Posts Tagged ‘kansas’

Rattlesnakes Are Scary but Fair

June 8, 2017


A soft-spoken older guy stopped me in the store and I thought asked me if we had potty. I figured he had been watching his grandkids a lot lately. So I pointed him toward the restrooms in the front corner of the store. “No,” he says, “P-a-t-e.” Oh. Pâté. I hadn’t thought about pâté in years.

When I was a kid in Indiana, my family liked to eat at a place called Strongbow Turkey Inn. No question about freshness. They had the turkeys wandering around in a fenced yard right behind the restaurant. It was a great place for a full turkey dinner. One of the things they served with that dinner was a pâté made from turkey liver. I liked it.

Years later when I was living in Kansas, I worked with a woman I’ll call Betsy Parker. Betsy had moved up to Kansas from Arkansas. She was a settled, inconspicuous woman. Our co-workers hardly noticed her. Her one claim to fame was that she was a third cousin to Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde. She said the older members of her family still talked about meeting Bonnie and Clyde. Said they were a pair of hissing rattlers you knew you had to walk around. Nothing like quiet Betsy.

Betsy had a girlfriend from Boston that liked to make fun of Betsy and her family for eating squirrels. Wow, I can still remember the aroma of my mama’s browned and baked squirrels. Good eating. Well, Betsy invited her friend’s family over one time for a beef pot roast dinner. And for an appetizer she served them pâté. She said they thought it was great. It wasn’t until later she told them she made the pâté out of squirrel brains.

Worth remembering. Copperheads don’t rattle before they strike.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

You want a garden here? - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

You want a Garden here? – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Spiritual Signs

May 28, 2017


Have you ever asked for a sign?

When I lived out in Kansas, a Chicago-raised friend reported seeing a red-tailed hawk while driving from Lawrence to Eldorado. She interpreted the sighting as a sign that a major positive development was about to happen in her life. She turned around mid trip and went back to her apartment to wait. Nothing happened. Native Kansans laughed about this, since on the plains you can hardly look out a car window without seeing a hawk.

Hawks in Kansas are nothing remarkable. But this person driving to Eldorado was focused on her inner struggles, on her unforgiving past, on her unreachable dreams. The existence of hawks outside her car was nothing special, but for her to look out and actually see a redtail was indeed magical. It was a legitimate sign for her on her journey, although for native Kansans it was just another hawk on a post.

Now my friend received many signs in her life. She followed her signs into one disaster after another. Signs are magical but they are seen with human eyes, the eyes you bring to the seeing. You cannot trust the signs you see unless you can trust yourself. My friend was not spiritually grounded or emotionally balanced. She was confused and desperate.

During the Peloponnesian War the ancient Athenians sent a massive expedition to Sicily. Things went badly. Confused, divided and disheartened, they prepared to return home. That was when they saw their sign: a lunar eclipse. Not auspicious in the ancient world. The priests understood this to mean that they should not travel at that time but stay another 27 days, until the start of the next lunar cycle. A carefully reasoned conclusion but wrong.

True, it seemed very reasonable to people who did not want to return home as failures, to people who still longed for heroic victory. The result of this delay was a disaster in which the entire force was destroyed, eventually contributing to Athen’s defeat in the war. If the blotting out of the moon foretells imminent disaster and your city state is at war, wouldn’t a wise person hightail it for home? Since when is it a good plan to dawdle in the face of danger? Off balance and emotionally stressed, the Athenian priests must have experienced spiritual confusion. Or perhaps their approach to signs was simply too rule bound.

A sign is not like a prescription we can take to any pharmacy and have filled. A sign is like a mirror. It shows us something in ourselves we would not otherwise see. To apply the sign we need wisdom. Without wisdom, we are misled by what we see.

Miracles are different. Miracles may come to anyone regardless of preparation or merit.  Consider the unclean man whose demons Jesus cast into swine. He was stripped of all merit and hopelessly unprepared. But he was miraculously restored to humanity by God’s grace.  Understanding and wisdom followed.

Signs require a fertile and wholesome ground before they can bear fruit. In chapter 5 of Daniel, King Belshazzar and his advisors were befuddled by the writing on the wall, but Daniel had the spiritual preparation to understand the sign. He not only saw the writing on the wall, he knew it in the unity of his heart and mind. This sign wasn’t really for the debased King Belshazzar. It was too late for him anyway. The sign was for Daniel. A sign opens itself for the person who has clarity of vision. Its meaning comes freely, without struggle or effort. For those who are prepared, signs are transparent; for those who are not, they are opaque.

