Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Another two poems from "Stark County Poems" appear in "Illinois Heritage"

 Another two poems from Stark County Poems have appeared in Illinois Heritage: the Magazine of the Illinois State Historical Society:  "The Aging Widow in the Third Pew" and "Populism."  The latter poem is closely based on the lives of my great-grandparents, who lost a farm in Pike County, Illinois to hog cholera, lost another farm outside of Leoti, Kansas to drought and the '93 Panic, and finally ended up back in Illinois, in Stark County, where they started over again in the mid-1890s, not far from Spoon River.  

Both poems are printed below.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The Aging Widow in the Third Pew


Her faith had little to do with church
and even less with the long succession
of ministers who had come and gone
since she was a child. It had to do
with the wind from which there was no relief,
that carried the rain and gave teeth to drought
and tore the roof from the barn and haunted
her nights with wailing. It had to do
with the cooling summer breezes that turned
the pages of scripture without a touch
and caressed away the sweat of her brow.
That the seen is shaped by an unseen force
was something she never thought to doubt.
In church, when she was told in the Psalm
to lift up thine eyes, and she turned to see
through the open window a falling leaf
suspended a moment, then lifted away
on the wind, the tears welled up in her eyes
and she picked up her purse and slipped away
through the basement door and out on the grass
and lifted her face to the cloudless sky.




In the autumn of 1893,

   Alpheus Wheeler Appenheimer

and his wife Olive arrived in Stark County,

   Illinois, after having traveled

from their earlier Illinois home in Pike County

   by way of Leoti, Kansas.


They arrived in a covered wagon drawn

    by a pair of worn-out mules conveying

a girl and two boys, a kerosene lamp,

   a plow and scythe and a chest of clothes,

tinware pots, some kerosene lamps

   and a Mason jar of seeds interred


in early May and exhumed in August,

   still unsprouted— it’d been that dry.    

They almost starved on their journey back.

   In Missouri they stopped at a lonely farm

and asked at the house if they might pick a few

   ears of corn to boil for supper.

Go ahead, help yourselves, the woman barked.

   No one else even bothers to ask.

It was hog cholera that had wiped them out

   and sent them westward to make a new start,

and it was drought and the ’93 Panic

   that wiped them out for the second time


and sent them back east to begin again.

   They’d gotten their fill of living in sod—

dirt in your soup and dirt in your bed. 

   Their youngest son was born on a night

in January that covered the state

   in three feet of snow as the mercury plunged


to twenty below.  He was kept from freezing

   by his mother’s warmth and a crackling stove

that was fed from a pile of unshucked corn. 

   At three cents a bushel it made more sense

to burn it than sell it and, anyhow, 

   the buffalo chips were long since gone.


In later years, when anyone asked,

   old Alpheus never had much to tell

about losing two farms in two different states.

   In an unguarded moment he said aloud,

You can pray to God.  You can vote for Bryan.

   In the end it don’t matter a hill of beans.




"The Aging Widow in the Third Pew" and "Populism" from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, new enlarged edition, 2020).

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