I walk, nineteen, car broken down
on my first trip after moving to Nebraska,
leaf cut from limb on the dry bank of the Platte River
walking over ancestral history.
At sunset, western Nebraska sits as plain as most people
perceive the once vast prairie grassland.
The river trickles, dust
a thick red cloud gone angry above Colorado,
nearby twin channels of Conestoga wheel fossils
widened by a century of wind, rain, and withering droughts.
Brigham Young brought his brood through these plains,
seeing nothing here that permitted a promised land,
and chose the salt fields of Utah for a home.
Nebraska is the land of my grandfather’s father.
Waiting for a cool radiator sitting on the porch
of Ralph Spann’s three-room paint-poor house,
near Kimball, I am told repeatedly how nothing
will ever grow naturally here except what’s fit
for crows and snakes and grazing herds.
Ralph tells a story of a lilac his father planted,
the bush dormant for three years,
so his father re-planted the lilac
over a hole of an old outhouse.
“Be damned if you don’t bloom now.”
Ralph tugs at my sleeve, takes me out back.
I pick a purple sprig.
not a ten acres-and-mule pioneer,
but a stonemason from Bristol, England,
who moved to upstate New York near Bath
and worked with tackle, pulley and slag again.
of chisel, pike and trowel,
lush lakes, roiling Mohawk River,
drawn by a yawning prairie devoid
of Pawnee and Sioux,
the pride of owning a plot of land larger, for once,
than the space occupied by the grave,
which had been all that England offered,
no longer prying, shaping, and scribing for someone else,
he planned, hewed, and set for himself.
He was involved in the shape
or form in every church and city building
and major structure needing rock or brick.
While his name is not attached by brass
or bronze plate to the buildings,
his blood and fingerprints remain.
Philip Henry, his son, traveled by train to sell
tubas, trumpets, and fiddles,
the music man of the 76 trombones
in the big parade. He knew an embouchure
when he saw it on the face of a child,
whether the smile could truly pucker
and push the cheeks into a forceful blow,
lips puffed, the jaw agape
ready to receive the purse of the rim.
Marriage grim, he traipsed two states
to escape the knowledge of his wife’s affair.
Compulsive, he’d use the sound of the train
on the tracks, the swaying of the car,
to think about each student, their fingertips
pressing the valves, thin fingers, fat fingers,
how the boys and girls with no plush
to their upper lips would ache, their teeth
would yield and split as well as the upper lip
to the pressure of the horn.
He imagined who would clean the spit,
who would shine the brass, who would take it to bed.
But there was no music in the fields,
no lilt, no lark ascending on the prairie.
When he died, his wife retreated to Iowa.
My grandfather went to college, then to war.
He forgave his parents the sobriety of Nebraska
by heading east to Wisconsin laughter
and worshiping in well-shaped words,
became a printer, an editor,
had the spare riverbed of his youth
replaced by a full Wisconsin river,
the Flambeau, river of flame.
He became a conservationist, a walking
repentance for the extinction of species.
I stand by the thinning Platte.
Swallows cull the river, veer, vanish.
I bed down near the barn where the wind whistles
through the brush. Stars burn.
I rise with the moon and walk in the light.
I stop at the axis of the great migrations,
the east-west passage of pioneers crossed
by the millennial path of the Sandhill crane
that sojourns on the Platte, the axle-gauge
of the gadabouts intersected
by the perennial fidelity of wings.
When I reach down and touch the soil
of my ancestors, I touch wagon wheel and wing bone,
and they whir ear to ear.
I round the river bend and perceive
from ancestor to descendant.
I am troubled, pleased, ready to leave.
Before dawn, I wake.
I turn to the cranes scissoring the purple sky
and I remember the lilac, and here,
three years, will I stay, waiting to bloom.
Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California, with his wife. He works in mental health. He grew up in Wisconsin, was tempered by Texas and Nebraska, and found a home in California, though landscapes of the Midwest still populate his writing. He has work in Rabid Oak, The Nervous Breakdown, Spry, Mojave Heart Review, and The Monarch Review. He was the featured 2015 summer issue poet of Clerestory, and won the 2017 Cold Mountain Review narrative poetry prize and the 2016 Consequence Magazine fiction prize.