On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Monday, January 30, 2012

Glimpses of American Life in Prose Poems

An American Story          
Berta was her name, a girl with woman’s eyes              
Slanted into the high bones of her cheeks.
The skin a soft tan, all suggesting a bygone
Melding with a native race in upper Norway.
She wasn’t pretty but playful and daring
Loving the merry parties her parents
And the neighbors gave for the many
Festive occasions that brought out the wine
And dancing to spirited fiddle playing.

Then came the Western Awakening,
With all the fervor of re-found faith.
It swept across Northern Europe
Led by a body of converted priests
Who declared the parties frivolous
If not evil with their drink and dance,
Keeping the faithful from sober thoughts.

The fiddles were banished to dark attics,
Their sound too seductive and plaintive.
But it was decreed that on certain
Occasions where music was allowed
Accordions were less sinful as a kind
Of small, secular organ that reminded folks
About the need for decorum and piety.

Berta silently railed against the changes,
Feeling stifled, and with her restless
Spirit she sought out the nearby harbor
To sink herself into the motion of the sea,
To watch the ships and men who glanced
At the womanly girl with slanted eyes.
A bold sailor in port for a week
Got her talking and then meeting
Where they came to know each other
Not wisely and too well.

Berta’s mother told her father about
The baby, so he cast around to find
Some likely lad that would take the girl
And the shame away from their proud name.
He paid a young man called Reinert
Fifty kroner if he would marry Berta
And leave for far flung parts

With an eye for the main chance and
Aware of vast lands in the New World,
Reinert agreed, and they sailed off
On their long journey, a sick-making
Affair for Berta, who before it was over
Lost the baby but not Reinert who stuck
By his bargain and made the best of it.

They settled in the great Midwest where
They raised crops along with two daughters
And four sons who made them proud,
The beginning of an American dynasty
Of farmers, housewives, teachers, lawyers.
After some years of rich harvests
Berta and Reinert welcomed her parents
To make their own fortune in this favored land.

Fear and Favor    
In the summer of ‘49 the polio epidemic hit the Midwest.
No more swimming at the pool with my friends
Or staying up to watch our new TV until ten.
“Bedtime,” my mother would say with a little frown
To remind me that times were dangerous
And disease on the rampage.

We traveled to my aunt’s wedding in Minneapolis
Where children were dropping like flies.
I remember covering my mouth and nose
With my dad’s hankie as we drove through the streets.
Back safely home, I now and then
Dipped my head to my chest as a test to see
If paralysis was creeping up on me unbeknownst.

But all seemed well for me and my friends
Until one August evening, when my mother,
After a hushed conversation on the phone,
Sat me down in the kitchen and told me
That my friend Marilyn had been taken by ambulance
To the hospital, with polio, the bad kind, too--
Bulbar, which sometimes killed.

She went into an iron lung, a horrifying machine
That would save her life, I understood.
We later heard a strange thing;
Her sister had kissed her goodbye on the lips,
And hadn’t gotten sick, so we wondered
About the curious nature of this disease.
I was too young to visit her until she came home
Months later, from a place in Oklahoma
Where great strides had been made to keep limbs
From twisting and shrinking beyond use.

Marilyn did recover with only a slight limp that
Got better until it was unnoticed by most folks.
Yet she went to a school for the handicapped
Because she hadn’t the stamina for regular school.
I haven’t seen her for fifty years but I knew
She’d married and had a family of her own.
I now have heard the symptoms may return
Years later when victims thought themselves cured.
Again, fear must be stalking Marilyn
And I remember the summer of ‘49.

Big Wheels                              

It was while driving along
Through Arkansas that we felt
Oppressed, as if we didn’t belong,
Sandwiched between two semis,
With trucks rolling by on both sides.
Not just the big rigs that roam
Interstates and roads,
but bullying pickups and dualies.
We were outclassed, outsmarted,
In a word, small.

We drove farther south and west,
Trucks keeping up their threats,
Riding our bumper, honking, passing.
We stayed away from gas stations
With blaring signs of, “Truckers Welcome!”
We shopped a long while for a motel
Where the hulking beasts weren’t parked
And set off next morning at the crack of dawn
Hoping to steal a march on them.
But wise to the trick, they soon came along.

If Arkansas is a terminal for trucks,
Texas has to be a truck haven.
They live here, maybe breed here.
And worst of all, they seem fighting mad.
The other day while waiting at a stop light
We were rear-ended by a small truck.
At a local eatery we watched in horror
As a truck backed into our car like it wasn’t there
Often they pass me with no room to spare
Then forced by a red light to stop, pant, and paw.

We haven’t relented yet,
Refusing to give in to the mania.
Or maybe the truck that suits us
Hasn’t yet been made.
But I must admit I’ve been eyeing
Certain big wheels that take over the road
And I’ve wondered, really wondered
What it would be like to get behind the wheel
Of a gravel truck so I could yell,
“Just eat my dust, you all!”

And from the sky . . .

Far down our canal we spied a black cloud,
Startling, ominous.
It grew nearer and shattered
Into hundreds of cormorants
Who skimmed along the calm surface
And settled in to take a look around
Before they ducked and dived
To make their catch, tasty and alive.

Then we saw pelicans in their wake,
Ponderous, huge amidst the churning water,
Snatching fish too large for smaller gullets.
Soon egrets came in dazzling white array,
Posing with regal grace on piers.
Choosy, we thought, until we saw one
Die before our eyes with neck distended
From the greedy burden of its prey.

The great blue herons cruised in last
On the path of their heralds,
Sank down on grassy banks
To wait with the dignity of rank
For their meals to be brought on a tray.
Above the fray, the seagulls screamed and laughed
Assured they’d soon have the scraps.

Three mornings this spectacle occurred,
Then stopped, never that season to return.

Those in the know said these forays
Stripped the waters of breeding fish
Retreating from the chilling bay.
Guided by their instinctive need
They met their doom
On the quiet canal
While the birds shall live another day.                  

                                            Jeanne Irelan
                                            January 2012

1 comment:

  1. Jeanne, I enjoyed these. Was Berta based on a real person? And regarding the last one, I wonder if the EPA knows about these terrible birds who are destroying the ecosystem and killing off whole species? :-)