My uncle the horse
Without the harness
Straw in his hair
Sleeves rolled up
Propped up in his chair
By hard times
Laughs when he’s not supposed to
Cries only to himself
Prairie dog tracks around his eyes
Snow flakes in his hair
Hayhook brown sepia hands
Shovels food off his plate
Like wheat into the granary
Shirt gnawed thin by hungry winters
Frayed overalls dragging the floor
Tattered sails hiding stick masts
Shoes stained with cow manure
Made for walking behind a plow
Plays pitchfork in place of violin
Reads Sears and Roebuck
Instead of Emerson
Tinkers with the windmill
Source of his life
Veteran of many wars
With wind and dirt
Dreams deferred by drought
Beliefs buried on the south forty
My uncle the horse
Drags his wagon through summers
Praying for rain
And abundant pastures.
"I grew up in Kansas, a land profuse with history. All my relations were farmers or cowboys. My Uncle Kurt, of Scandinavian decent, seemed to typify those men of the soil."
In soil the color of old shoes,
he scratched the dust,
the desert of his soul knowing
the wheat would never let go—
a shallow grave pulling him back.
"Paradise never did come cheap,"
his father said,
having faced starvation
with an empty cup,
blood numbed dull by winter’s clout,
summer days sterile,
in a slow seep of indifference.
He escaped to the city
where glass windows stole his best clothes
and women with painted mouths ate
his pockets clean.
Pretended he was someone else,
his mother’s words trailing behind,
like his dog, like the wheat,
weaving away at the edges of things,
where he sat in the dark
going back over spring.
"Many of the youths that I knew growing up on the farm couldn’t wait to be old enough to leave it all behind—the chores, the cow manure, the sameness of each day, each year, but reached the city only to find that the country had followed them to haunt their nights and the far corners of their lonely minds."
Doors That Open In
The big river bends at medicine Lodge
where sand bars split the water clean
and perch leap like rainbows in pale
morning light gorged with small boys’ dreams.
Too much talk around pot bellied stoves,
blunt beginnings that never worked
from people who would move if they had a chance,
watch Saturday night fights in the parking lot
and reruns at the local bar.
Cheatums and McClures shiver side by side
beneath Little Blue Stem turning tough,
in winters never wanted, but always came to stay.
Trains rattle windows, fresh from the east,
with glass-faced tourists waving goodbye.
Wives look for work after the kids are grown,
widows of the wheat, doomed to wrinkle
beneath an aimless trek of sky.
Daughters go dry-eyed, breeding babies,
other mouths to feed, knowing rivers
never end, the sun will rise tomorrow
staring down the limits of the day.
"My aunt spent her entire life, 85 years, without ever leaving the county. People grow old and die on the same farm of their birth where the change is so subtle it is stifling. Time deceptively pulls the farmers ever back to the earth. With the women, life on the plains was a dismal existence and can still be that way for some."
Painting Winter Dark
The Ninnescah is sheathed in ice.
Over prarie hills and junked cars
the jagged teeth of winter
gnaw on the raw bones
of Jake Tinley’s barn,
skinny as last year’s crop.
His rocket dreams
won’t get off the pad.
December brings more snow,
dusts his feet with powder.
His cows face south
in shaggy coats, stark
as Breughel hunters.
Black on white,
coming home, empty
as the frameless day
where skaters etch
their names in ice
that won’t survive the winter.