Most signs are also personal. I can’t know for certain what my friend’s redtail hawk meant. The sign was for her. I do know that when I last saw her, some years later, she was still not at peace with herself. I wonder if she ever found out what her hawk meant.  Did she see her hawk again? Did she go back and finish her trip to Eldorado?


This post is a revision of a personal essay first published in 2010 on Brother Michael This Morning.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer


Swimmers, painting by Mike Smetzer

Hungry Love: 6 Poems

May 23, 2010

These revised poems Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer

Bill Acres Explains His Life
You have to be drunk or happy.
If you‘re not you don’t see those early summer leaves.
You don’t feel that off-white warmth of concrete in the sun.
You don’t see nothing when you’re down.
You just see your own dirty toes.
You don’t see that loose Kansas dirt.
You don’t see those concrete slabs lined out like
          fallen dominoes
all the way to the park.
Hey!  Those black and white bird droppings are
          a clue to life.
They say you look up you’ll see what’s coming down.
But it won’t kill you.
You got to wipe it off and laugh.

(first published in Cottonwood Review

Tequila / Pulque
Agave worm in the bottle,
you’re crema de la worm.
Ebony knob on a divinity stick.
Who could swallow a prettier fellow?
But what have you to do with Tequila?
With wormy agave drained to death
by sweaty men in a desert?
With its juice brewed for pulque,
distilled for bandits to heat themselves
before stopping the bus from the border?
Hey, perfect worm, you look
gringo clean tonight!
Give me a glass of pulque,
where a real worm might be,
mottled and smashed, cut to bits –
a worm of the people.
Pass him round in a bottle
born of broken bottles.
¡Salud! to the approaching lights –
el autobús de las turistas.

(first published in Cottonwood)

Hungry Love
I see you
twice cooked
Your fingers
its skin.
the thin,
to the pile
on the tray,
to kiss
the juices,
its gentle,
My hungry love.

(first published in George & Mertie’s Place)

The Wait
Days draw out like hot glass
without end.
Time waits action
and night birds cry no peace.
I trickle around buildings
wincing before the light,
or, shadow in the night,
I haunt dark streets
beneath the moon-clock sky.
Organic time salamanders
over the earth in me,
while eyes flick out
against dead buildings
and all about
stupid traffic lights blink

(first published in Cottonwood Review)

Animals Hunting
In the supermarket animals are hunting
        for eggs.
They are digging out potatoes
and fondling ripe melons.
Young pairs graze together down aisles.
An old female is poking the buns
while young hunters bring in peaches
and pile them in bins.
Animals carry food to the counter.
After sniffing and other rituals, they pass
and hurry to dens with broccoli
        and beef hearts.

(first published in Kansas Quarterly

I saw a wasp on the window glass today –
a cold, wet, uncomfortable day.
The wasp hung unmoving in the cold,
waiting for the sun to heat its blood.
Snappy yellow legs, its body striped with black,
glass-drawn and fresh but silent as an empty circus.
It did at times begin to clean itself,
look active, come to life.
Yet it did not fly.
Again it spread its legs upon the glass.

(first published in Cottonwood Review)

Waiting Among the Dead

May 19, 2010

This revised poem Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer


Every morning dead crawdads are piled by my door,
like nestlings dropped from a tree.
I shovel them into bags and carry them out back.
For every day a new bag lining my alley.
They stink through the fly-covered plastic.
My neighbor Allen says eat them fresh.
He comes and sits on my steps.
Lines of ants search the bleached grass.
Allen scratches dead skin off his legs,
and we watch ants carry this away.
All day the sun on cracked clay and hot steps.
A dripping hose has drawn four-inch slugs.
They lie around in the morning like dead moths.
Allen says they are shell-less snails.  Serve them French.
The summer sun shines all day and on into the night.
I walk the streets and feel the sweat blossom
into mushrooms above the band of my cap.
I don’t shave or bathe, and whatever I drink
tastes of instant coffee.
When I piss it is dark yellow and stains the leaves.
Where I piss daily earth worms gather –
pink and fishy white.
I wear no sandals and won’t wash my feet.
As I lie in bed I can feel small insects moving
between my toes.
Skunks gather at my door to eat crawdads.
In the morning the skunks are dead.
I shovel their corpses into bags.
Allen will not accept my bags.
They are overflowing my alley.
All day I do nothing but wait for rain.
My nose bleeds and my tongue is cloth.
I follow a crow to the graveyard where he calls
from Allen’s stone.
The grass around his grave is rich with green.
At night a crawdad peeks out of his hole,
Allen’s eyes shine like rubies.

