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Category: poems of protest and commentary

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
meekly
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.

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

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