Several years ago I published this poem at Eunoia Review. It’s about my maternal grandfather, who died from cancer when I was about 7 or 8 years old. He was raised on a farm in Iowa and came to Illinois, first to Rockford, then to Chicago, after marrying a girl from a neighboring farm. He and my grandmother stayed in the city about three decades before moving back to Iowa.
I thought I’d share it now, at the tail end of November, the month in the Catholic Church when we remember the dead (Granddaddy Collins was a devout Irish Catholic). And I thought I’d share it in memory of all the grandfathers and grandmothers we’ve lost this year due to COVID-19 and our culture’s disgraceful disregard for the elderly and vulnerable.
I’m sorry for anyone who’s lost an elder this year. I live in perpetual worry and fear now about my own mother (87) and father (92). I believe in ancestors more than I believe in anything else. I hope this pandemic is gone soon, and I hope in 2021 all those in our government responsible for letting it rage unchecked throughout the country feel the wrath of the people their negligence took from us. (Both my grandfathers were staunch Democrats too.) I hope our ancestors watch over the rest of us, especially the ones working to rescue the world from this horrible plague and those of us trying so hard to shelter our elders.
Here’s the poem.
Transference (Middle West)
Where I live the corn and the wheat are made of steel.
Their stalks stand a foot for every week my grandfather
the farmer’s son
has been in the grave.
I’d like to lie down at the bottom of the corn in the spaces between the stalks
to get close to grandfather
and watch the stars watching right back at me
but the soil here is too stiff.
It’s unyielding to a body
tamped to death as yesterday’s minutes
gray and comfortless as an ocean without a shore.
Though there is an ocean here
that’s not an ocean
and shores that are comforting shores
and there are burning bushes here and burning trees
that do not burn.
The flames of these wear black masks and cherry robes
and holy names.
They mate and molt and sing a song
like rain bouncing backward off the solid gaps in a liminal wilderness
or between the growing grasses of a vanished prairie.
The air at dusk here fills with lightning
that is not lightning
with delicate and black electric bolts
the size of front teeth.
They glow a green very unlike the green of young corn
and a yellow very unlike the yellow of ripe corn.
My grandfather knew them
He caught them in his farmer’s son’s hands
very alike my city girl’s hands long ago
and last summer.
This was before his eyes caught the lights that crown the steel stalks
and needle the stars
here where I live
before he left Iowa
its true corn
its cut and dried fields and cut and dried past
for this concrete prairie, this thresholder’s town
this farmer’s granddaughter’s birthplace
He handed me down a beginning.
I’ve inherited the transformation.