(first published in Tellus)

Smetzer Graves Near Clinton, Kansas

May 13, 2010


This revised poem Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer


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
who traveled west to Kansas
and disappeared.
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 darkness 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)

Before Completion: 5 Poems

May 7, 2010


These revised poems Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer

Before Completion
The vibrations of trains come up the old wood frame
from the tracks a block north.
Trains whistle through the window cracks.
Lying under an old blanket
in the unheated upstairs.
The dampness rising from the Kansas River.
In the garret strangeness of someone else’s house.
How did I arrive among these old flood-washed timbers?

(first published in Tellus)

After You Left
Two days of freezing rain.
The car glazed fast to the clay.
The snow hardened, gray as the sky.
But today a fat cabbie
flies a kite in the park.
It dips in the Kansas wind
like his chins.

(first published in Wind)

Go into the snow.
Let the snow drift about your ears
and listen to the stillness at night.
Go when the snow is soft and silent,
and the stars are behind the clouds.
Walk in the silent dark.
Feel the cold,
the vagueness under foot,
the blackness above and beside you.
Know you are alone with my shadow in the dark
as I am alone now
with your shadow
in my heart.

(first published in Kansas Quarterly

At Noon
At noon I venture down to the stream.
I sit on a rock and throw clods
        into the current:
Small twigs and insects, leaves and
swirl down the shallow creek.
The oaks creak slowly above
and sun spots preen the grass.
On the other shore, the eyes of
        small creatures
rise like hope in the shadows.

(first published in Cottonwood Review)

An animal sleeps beside me in the dark.
Its breathing swells the sheets.
It turns and nuzzles the pillow,
then the rhythm resumes.
When I take its paw the fingers close.
We breathe into the night.

(first published in Cottonwood Review)


Report to the Air: Four Dark Poems

May 5, 2010

 These revised poems Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer



Report to the Air
There was your yard and your old house
and your two dogs.
And I was sitting on the rusty tub
we moved in from the farm.
There was your father with no fingers,
your mother opening beer.
And we all sat outside in Kansas
without you.
Today a neighbor brought a pie.
Someone you knew came to adopt your cat.

(first published in Hanging Loose)

Apple Trees
Suicide is private.
Your students and teachers
        are not invited.
You are alone in an old truck
        with the light on
and the needle touching your vein,
and you don’t want to die,
and the needle depresses your skin.
You think of someone you loved
as the ripple runs up your arm,
and you want to cry.
You want your friends to bleed.
In the turning of the world,
you smell gasoline, and dust,
and somewhere, apple trees.

(first published in Kansas Quarterly)

A Long Street
When I am walking at night and my shadow stops,
it is too late to turn back.
I scuff my shoes on the concrete.
Around the water tower nighthawks are dipping for moths.
I gaze at the lights,
and there is nowhere to go.
I sit on the curb and stare down the street.
It is a long street of houses and yards and parked cars.
There is nowhere it will take me.
My shadow lies on the concrete like paint.
It has stuck to my shoes,
and I can’t kick free.
Across the street a dog barks through a fence.
No one comes to the door.
He sniffs and wags his tail.
In my pockets, I have four dimes and a set of keys,
but there is nothing to buy
and no door my keys will open.

(first published in Cottonwood Review)

Leaving Town
I want the route that opens in winter.
So I will need gloves
and if it is very cold, mittens over gloves.
I will wear a hat with furry flaps
and as many socks
as will fit in my boots.
At dusk I will walk north
to Carter’s produce stand
and cross the highway to a small wood.
This is the place.
By day the whole wood is seen from the road,
but at night the lights will not find me.
I will take off my coat and sit down.
The gloves and the hat stay on.
I won’t be brought back
without fingers and ears.
Besides, the beauty is to leave all at once,
not from the extremities in.
You might leave on a starry night,
imagine your rise into space.
But I fear what’s open,
and why be afraid?
I’ll leave in the snow,
under the branches of trees.
What they find the next morning
will be frozen and neat.
Why spoil someone’s day?
They can thaw it out when they’re ready;
it won’t stink.
Quiet and dark, my route out of town.

