Squally Weather, Georgian Bay
–F.H. Varley, 1920
They call me the unlucky tree,
say I poison soil, make women barren,
sicken grazing cattle. Those are lies.
I’m a twisted, stocky runt,
but good in hard going.
This is my kind of weather,
north wind pushing whitecaps
under a choppy, bruised-ochre sky.
Feet fixed in the Canadian Shield,
I dance waving my arms.
I hang on to my tight cones,
wait for wildfire to free the seeds.
They find burnt ground, acid bog,
thin soil in granite hollows.
I dig in. I make it work.
It’s years since I’ve been back to this eroded tableland,
wooded peaks at the same elevation,
long climbs to the crests,
long descents to rivers that recite history,
Niangua, Big Piney, Gasconade.
Off the I-44, little towns like Buckhorn, Sleeper,
then farther into the hills, sporadic clusters
of two or three houses along winding roads,
unnamed places, not on a map.
I see a familiar house,
then remember Albert, whose port wine stain
covered half his face, whose peonies,
petunias, sweet alyssum, begonias
were the neighbors’ envy.
One night young men in a car plowed them up,
scattered dirty leaves and flowers in the yard,
the spinning tires such a small hatred
in such a small place.
Cutting Button Blanks on the Illinois River
It was long hours in riverside sheds,
the lineshaft’s rumble and snap,
the drill bit’s whine,
the wet clatter of shell in waste piles
like ice falling from a roof.
It was bread and coffee
until he learned the craft
and stopped getting docked;
then it was salt pork and beans.
It was drinking pain away
Saturday nights in Peoria.
There was art to it,
Elktoe mussels took the drill
a certain way, Wartybacks another.
He sensed his way into the work
with fingers raw from wet sand
and rough hard surfaces,
like the ruined fingers
of Chinese jade carvers
toiling at bench and wheel.
When zippers and plastic came in,
the river harvesters sold off
their crowfoot hooks for scrap.
No one knows anymore
how to drill button blanks
or shape and polish them.
Old, depleted as the mussel beds,
he keeps mother-of-pearl
buttons in a box,
takes them out sometimes
to hold luster in his hand.
Red House and Elevated Train
–Francis Chapin, early 1930s
It’s primeval, starts in the polar vortex,
nothing in its way until it reaches you
walking home through North Town
from the Sedgewick station in a cheap coat,
a damp, stiff wind at your hunched back.
You never knew cold until salty slush
wicked to your feet through leaky shoes
and thin socks. Never knew cold
until a gust straight out of South Dakota
buffeted the L, swerved and came for you
and your porkpie hat. Never knew how cold
until you came to this red brick four-flat
with a jet of snow streaming off the cornice
and you still a long block from home.
The Ridge at Meadowbrook
Long before this was a city park curbed by busy streets,
playground and parking lot at one end,
herb garden and interpretive center at the other;
and before it was cropped land,
with a farmhouse, windmill, barn and corn crib;
even before nomadic Kickapoo, those prodigious walkers,
ranged across it between Ontario and Mexico;
before all of that, it was a windy glaciated ridge,
just beginning to birth wild prairie.
Even now, in winter, you can cross the ridge top
on a paved path through prairie restoration
and feel that same wind, steady and cold,
that made the dry grasses bow to the ground
and rasp and moan to no one’s hearing.
It blows right through you, that wind,
strips your thoughts and scatters them
as if you’d never been.
John Palen is the author of three full-length poetry collections and four chapbooks. His most recent chapbook is Drizzle and Plum Blossoms, a collection of four Song Dynasty poets co-translated with Li C. Tien and published by March Street Press. His latest full-length collection, Distant Music, came out from Mayapple Press in 2017. Palen won the Passages North Poetry Competition in 1989 and was a finalist in the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Competition in 1995. He is a three-time Pushcart nominee.
Palen was an English major at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied poetry with Donald Finkel. Other mentors have included Judith Kerman, his editor at Mayapple Press, the late Conrad Hilberry, and John Donne’s ghost.
A Missouri native, he has lived all his life in the Midwest. Fifty years of earning his living in journalism made him an outward-facing poet, with strong interests in the natural world, the gifts and restraints of life in small towns, and the history of European colonization of the Plains. Currently he lives in retirement on the Illinois Grand Prairie. He blogs at https://johnpalenspoetryblog.wordpress.com.