Sleeping Bear


The backstory’s always of hardship, isn’t it?
                       No-other-choices and hoping-for-better
            on foreign shores. A minute ago, as measured

by the sand dunes here, the shipping lanes were thick
                       with them, from Hamburg, Limerick, towns
            along the Oslofjord, and lucky to have found

the work. The Michigan woodlands hadn’t been denuded yet
                       (a minute ago) so one of the routes was
            lumber and the other was a prairie’s wealth

of corn. There’s a sort of cushioned ignorance that comes
                       of being born-and-then-allowed-to-live-in-
            safety so I used to think it must have been more

forgiving here, less brutal than the brutal North Atlantic
                       with its fathoms and its ice. But no.
            The winds, the reefs, the something-to-do-with-

narrower-troughs-between-the-waves and lakes like this
                       are deadlier than oceans: in
            a single year the losses were one in every

four. We come for the scale of it: waters without
                       a limit the eye can apprehend and—could
             there be some mistake?—aren’t salt. Dunes

that make us little which if falsely consoling is right and
                       good. Where commerce lifts its sleeping head.
             If I had the lungs for diving I expect I’d be there too

among the lovely broken ribs and keels. Visitors need
                       a place to sleep and something to fill up the
             evenings, it’s natural, the people in town

need jobs. Calamity-turned-profit in tranquility. My
                       father’s father’s father was among the ones
             who did not drown. Who sold his ship
and bought a farm.


What is it about the likes of us? Who cannot take it in
                       until the body of a single Syrian three-
             year-old is face down on the water’s edge? Or this

week’s child who, pulled from the rubble, wipes
                       with the back and then the heel of his small
             left hand (this time we have a video too) the blood

congealing near his eye then wipes (this is a problem,
                       you can see him thinking Where?) the hand
             on the chair where the medic has put him.

So many children, so little space in our rubble-strewn
                       hearts. In alternative newsfeeds I am
             cautioned (there is history, there is such a thing

as bias) that to see is not to understand. Which (yes, I know,
                       the poster child, the ad space, my consent-
             to-be-governed by traffic in arms) is true and quite

beside the point. The boy on the beach, foreshortened
                       in the photograph, looks smaller than
             his nearly three years would make him, which

contributes to the poignancy. The waves have combed his
                       dark hair smooth. The water on the shingle, in-
            different to aftermath, shines.


There was once, says the legend, a terrible fire or as
                       some will recount it a famine and
            a mother bear with her two cubs was driven

into the lake. They swam for many hours until the
                       smaller of the cubs began to weaken and,
            despite all the mother could do, was drowned,

then the second cub also, so when the mother reached
                       the shore which then as now belonged
           to a land of plenty she lay down with her face

to the shimmering span whose other side was quite
                       beyond her powers of return. The islands
           we call Manitou, the one and then the other, are

her cubs, she can see them, we go to them now by ferry.
                       And maybe that’s what we mean by
           recreation, not that everything lost—remember

the people to whom the legend belonged—shall be
                       restored but that it does us good
           to contemplate the evidence. The lake,

the dunes, the broken ships, the larger-than-we-are
                       skeins of time and substance in which
           change might be—we’ll think of it so—not

hostile but a kindness..


Copyright © 2016 by Linda Gregerson. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.