Posts Tagged ‘kansas’

Waiting Among the Dead

August 16, 2017

 

Every morning dead crawdads pile up at 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
We watch lines of ants searching the bleached grass
Allen scratches dying skin from his legs
and ants carry it 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
Eat them French

The summer sun shines all day and on into the night
I walk the streets and feel the sweat blossom
like mushrooms above the band of my cap
I haven’t shaved or bathed, and my mouth tastes
like instant coffee
When I piss it is dark yellow and kills the leaves
Where I piss daily earth worms gather
pink and fishy white

I wear no sandals and refuse to wash my feet
As I lie in bed I can feel small insects moving
between my toes
Skunks gather at my door to eat the slugs and crawdads
In the morning they are dead
I shovel their corpses into bags for Allen’s alley

Allen dies eating crawdads in his garden
His wife returns my bags of corpses
They are overflowing my alley
All day I watch for rain
My nose cracks and bleeds
and my tongue is cloth

On Sunday I follow a crow to the graveyard
It calls to me from Allen’s stone
The grass around his grave is rich with green
At dusk a crawdad peeks out of his hole
Allen’s eyes shine up at me like rubies

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

An earlier version of this poem was first published in Tellus.

 

Discussion

This is an August poem from the decade I spent living with and without air conditioning in Kansas. It commemorates the dog days of summer and of my life. If you have never felt this way yourself, I salute you.

I think of it as the feeling Jimi Hendrix must have had when he wrote “I Don’t Live Today.” But with way too much sun instead of no sun coming in through the window.

“Oh, no. Oh, there ain’t no life nowhere.”

 

Detail from "Moon Night" - acrylic painting on wood by Mike Smetzer

Detail from “Moon Night” – acrylic painting on wood by Mike Smetzer

A Kansas Anthem

August 6, 2017

 

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 with 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.

 

Discussion

I wrote this poem after a small dust storm blew through Lawrence, Kansas. In eastern Kansas it was a rare event and also a wonderful reminder of the nature of the land where we lived.

After centuries of use, the ballad stanza remains a wonderful asset for the poet, especially when the poem has an element of humor. Meter and rhyme are natural choices for those who want to dance with language and life. They contain a magic formula for joy more powerful than any happy pill.

While meter and rhyme work less well in serious poetry today, poetic rhythms (as opposed to meter) and subtle rhymes can create beauty and enhance significance, even for readers accustomed to prose.

But as they sing in the theater, “Tragedy tomorrow, Comedy tonight!”

 

Bernie Smetzer and the chickens

Dad with his Chickens

 

Bernie Smetzer and the chickens 2

Dad and the chickens

Bernie Smetzer reins in the chicken

Dad reins in the chicken

Report to the Air

July 21, 2017

for Thea

 

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.

 

Sky above Land's End, Maine - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Prairie Summer

July 16, 2017

 

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

 

Discussion

I lived for over a decade in Kansas, leaving and coming back twice. It is as much home to me as the Valparaiso Moraine in Indiana, where I grew up. The steadiness and simplicity resonate in me. Human culture and opportunity are weak on the plains, but the land is strong. Old hills make reassuring neighbors. The Rocky Mountains are much more exciting, but they can be entirely too adolescent and rowdy.

 

"Sunset" squared - Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

“Sunset” – Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Bill Acres Explains His Life

July 14, 2017

 

It’s better to be drunk and happy.
When I’m down I miss those early summer leaves.
I don’t feel that off-white warmth of concrete
in the sun.

I don’t see nothing sober.
I just smell my own dirty toes.
I don’t see that rich Kansas soil.
I don’t see those concrete slabs lined out
     fallen dominoes
          all the way to the park.

Hey!  Those black and white bird droppings are
a clue to life.
They say, “Bill,  look up!  You’ll see what’s
coming down.”
But it can’t kill me.
I wipe it off and laugh.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer
An earlier version of this poem was first published in Cottonwood (formerly Cottonwood Review ).

 

Discussion

Most of us know mean drunks, sad drunks, and happy drunks. Moralists tell us getting drunk at all is bad. We should face our life soberly and responsibly no matter how it makes us feel.

I don’t advocate getting drunk. But the man I’m calling Bill was not strong enough to face his memories and feelings sober. Drinking gave him some time to be happy. Buddhists believe it can take many lives for a soul to reach enlightenment. Few of us are going to make it this time around.

 

Detail from "Sunset" - Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Detail from “Sunset” – Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

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