PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY
They lashed the nine-year-old to the plow.
This is not a metaphor.
His older brothers knotted the reins across his skinny shoulders.
Their horse was dead and the field had to be planted,
and the brothers, though some were six years older,
were lazy. So they made the youngest do it,
only five days after watching his favorite brother
lowered into the small grave: stamp of shovel onto dirt.
No cross, no prayers. Just the corpse
he wasn’t allowed to hug goodbye for fear of typhus.
And he did it, the boy. He plowed,
sucking his own breath in hard hour after hour,
cutting row after row of earth for corn seed,
his knobby legs and narrow shoulders the only weight
dragging the blade through rocky Illinois clay,
until the sun crawled into his stomach
and he collapsed, not even unlashing himself
but taking care to avoid the seed as he threw up
the day’s long work, all the light within him.
He did this all summer and when the harvest came in,
no one said a word of thanks—not his brothers,
not his father too sick to leave bed. But still he plowed
the next summer unasked, and the summer after that,
to save the money for the horse, and though no one
ever once offered a word of praise or even that old standby,
a gruff pat on the head, he never once complained.
If I tell you that boy was my great-grandfather,
can you understand what I learned those candy years
I was a boy—that your face is a mask you never take off,
and only men broken on the earth’s dark axis
let their trials conquer them? No one ever said it,
but I took it in each time I woke at four a.m.
to my father’s boots tramping up and down the driveway
to break the ice with a shovel,
each time my grandfather pulled his own weeds
until he had to slump in the shade and fan his head
with a faded St. Louis ball cap.
A man endures what must be endured, a body’s toil,
the cringing static of the mind, and if he ever feels
he’s falling, that he can’t take another damn step,
well, he sucks in his breath, and endures that too.
—from Rattle #58, Winter 2017
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist
Kirk Schlueter: “For me, poetry is an escape. No matter what the subject matter, I think there’s something inspiring and powerful in how the poet shapes the words and delivers the emotion. I try to always read poems on my lunch break for the small shivers of wonder and beauty they give me in the middle of the day. For me, poetry lives between the hum of ordinary moments, providing a spark that lifts us momentarily to something greater. And the best poems I read, the poems I try and fail over and over again to write, embed that spark so deep it stays with you for hours and days and years afterward (think Charles Wright, think Vievee Francis). Enjoy all these poems as you would your favorite snack: cheese and crackers, apple slices, vegetables dunked in ranch. And then smile! Because whoever you are, you’re really great, and I appreciate you reading. Now go be awesome.” (web)