Sacrosanct happenstance…

The highway sped away
behind us in our brown Chevette
as we chased the setting sun
toward the Mississippi; it’s a
race we won and lost so
often we ignored the score.

A thermos of coffee in the
cold, a Coke in the heat wedged
between our feet because
cup holders hadn’t been
invented, but we deserved the
convenience of refreshment.

Everything west was ahead of
us, everything east past; we’d
follow closely those who braved
the limits, wondering at the
listless, lifeless dodderers
with no place to hurry to.

How many little, sleepy towns
did we cruise through along the
life we called our highway as we
talked out our dreams; this
happenstance was sacrosanct,
and it taught me reverence.

A Perfect House this is…

It’s hard to imagine one more perfectly perfect
in every imaginable, house-like way,
neatly groomed all around, trees sufficiently matured
framing the stately gray-tones of paint-swatch variety,
picture-book beauty, garage and fence to match,
patio just visible achieving inviting serenity
where you just know you’d linger meaningfully,
an oasis to rival all pretenders,
this is what realtors call curb-appeal and
you know it when you see it they say,
it all fits, it all is just right outside it seems,
but there’s a drape askew in one window
as if resting unfortunately on the couch back
just enough to introduce disquieting dissonance
hinting at a hurried life inside hiding so much
that all is not as perfectly perfect as imagined
in this house someone must call a home.

Remembering the smell of burning leaves…

We Can’t Burn Leaves Anymore

Just last week the leaves clung
to their boughs
though heavy and sweetening,

glowing in October’s
blinding noonday sun
with its
hint of warmth still;
dancing in the stir of a breeze
still mild begging us to inhale deeply,
soon to be bitter,

a final, seasonal mindfulness
of fleeting comfort;
because November brought a change
of heavy rain
and the verdures no longer clung,
but yielded
and fell underfoot, waterlogged,
soon to rot,

staining the sidewalks if not
raked and swept
to be discarded in bags for burial,

no longer afforded
their final triumph of
autumnal cremation
stinging the eyes of dancing children
as rake-braced adults
gathered round in funereal muse.

When Black Hawk dreams dreams…


Chief Black Hawk – captured, paraded, and depicted wearing a photo of his captor

From my manuscript about real people living in a real place at a real time (that is, a fictional account of the story of Elizabeth, Illinois).

The Black Hawk War wasn’t really much of a war (unless you were in it, I suppose). It lasted from May to August 1832 and started when Chief Black Hawk crossed the Mississippi from Iowa into Illinois.

That’s all it takes to start a war.

Abraham Lincoln was part of the story too, but even that doesn’t amount to much (Lincoln mocked the ‘War’ and said, “I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”)

The death toll includes 77 of the 7,000 of government forces, and 500 of the 600 warriors led by Black Hawk (so that’s not funny).

Chief Black Hawk’s Dreams

Dictated from the tongue of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, known to the white man as Black Hawk, Chief of the Sac, born on island Saukenuk of Rock river in the white man’s year of 1767 in the Thunder Clan, but soon to die. –This written down by Antione LeClair, U.S. Interpreter for the Sacs and Foxes, on the tenth moon, 1838, but never published before.

Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak said:

When I was just a boy and not yet my people’s Chief, the Great Spirit called me to lead my people, as my father had done bravely in more peaceful times. The hatchet was buried, the bow was at rest, corn was planted and taken-in, women had birthed many healthy children, and the land was quiet. The Great Spirit had given my father a dream that he spoke to the men before he departed. See the many blankets and the strong young men? he asked. The Great Spirit has told me, when I was just a boy and not a Chief, that a time of peace is not a time to lose courage, but a preparation for what is to come. The white man will come soon and drive the Thunder Clan from this home, across the river in time of snow. Women and young women will weep and men and young men will become brave warriors, some will take a scalp and dance for the first time. And a child will be called to lead the people. That was the dream my father spoke before closing his eyes to be with his fathers.

On another occasion, Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak said:

The great warrior and leader of our nation was also my father who played with me when I was just a boy and not yet a Chief. He told me of his journey into the forest when a young man, without food or drink or company of his family he sought the Great Spirit who sought him. This is the way of our people. He dreamt of a deer approaching without fear. Their eyes met and it was as they were brothers. The Great Spirit made him ride through the land on the deer and he was shown the river, the forest, the hills, and the fields. He heard the sound of children at play, songs of gratitude, the smell of fires and roasting food but he did not desire the meat. He was told this land was given to the nation for a season of peace for good labor and hunting. But in the next season there would be crying and hunger.

