Family Graves near Clinton, Kansas

by

 

To have lived a decade here
before I found these names:

        Edith Smetzer
        Daugh. of D. & E. Smetzer
        Died 1886
        Aged 14 days

Her infant bones the earliest in the churchyard.

        John Smetzer
        Died June 18, 1892
        Aged 74 years, 5 months, 15 days

At 61 he had been the oldest of the Ohio Smetzers
to travel west to Kansas
and disappear.

These things I have heard of my great great uncle:

        that he was illiterate,
        that he never married,
        that he was a hired man,
        that he was the only man of his family
                never to own land.

And I understood that he moved westward
        across the land
like a lateral root
hardly disturbing the leaves.

So here you ended, old uncle,
your plot open to the sky,
buried more deeply in your faint depression
        of earth
than ever you plowed.

It is evening.
Light blue still marks the western edge,
but the sky above is growing higher, thinning,
falling back through darker blues
to the blackness behind the stars.

And you, uncle, are still thinning
        in your darkness,
still dissolving into this place I’ve come to.
The twilight dissolves my family name
and leaves me open to a field of stones.

Years from now, my great nephew’s children
        may hear of me:

        that I never married
        that I worked for wages,
        that I never owned land.

And I would like them to understand
that I was an illiterate of the earth,
as transient in my time as John in his,

as transient really as Edith there,
who never knew the soil
before it closed her in.

 

First published in Kansas Quarterly.

 

Discussion

This poem was first published when I was 39 and an aging bachelor. Much has changed since, including my knowledge of John’s life. “Smetzer Graves” would make poor genealogy today. Fortunately it is not a genealogy or a biography, but a poem.

Poets and fiction writers often start out writing about themselves, people close to them, and their feelings. But no matter what grammatical person a poem or story uses, in the end it turns out to be about a much larger “us.”

 

My great grandfather Michael Smetzer and an unindentified man.

My great grandfather Michael Smetzer and an unindentified man.

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