In 2012, the Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, WI, sponsored a writing competition which focused on the healing power of the natural world and God's presence in all creation. Ascension was the Grand Prize winner.
My talented friend Eileen Daily painted the Orca.
In the evening’s cool blue calm
a force erupts from the deep –
blunt black nose, white chin,
one eye looking my way.
An Orca, striving for heaven
with water sheeting from her sides.
Ten thousand pounds of blubber and faith
rise like a promise, or prayer –
gleaming back, long dorsal fin
curved like the faint sickle moon.
The Orca climbs from the sea and hangs
suspended against the sapphire sky.
As time disappears the behemoth rolls
on a breeze, as if she is weightless –
droplets, like crystal prayer beads,
scatter in every direction.
The Orca then slowly begins her descent
and slides back into the deep.
Scientists say that they don’t really know
why thirty-foot mammoths exult from the sea –
of course it is this: they breach for the glory
of life pulsing through their saltwater veins.
When next I sink in my own cold sea
I’ll think on Orca, rising up
in a twilight halo of hope.
Since so many 19th-century women left no written records behind, I’ve long been fascinated by the remnants of their lives that do remain. After writing this poem I chose to create a video version; it can be viewed by clicking on the image to the right.
Scraps of tatting, yellowed with age.
She found time a burden, I think,
the woman who wound thread tight
around her slender fingers;
that childless housewife cradling her shuttle,
silver and small, in her other hand.
As lonely hours knotted, day after day,
she twisted her dreams into neat loops of lace.
Hand-knit mittens, Norwegian styling.
She was homesick, I think,
the woman who knit these intricate patterns,
one on the back of hand, one on the palm;
that immigrant clicking her double-point needles,
minding the thumb gusset, minding the fit.
As she hid from the babble of English words
she summoned her own home with memories and wool.
Baby blanket, sewn from a flour sack.
She was worried, I think,
the pioneer woman who picked up her needle
with roughened fingers, and leaned toward the fire;
that gaunt young mother, threading her needle,
straining to see with smoke-squint eyes.
As the white wolves of winter loped toward her soddy
she stitched her fear into faded cloth.
Tatted and knitted, quilted and sewn.
It was handwork, I think, that kept them going
over vast ocean, prairie, and plain –
basting together scraps of their dreams,
knitting new lives, knotting new hopes.
Women unknowingly seamed together,
finding comfort in cadence and color,
finding solace, each on her own.
I was honored to have this poem chosen for the MARK MY WORDS exhibition at the Pump House Regional Arts Center in La Crosse, WI. Artist Monica Jagel responded by creating a gorgeous piece of art that continues the story told in my poem.
In the old world, Emil muttered prayers over trenchers
of lutefisk, peered at the sky and sniffed the air to decide
when to plant potatoes, counted coins before Rilla shopped.
She tended her hearth as she’d been raised to do, an endless
chain of chores, and raw-fingered women doing them.
In the old world, when the hungry time came,
rye crop blackened with rust, children whimpering,
empty bellies and purses, Emil said We will go.
Rilla wept to leave her mother and sisters, lefse and cod,
smoke-stained village, mossy gravestones, all she knew.
In the new world, walking west, Rilla bore weight:
an unborn child in front, the toddler on her hip, worry.
When the oxen foundered she knotted her mother’s
kale seeds and candlesticks into the shawl
tied over one shoulder; and hefted the rifle too.
But in the new world Rilla walked with a step lighter
than heels rubbed raw, feet on fire, muscles’ ache,
sunburned skin. She walked toward the prairie,
the unexpected promise of possibility, new grace
in her heart, a life not defined before her wedding day,
while Emil trudged behind, dragging an anvil
of gnawing doubt and fear, missing his father,
looking over his shoulder; but looking forward, too,
toward the woman he once knew, wondering
what he’d lost, and how she’d come to find it.
This poem was inspired by a visit to Cumberland Gap National Park in Kentucky. It was originally published in the Fall 2006 issue of Appalachian Heritage.
He never said he loved her,
but he dug a ‘tater hole by the hearth
so she wouldn’t have to go outside.
He split extra rails, and stuffed hay in the deep fence angles
to catch snow before it drifted across her path
when she fetched eggs in bitter dawns.
He ordered a cookstove at the valley store
and groaned it up the mountain
with a stout sled and team of oxen,
and he built a fire at four each morning
so the kitchen was warm when she started breakfast.
She rarely met his gaze,
but she made twelve-layer apple stack cakes
because his eyes crinkled at the corners when he ate them.
She scrubbed sand into the wide popple boards
with a break-back broom so the floor
stretched smooth white beneath his boots.
She chopped her own kindling so he’d have time
to play his fiddle on summer evenings.
She saved flour sacks’ shiny blue liners
and papered the wall by his pillow
so the firelight glowed pretty as he drifted to sleep.
They never rose above their raisin’ with fancy talk,
just pondered the night-dazzled skies and knew
she had captured the stars in her apron,
he the moon in his sickle-scarred hands.