’t register. In the album I found a delightful photo of my mother from that trip, her eyes so sparkly and open, her hair covered with snowflakes. I realized that I had never seen this expression on my mother’s face before. Photos are interesting that way. Sometimes they crack open the door to rooms that others rarely see. Those glimpses make us more complex, they make us more human.

LightCreative Commons License Alexandra E Rust via Compfight

A Photo of My Mother from Years Ago

In a musty album
tucked in a cabinet
in the back room of the cabin,
there is a photo of my mother
taken years ago during a trip north.
That she had stolen
a few days from teaching kids
to head to the summer cabin in November
was surprisingly irresponsible. Yet
after that first set of illnesses –
I understand now –
spending time together
became more important. So,
as the shutter snapped,
there she was — delighted
by the early snow that met her,
surprised by its arrival to a place
she knew best
in the warmth of summer.
Her smile was warm and open.
For a moment, she didn’t feel
the wet snow on her hair,
or notice the gray sky
that loomed behind.
Enough
that she had pried open a crack
big enough to squeeze
from a bushel of work
a few drops of
sweet connection.

– Steve Peterson

Between the Water and the Air

Dragonflies are hatching. Skimmers and darners are darting, catching mosquitoes, midges, and whatever else they can find. This poem is about that, but also about the moments that make life rich, and how easy it is to miss them. Gratitude.

Ringed Boghaunter (Williamsonia lintneri) Dragonfly - Male David Marvin via Compfight

Between the Water and the Air

Maybe a different day
would have passed unnoticed
like the rabbit, hunched and silent,
who watches you make your way
through the pasture grass.
Especially under a leaden sky
that promises all day rain,
it is easy enough to miss
the significance of things.

But there, at your foot,
pausing for a moment
between the water and the air,
a dragonfly’s transparent wings
glint wet and new;
and within them the whole
threatening sky, the leaning
grass, the dying elms that rim
the field, your peering eye,
this entire large world
are caught
in a web of veins.

– Steve Peterson

Below the Surface

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Here is a poem from my writing notebook that I’ve been playing around with. Last night was so beautiful. I stayed outside long after the fire in the fire pit had died down and the stars had come out.

Below the Surface

Blue whales are large,
but not the largest of living things,
though ask anyone and that’s the
first opinion offered; unless

they mention the giant sequoia – if we
make it past our blindness of plants.
But even that behemoth,
towering 350 feet in the air and wide enough
to drive a car through, is dwarfed by

the mass of a simple fungus*
in Oregon, nearly two and a half
miles across and almost entirely
underground, except for the
mushrooms that carpet the ground
when conditions are right.

Who has not wondered, on a warm spring
night while looking at the stars,
whether things are more connected
than they appear, whether what we see is
not what we get, but something

much larger, much grander
than we can imagine?

* Here’s a story about that fungus, if you are interested.

Performance Art

Here’s a small poem that came from another Ben Shahn photo, which was left over from an attempt at a poem every-other-day during April. (Click here for more on my fascination with Ben Shahn.)

From the New York Public Library
From the New York Public Library

Performance Art

We write our lives
in the small things we do:
bare feet on the cold floor,
the bed made, sheet and quilt
pulled up just so;
hands dipped into a basin,
the still-damp towel
hung to dry. Your smile
warms me when I enter the kitchen
after the cold night.
We write our lives
in the things we do.
Our penmanship grows
better with practice.

– Steve Peterson

Ukulele Life

in architecture, people are always movingCreative Commons License craig Cloutier via Compfight

 

Ukulele Life

Her practiced bow
placed on the string
sings clear and bright.
Yet, you? No long-song
rings into the night.

In your ukulele life,
each plucked note
hovers thin and short.
Your music endures
in the blur of a hand.

– Steve Peterson


I wrote this poem in the comments section over at Mary Lee Hahn’s Poetrepository. I got to thinking about how some lives sing like violins and some plunk like a ukulele; both have their beauty, yet each requires such different technique.

Considering Anna Atkins and the Brown Algae of Britain

This post is a response to an April Poetry Month challenge issued by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog, Poetrepository. She found some family photos this summer at her home place and thought it would be fun to write poems about them this month. Carol Wilcox (Carol’s Corner) and Kevin Hodgson, (Kevin’s Meandering Mind) are writing some awesome poetry this month (as always) along with Mary Lee.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-4b47-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.v (1)
Public Domain via the New York Public Library

 

Considering Anna Atkins and the Brown Algae of Britain

Who will remember all of
the small things, the odd little things?
I imagine you crawling
over a slippery beach at low tide
collecting your specimens,
ripping dripping samples of seaweed –
the brown algae of Great Britain –
from the rocks. Even before Darwin,
you were a searcher,
one who saw pattern
in a world of difference,
change hidden beneath
the relentless waves.

No one walks through
mud anymore. None
collect things – the variety
of the finches’ beaks; the sex life
of barnacles – these
are beneath our notice. Worms.
Who slogs through the fecund swamps
of the Malay Archipelago
to bring home beetles? Who
climbs the Andes,
or scuffs among the tundra plants,
swatting at mosquitoes? Or listens
for the seabirds lost
to the fog of the Pribilof Islands?

When did this change? Was
it gradual, this forgetting how to see,
did we lose it slowly
like the light leaves
the sky at the end
of the day, when suddenly,
we look up from our work
and notice the darkness
surrounds us.

– Steve Peterson

167.tif
Public Domain via the New York Public Library

 


I’m using images from the New York Public Library’s digital collection, in this case, a set of photos from the digital collection of Anna Atkins’ book, Photographs of British Algae. You can read more about her here. I was intrigued that she was an early believer in evolution, albeit of the Lamarckian kind.

I write this on Earth Day, a day I usually do not celebrate since, as my partner says, “everyday needs to be Earth Day.” This poem is probably more harsh than I really believe, although, these days, it is easy for a person to despair. Recently, I read about how some are thinking that this newest “epoch” should be called the “Anthropocene“, since we humans have made quite a mess of things.

Glimpse

This post is a response to an April Poetry Month challenge issued by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog, Poetrepository. She found some family photos this summer at her home place and thought it would be fun to write poems about them this month. Carol Wilcox (Carol’s Corner) and Kevin Hodgson, (Kevin’s Meandering Mind) are writing some awesome poetry this month (as always) along with Mary Lee.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.0e42ce50-00af-0133-b934-58d385a7bbd0.001.v

 

Glimpse

Do you ever
catch sight of yourself
in a photo, say, one
from long ago
that you never could have
been in? You get a glimpse
of a life you never
got to live. So it was
you were flipping through some photos and,
like when the hall mirror
captures your image momentarily,
there you are. You’re not
the one in the background
jumping up to be noticed,
or the one striding
to meet the camera,
broad, confident smile on his face.

No, you’re the one standing,
head slightly tilted, curious,
apart from the others,
on the edge of the gathering noise.
You’re the absent one,
fondling a stone,
the one you picked up
alongside the road because
the sun lit up its mossy green streaks
and the black was deep
and mysterious.
You delight
in the smooth, cool
weight in your hand.

– Steve Peterson

 

Notes


I’m using images from the New York Public Library’s digital collection, in this case, another photo taken by Ben Shahn.1 Click on the image and you can learn more about where and when it was taken.

It has been fun to look through these old photos. When I came across this photo of kids loading onto the school bus in a small town in West Virginia in 1935, I did a double take. The expression on the face of the boy in the foreground is like so many on my face in photos from my past. I began to imagine a connection across the years.

  1. I talked more about his work in the an earlier post.