(first published in Cincinnati Poetry Review)


I’m Not Sleeping in the Snow: 7 Midwest Poems

May 1, 2010

These revised poems Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer

I’m Not Sleeping in the Snow
It’s time to blow out the nose
and breathe about the yard.
It’s October and the air draws in cold.
My fingers untangle my hair.
Two hairy arms roll sleep from my eyes.
It’s time to rise up from the weeds.
Squirrels have poked walnuts up my ass.
Wasps crawled under me for the winter.
Sow bugs are settled in my ears.
It is time for a cold bath.
My beard is as ragged as the trees.
(first published in Cottonwood Review)
Late-Night Café in Missouri
It’s 9 p.m. and they’re
        out of mashed potatoes,
        out of corn,
        almost out of beef.
        (Mine’s the last order.)
In the john the air dryer’s
out of air.
Behind the cashier they are
out of Brach’s candies
in the Candyland display!
The tossed salad is out of
everything but lettuce.
The waitress is out of pep
so the cook refills my coffee.
Got any apple pie tonight?
Sorry, he says, you’re
        out of luck.
(first published in Poetry Now)
He Ain’t Barking at the Clouds
Squirrel’s not happy.  He’s
flipping his tail
up and down.  He wants to
punch someone out.
Look out!  Squirrel’s gone
squirrelly.  He’s mad I
tell you.  Stay clear!
Keep out of squirrel’s
mulberry tree.  Keep away
from his lady.  Shit!
This ain’t no time to
go out on a limb.
(first published in Graduate Newspaper, Univ. of Kansas)
Among the Not Included
(for anyone who has published an anthology)
Among the not included
is an angry poet from Somewhere, Kansas.
He is stomping on the fields
and yelling in the clouds.
The crackling volts from his eyes
have filled the sky with imminent lightning.
Eternal darkness is his shadow
and H-bombs explode in his swinging fists.
Sound the alarm from the silos of Kansas.
He is striding out over the hills.
It is time publishers and editors left town,
for printers to close up their shops
and go to lettering tombstones.
The very Thunderhead Poet of the Prairie
is moving in from the west.
Editorial advisors had best not be found.
(first published in Graduate Newspaper, Univ. of Kansas)
I Dream My Mother Enrolls in Freshman Lit.
“Why,” I ask, “did Cather superimpose
a plow on the face of the sun?”
But the sullen guy I call on won’t talk,
and you, Mother, you sit next to him
in the front row,
“No doubt she had her reasons,” you reply.
“Could the plow symbolize
the domestication of the prairie?
Could the sun represent life?”
“Oh, I doubt that, Dear.
Now take your words outside.”
(first published in Taurus)
After Failing at Sex I Dream
of Garage Doors Opening
Returning apologetic with tacos,
I get out of my car and pause outside
our garage door in the night.
The touch of my finger opens the door.
The touch of my finger closes the door
and opens it again.
I am opening and closing our garage door!
Spotlights whip across the sky.
Orion dances.
And all the garage doors in our town
are opening and closing together.
(first published in Platte Valley Review)
Going Flat in Bowling Green, Ohio
Flatness has a leveling effect, I said.
This horizon thins you.
No mountains lift your eyes.
No valleys drop the ground from under you.
Summer melts you over like a candle in the sun.
Then winter freezes you flat with level snow.
Or flatness attracts flatness, Ann said.
Eagles nest in mountains.
Whales sound the ocean deep.
But the buzzards flock to Hinckley,
and potato cakes come here.
Dan came back from Toledo.
If it weren’t for friction, he said,
you could slap a puck from here to Lake Erie
without finding a hill to stop it
or a natural dip it could fall in.
(first published in Red Rock)