When I was told this dream I asked what would come next, The next season, after rest and after hunger, what did you learn by the Great Spirit? My father said he was not told of this season, but the next leader of our people, a child who now laughs, would be Chief of a crying and hungering people. And the child would be met by the eagle. And like a boy and his father, we resumed our play together.

Seasons passed and we continued to enjoy peace, even while we fought with our ordinary enemies from across the great river, and I enjoyed the first taste of bravery and took my first scalp at fifteen years of age. But I learned the bravery of retreat as well as the bravery of attack, and I practiced the ways of my father who fought when attached, when our hunting grounds were taken, when our food and our home were threatened. We took no joy in this, but enjoyed the success that the Great Spirit gave to us.

But the time of rest seemed to be passed and enemies grew more numerous, and white men with guns who acted not with purpose but often after consuming alcohol threatened us without reason, and my father rested with his fathers and I will join them soon. I blackened my face, did not eat, and asked the Great Spirit about the seasons my father had spoken of; I hunted and fished, but I was not happy. I sought the Great Spirit then by taking no food, drinking no water from the streams nearby and went into the woods. I was looking for the deer that met my father, but I was afraid and the Great Spirit was wiser than a young brave. There was no deer, but I looked up and saw an eagle soaring above me, circling, waiting for me.

With the eagle I flew over the forest, above the trees, and I saw the hills descending into the valley of the great river, and I saw my people, our tents, our women and children but they were not singing or laughing –they were quiet and busy and there was no joy in their labor. In the distance I saw many faces, white faces, angered and cursing

I awoke from my dream and returned to my people to lead them from our home. I became the Chief of women who were crying and men who would be brave but had not taken scalps or tasted blood going against our enemies. But the enemies of my fathers were not to be our only enemies, and the ways of the white men were new to us and hard to understand.

When being transported from Fort Monroe to Iowa, Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak said:

After returning to our home to the east of the great river, we found no peace (this was after being driven from our homes by the white man because of a treaty signed by some of our braves in drunkenness but not agreed upon by me or all the braves as is our custom). And after the invitation to plant corn and make a home once again in the lands of our fathers, I sought the Great Spirit and in my sleep I was met by the eagle again. I saw the grave of my father as we flew toward the sun rising, along the great river. There were white soldiers, riding horses and firing their guns as my people ran, hiding in the woods, children and women hunted by warriors. They were chased as a fish upstream in a river known by trees bearing apple fruits. They hid for one moon in a quiet place and prayed that this might be their home. But the white women and men had made this there home not being content to stay where the Great Spirit had placed them.

I circled with the eagle over the woods, watching over my people, and saw drunken men riding toward their hiding place. When they met there were threats but little bravery, and I was discouraged. The white women and men retreated to hide in a structure that surrounded them for protection while my people had only the trees and hills for their protection. There was no great battle but many noises from the white men, cruses and shouts that sounded much greater than their number. My people moved around the structure and the sounds grew louder, but there was no battle as my people were only looking for a home and passed by this pleasant place.

When I awoke I led my people as I had seen from the eagle, and it happened as I was shown. But I prayed that this place of conflict could be our home and not a place of hiding, but it was not so.

At Des Moines in the land of Iowa, just before his death, Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak said:

This is the last moon I will see, and the Great Spirit made me to see the land that was once the home of my people. I was a brave Chief, but the white man had taken our home. The few women that are alive are crying, and our few children are weak with hunger. Many were killed by the white soldiers or chased into the great river as they escaped. I surrendered not to spare my own life, but to preserve the lives of my people. We were fearful for our weak, and a brave Chief must act not as his pride demands, but in compassion.

I dreamed and the eagle showed me the island of my birth, my father the brave Chief of my people, my mother and her kindness to me. I was shown the land we returned to and hoped to plant corn. I saw the river of apple fruits and good soil and my heart sank as I hoped this would be our home, but we were feared without cause and fled to escape. And when I awoke from my dream I was crying which surprised those with me, and they asked if a great warrior should cry or was my age the reason. I said that I was not crying for myself, but for my people who were driven from our home and starved and the season had become one of tears and bravery. I tried to save my people and the Great Spirit who shows the Chiefs the seasons stopped my plans.

But I did not tell them about the following season, about the season I asked my own father of, the season that eagle would show to the child who would lead my people. And I went to be with my father and my fathers and dreamed a dream with the eagle that did not end.

Elizabeth, Illinois…

elizabeth mapYou may find your place using latitude and longitude, but still feel lost. (Who said that? Me… I just did…)

Here’s another selection from a manuscript in progress. The story is set in Elizabeth, Illinois (obviously), but the rest is made up.

