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

Past Time

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.

Public Domain via the New York Public Library
Public Domain via the New York Public Library

Past Time

After the corn failed
he finally gave up the farm
and moved to town having known
for a while that it was long past time
to go work alongside the others
in the factory that banged out
nails for the coffin maker
on the edge of town.

After the whistle blew,
they’d head for the bar
and remember those hard days,
how after they’d cultivated the field
all day under that hot June sun
they’d still have to milk the cows
by the light of the kerosene lamp.

This bar’s better’n that, they’d say,
and then a silence grew as,
heads turned down, they’d watch
memories float and burst
like foam on the beer in front of them,
knowing that soon it would
be past time for them to leave again.

– 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.

As far as the theme? I think I’m working out some of the ways that the rural landscape has changed, my own particular family’s experience with that, and what all that history means for the people who live here. While my grandfather would only rarely be seen in a bar, I do know from family stories of the hardscrabble life so many farmers faced during the Great Depression and, really, through most of the 20th century. The story of the constraints of that farm life and the factory alternative (when there actually were factories to work at!) are pretty deep in the rural Midwest. I guess I’m trying to work out what this all means given the agrarian mythology that you’ll often hear.

PS. There really was a coffin maker on the edge of a town I lived in at one time in my life. And I once did work in a factory that made nails. I spent lunch talking to the men and women that worked there. In the 1970s when I joined them in the factory, many were from the farm at one time, or had relatives struggling through the ’70s on the farm.

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

When the threshing crew arrived

Public Domain via New York Public Library
Public Domain via New York Public Library

When the threshing crew arrived

she’d add in some leaves,
then cover the table
with a stiff white cloth,
dust off the plated silver
and the serving bowls
which she’d heap full
of mashed potatoes,
boats full of gravy.

They’d spoon sugar
into tiny coffee cups
held by rough hands,
scrubbed red but stained
with grease from tinkering
with the power train belt
that broke in the field.

She cut the cake while
they ate in silence –
this gathering of men
bound by blood and common need
and by the desire for
just one more slice
of that lemon cake before I go,
if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.

– Steve Peterson


Notes

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.

The photo above is one of several I will use from a fantastic collection of historic photos in the New York Public Library digital collections. This is from the Farm Security Administration and was taken by Ben Shahn in 1938 in central Ohio. I discovered a lot of photos taken by Shahn, a favorite artist of mine, in the collection.

This photo struck me because I grew up with many stories about the threshing crew’s visits to my dad’s farm in north central Minnesota during the late ’30 and 40’s. If I remember right, the relatives and neighbors had various pieces of equipment that they would cobble together for the harvest season. Then they’d go around from place to place helping each other “bring in the sheaves.” At dinner time, they’d sit around the table, usually decked out all fancy and filled with food, then eat in silence: men in rough clothes straight from the field, grandmother’s labors greatly appreciated. (She cooked all that stuff in a wood burning oven. No electricity at the home place until the early 1950s!)

One year, my father gave me the dining room table from the home place as a present. It’s a distinctly un-fancy red oak oval pedestal table. There are nicks and scratches on the legs and table top. Some of the leaves are made of poorer quality wood that contains worm holes, for instance, but it extends out very far and holds a lot of history, in a Swedish wabi-sabi sort of way. The table was a wedding present for my grandparents in 1920; it was already used by the time they were given it by some long-forgotten relatives. For a time it disappeared and no one really remembered it until Dad found it languishing in the basement of a relative several years ago. He stripped the ubiquitous green paint off it and repaired and refinished it. When I sit down to eat, I often think of the threshing crew that once gathered around that table.

One Brilliant Day

Via the Vesterheim Museum, Decorah, IA
Via the Vesterheim Museum, Decorah, IA

One Brilliant Day

A stolid Lutheran, in the photo she was
strapped into those boxy black shoes,
practical armor for the day ahead,
and for most of her life, until she began
to see things that others could not,
Anna leaned into her life, every day, as
she leaned into that well pump handle.

There was Anton, shot up as he waded ashore at Tarawa,
the gathering of uniforms, the knock at the door;
and the sale of the horses after the bank foreclosed,
the neighbors gathered in the barnyard, the move to town;
the slow loss of Emil’s mind as his heart gave out.

But now, as the shutter snapped,
on one brilliant day in March,
she was there, once again,
at the well pump. Capable hands
grasped the cool handle as she leaned in
to draw from the depths
her daily ration of the living water.

– Steve Peterson

Notes

This post is a response to a 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 in April.

Since I don’t have a flock of family photos handy right now, I’m using historical photos from various places. I spent the last several weeks exploring and finding a group of photos to think and write about.

The photograph in this post comes from the Vesterheim Museum, our local Norwegian-American museum. At school we’ve worked with them (they are excellent!) on some immigration and history projects. This photo comes from some of that work.

I have no direct connection to the person in this photo, although it could easily have been my grandmother on my father’s side of the family. Through the 1950s she lived on the farmstead, a hardscrabble farm in north central Minnesota. During all the time they lived there, they hand-pumped water from a well, kept animals of many types, raised some row crops as well as oats and hay for the horses. They barely got by. When grandfather died, grandma sold the animals, tools, and machinery and moved from the farm.

The events in the poem are not from my family’s story. As the son of a teacher and a Lutheran preacher in small town Illinois, I spent a lot of time during my youth in church basements talking to people. I got a real appreciation for the lives of those who lived in the rural midwest.