My Clay: 7 Poems of Indiana and Kansas

April 27, 2010
These revised poems Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer
Ghost Man of the Road
At dusk, the old man walks by these country houses.
Sometimes, as children lie in bed, they hear
the distant crunch of his feet in gravel.  Over
and over, but muffled, of course, out on the road.
Impossible to hear except on a warm spring night
when the house is quiet and the windows open
and the summer insects are yet to sing.
Then sometimes again in Indian summer.
I used to hear his steps on our road.
Ghost man of evening.  Old man of ragged clothing.
I visioned him walking into the dark, never stopping,
but glancing sometimes at my window, wondering
what small child lived there.
(first published in Kansas Quarterly)
End of Winter
Sloshing through marsh at the end
        of winter
in hip boots
with snow still stuck to the willows.
Sky above is featureless gray
and oak-covered hills are
        black-gray lines
with brown tatters.
To the south an angry farmer calls
        his son.
To the north water trickles through
dead grass.
Legs and face are numb and still.
Only the heart is whispering
(first published in Cottonwood Review)
The Old Farmer
He was lying like a twig in the hay,
the old farmer.
Dad and I raised him, each on a side,
and carried him to his kitchen door.
There, at the top of the steps, we danced
trying to enter the narrow passage.
His legs going separate ways
waved apart before us.
The speechless anger in his eyes
was all that age had left
of the dignity of living on his land.
(first published in Cottonwood)
When I arrive is always years from now,
at the edge of my father’s marsh,
and the hole is half filled with water
and choked with grass
where at five
I watched him dig lilies for our yard.
I step barefoot into fetid water,
worm the ooze around my feet,
scoop black decay with my toes,
working through sediment
to yellow clay.
Returning night and night,
kneading my feet in that clay.
(first published in Tellus)
The Milk House
The stones are crawling from their mortar
to settle like old farmers in the clay.
Their fields have sprouted puffball houses;
red flags ripen in the orchard.
(first published in Tellus)
Prairie Summer
Always, under the heavy sun, there is time.
You look around, and nothing has changed;
the hills are more steady than the heart.
Clouds move for days across the sky,
like strangers down the highway
looking for some other place.
(first published in Little Balkans Review)
That’s All There Is
A row of fence posts
down the road.
You don’t see the man
who dug the holes
and planted the posts
and stretched the wire.
You don’t see him.
You just see posts going by
and the wire
and off in the distance
the sky.
(first published in West Branch)

Hey Hum Hey: 4 Vagrant Verses for a Kansas Day

April 20, 2010


These revised poems Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer


A Kansas Anthem

The wind and dust blew up the hill,
the dust from the wind fell down.
And I awoke on the windless side
all clothed in a fine dust gown.

“Oh see,” said I to a passerby,
“my suit of Kansas Gray.
Come feel the loft of the down so soft
our sky has thrown away.”

“I swear,” swore he, “by a cottonwood tree
run through by a fencing foil,
your Kansas dust smells sharp as rust
and feels like tractor oil.

“I’ve been to Maine and I’ve been to Spain
and filled my sight with riches,
but my eyes are filled in Kansas land
by dirt blown out of ditches.”

Oh hey hum hey for a Kansas day
when the sky is gray and swirly.
Oh naw de naw for the gritty jaw
that turns bright strangers surly.

(First published in Midwest Quarterly.)


Blonde with Fingers

In the rain a passing car and in the car
one blonde head and a white hand waving. Who? I wonder.
Who is waving?
A red car, maroon red. One blonde, smiling head.
A waving hand, fingers spread. Slishing north.
Who’s the girl with that blonde head?

The rain that ripples down the street
at the corners ripples feet.
The drops that dripple from my ears
trickle down my underwear.
My heart is damp and soaked with care,
but my mind can only stare
After that girl with that blonde hair
waving those fingers in the air.

(First published in Mostly Maine.)


The Letter

By a hydrant where a postman
Dropped a letter on the ground,
Sat a vagrant being vagrant
When the letter fluttered down.

On the battered, buttered vagrant
Dropped the letter falling down,
But the vagrant only muttered
And the postman kept his round.

Now a vagrant and a letter
Are both vagrant on the ground
By a noble fire hydrant
That the postman steps around,

And the vagrant often mutters
Of such matters that astound,
But the letter knowing better
Only flutters up and down.

(First published in Mostly Maine.)


Sailboats in Winter

(Clinton Lake, Kansas)

Sailboats in dry dock are chorus bells
on a windy hill.

Through two winter miles of osage woods,
branched low and sheltering,
A hiker comes stumbling down crumbling
limestone hills, wandering
in and out, skirting lake-flooded creeks,
boldly sauntering

across boat ramps and silent roads,
side-stepping hillside seeps,
leaping on fallen oaks, and laughing
At the deadfall’s creak.

Then wind in rigging, and through the trees
the sight of mast-bells fills the sky,

tinkling tinkling

like nothing else on a Kansas hill.

(First published in Mostly Maine.)