Elizabeth, Illinois –latitude 42.317N, longitude –90.221W, used to be called Apple River, but today Apple River is upstate and a place to live on the Illinois-Wisconsin boundary with a newspaper and industry and better standard of living than here. And it’s not Apple River Canyon or Apple River Canyon State Park with vacation homes and campgrounds and picnic areas where people fish and boat and camp and hike on winding and hilly trails and frolic and relax where others once worked themselves to death mining. That’s all somewhere else from here, connected by some water that doesn’t run through it or much for that matter.

You’ve heard about French explorers in the upper Mississippi Valley in the seventeenth century, and about the mining, but you haven’t heard about a Scotch man named John Law, who was anything but law abiding –he  founded the Company of the West in Paris in 1717 based on a claim that the area held well-developed mines. When the truth reached France that investors had been duped, the fiasco became known as the Mississippi Bubble (something about the over-inflated estimates bursting). Some say John Law never came near the upper Mississippi Valley, that he culled information from explorers that either lied to him or told him the truth and he lied. Either way, his bubble burst.

Soon enough it was obvious that there would be no easy money from the area, but there was lead ore to be mined. That brought hard working immigrants (especially after the settlers had driven-out the Sauk and Fox Indians in the 1830’s), a railroad eventually connected it between Freeport and Galena, but that’s not for a while yet. It was called nothing at first, then Apple River Settlement, then Apple River, at one time it was Lewistown, but then it was Elizabeth and it has been that way ever since. One story says that the area was renamed after Elizabeth Winters, wife of John the farmer who held one of the first land deeds in 1825. While John planted corn, Elizabeth was one of the few women in the area and made it a place to live, eventually opening the first hotel and began development in the community. She was a Lady, as in a respectable woman with expectations and pressures and obligations and she met all of them, and even if she didn’t she was the one who had to pay the price. She worked hard to survive and so some people say Elizabeth is named after her.

Others say it was renamed after Elizabeth Armstrong who famously rallied the flagging spirits of settlers held up in the Apple River Fort during the famous battle of 1832. Either way, Elizabeth was still named after a woman.

And most of the people who live in Elizabeth to this day are women; they outnumber men 55% to 45% in the less than a half square mile that makes up the town. Back in the days of the Settlers it was 95% men and a few women who were all wives at first, then they had babies and some of them were girls. It’s hard to imagine how we get from a couple of male settlers to a community of families, but it might be like how the book of Genesis tells us about Adam and then Eve and then Cain and Abel who have wives and children and everyone winks assuming they married their sisters –six-of-the-one, half-dozen-of-the-other.

Nowadays, of the population fifteen years and older, half the men are married but only a third of the women get married, only a few men are widowers while one quarter of the women are widows (which seems to mean that marriage is killing the men but not the women), and fifteen percent of the men are divorced but just a handful of women are divorced (and everybody knows who they are, their stories, why they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and I told her so, but she wouldn’t listen, and Who did What to Whom). Ironically, churched women get divorced at the same rate as unchurched women, but churched men divorce less frequently than unchurched men (go figure…).And one-in-four of the men never marry so divorce isn’t an issue, and one-in-five of the women never marry, but I bet four-out-of-five of them would give marriage a try if an offer came their way.

When an author is not just an author…

author mta_large1Half (and not the good half) of an author’s life is about what it means to be an author, and the other half is about forgetting that first half.

Concern for a Living
I am a struggling author;
poor, undiscovered, hungry,
delusional, fond of intoxication,
paranoid and jealous of others’
prose and publication,
ignorant of my own surroundings
in a proud detachment
I must have learned as necessary
to the self-imposed sadness
to summon my muse,
my war, my tragedy, my novel
which will save me from myself,
propel me reluctantly to fame,
movie and gaming rights
or allow me to write freely
without concern for a living.

Dear Author
It has taken me all month to finish your novel,
the one about two friends who were once close
but for some unexplained reason are no longer,
living lives vaguely dependent on each other
in some mysterious, invisible cosmic fellowship
which you take six hundred pages to explain,
how once they finished the other’s thoughts,
liked the same ordinary, everyday things
which fill lives without reason or purpose
but define idiosyncrasies like dental records,
they both had a bad experience wisdom teeth,
girlfriends, tomatoes, an inability to finish things
like friendships until they meet again on a train,
airport bound and discover nothing’s changed,
just older and fatter and both flying to Houston
for the same trade show, one selling, one buying,
same hotel, both divorced, kids indifferent
and unimpressed by life, they should grab a bite,
catch-up, where has the time gone, etc.,
but they never see each other it turns out,
and that’s okay – that’s how you end the novel,
and the dust jacket is dotted with quotes
from famous authors, all filled with praise
about how this is the Great American Novel,
because this is America according to everyone.

If I were born in Iowa I should have
become an author,
which is very different from a writer
or even a poet;
for the long winters would force
dark, ever-more
complicated plots descending
down snow banked, gloomy ways
with just flashes of light
passing so quickly they first blind,
then force you to wonder if they
were real at all;
Iowa doesn’t beget writers, for their
ways are hurried,
whiplashed barrages of shallow
persons with ironic twists
turning into ever more ironic
turns in the helter-skelter ways of
cities like Chicago which has more than
its share of such people – writers as well
as such persons too busy
complaining about what is
considered normal in Iowa that
it is become their sport;
now a Minnesota birth would surely
encourage poetry, but usually
the kind that rhymes with
everyday life,
because, let’s face it,
in the confines of cabin those
tight circles of rhymes
come easily as a neighbor
with a hot dish
ringing the door chime, or,
maybe, it would be
birds on fences, cows a-lowing
in a nativity
outside the Twin Cities,
the wisdom of matches
cobbled from life’s woods near
Emo, or how quiet
farmers are the salt of
the earth, no doubt in part due
to the pickled herring;
yes, it’s easy to see what I
would be if born in Iowa, so it’s
too bad I’m from Muncie, Indiana.

Aroused at meridian to a brilliant dismay,
mentation unfettered from eremitic seclusion,
banishing juvenile primum non nocere,
no longer pursuing the illusory conclusion.

Analogies abound in the world of intention,
reference revered in the present symbolic,
authors contest with readers’ intervention,
creating the occasion of receptive frolic.

Burrow wide and well in channel virginal,
render again and anew the company kept,
embrace untried manners regarded novel,
sequestering fantasy and religion except.

Construed for current contentment,
the extant subscriber seeks to narrate
hermetic theft  of meaning’s attendant
tomorrow’s uncertainty day gestate.

Elizabeth, Illinois, and other places I’ve driven through…


My Horse
Somewhere along State Rd. 11
winding through sleepy towns
dotting southern Wisconsin is a
small, faded farm house
pushed up to the two-lane
and animals scattered about
the yard with a hand-painted sign
propped against the once white
fence that read, “My horse is old,
not neglected” and it could easily
read that way for the house, barn,
the tractor or even me, I suppose.

Elizabeth, Illinois
I drove through the rows and rows of
look-alike domiciles, with alternating
sprawling industrial parks and ponds
retaining run-off from acres of blacktopped
lots, ribbon striped but vacant – hopeful
for business; hopeful for money to upgrade
to a bigger, better look-alike because won’t
that make everything right. Through
Rockford and beyond, past Winnebago
where I know people but never stopped
myself; and along the bypass around Freeport
where we used to stop for soft-serve, dipped,
by the roadside but not anymore; that
makes me sad and it closed down like so
many businesses bypassed. The story is that
a woman named Elizabeth was so wealthy and
generous she gave free portage to those
seeking a better life – any life – in the Illinois
gold rush of the nineteen hundreds and the
next town earned her name; there was such
a thing – the Illinois gold rush – that drew
immigrants of all colors and flavors, and some
settled and dug and died and are buried in
Lutheran and Catholic cemeteries (because
consecrated ground matters in death just like
in life) all along the ridge known as Terrapin
toward Galena and they’re still buried there
today. I drove slowly through Woodbine
because it’s a speed trap and more slowly
through Elizabeth – it’s always been only seven
hundred people living there because so many
born and raised there don’t stay there and
that might make some mothers sad but I’m
sure some are happy; a couple pick-ups slow
and turn off into farms with porch lights lit,
with fences needing mending, calves in a nearby
pen and an Oldsmobile on the front lawn with
a ‘For Sale’ sign on the window, and they’re
asking for ‘Best Offer.’ The road slopes and
turns over and around the most variegated
terrain of Illinois; two lanes in the binary
back-and-forth of this driving life where
west is sometimes north or at least northwest
and no compass tells you more than the
highway, passing by the homes of real
people happy and sad at the same time
with two hundred channels of cable of all
the world out there but not here. I drove
this road through the lives of so many who
knew exactly where they were and I knew
nothing more than the wheel in my hand,
the mirrors showing the fast fading of what
I’d passed, and what’s next hidden beyond
the next ridge; and so I drove on, and on…