Sleeping Bear

Linda Gregerson - 1950-

                                   1.

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.

                                      2. 

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.

                                     3.

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..

 

More by Linda Gregerson

Narrow Flame

Dark still. Twelve degrees below freezing. 
            Tremor along
      the elegant, injured right front

leg of the gelding on the cross-ties. Kneeling 
            girl.
      The undersong of waters as she bathes

the leg in yet more cold. [tongue is broken] 
            [god to me]
      Her hair the color of winter wheat.

Bicameral

1

Choose any angle you like, she said,
the world is split in two. On one side, health

and dumb good luck (or money, which can pass
for both), and elsewhere . . . well,

they're eight days from the nearest town,
the parents are frightened, they think it's their fault,

the child isn't able to suck. A thing
so easily mended, provided

you have the means. I've always thought it was
odd, this part (my nursing school

embryology), this cleft in the world
that has to happen and has to heal. At first

the first division, then the flood of them, then
the migratory plates that make a palate when

they meet (and meeting, divide
the chambers, food

from air). The suture through which (the upper
lip) we face the world. It falls

a little short sometimes, as courage does.
Bolivia once, in May (I'd volunteer

on my vacations), and the boy was nine.
I know the world has harsher

things, there wasn't a war, there wasn't
malice, I know, but this one

broke me down. They brought him in
with a bag on his head. It was

burlap, I think, or sisal. Jute.
They hadn't so much as cut eyeholes.


2
(Magdalena Abakanowicz)

Because the outer layer (mostly copper
with a bit of zinc) is good for speed

but does too little damage (what
is cleaner in the muzzle—you've begun

to understand—is also cleaner in
the flesh), the British at Dum Dum (Calcutta) devised

an "open nose," through which
the leaden core, on impact, greatly

expands (the lead being softer). Hence
the name. And common enough in Warsaw

decades later (it was 1943), despite
some efforts in The Hague. I don't

remember all of it, he wasn't even German,
but my mother's arm—

that capable arm—was severed at
the shoulder, made (a single

shot) a strange thing altogether.
Meat. I haven't been able since

to think the other way is normal, all
these arms and legs.

This living-in-the-body-but-not-of-it.


3

Sisal, lambswool, horsehair, hemp.
The weaver and her coat-of-manyharrowings.

If fiber found in situ, in
agave, say, the living cells that drink

and turn the sun to exoskeleton,
is taken from the body that

in part it constitutes (the
succulent or mammal and its ex-

quisite osmotics), is
then carded, cut, dissevered

in one fashion or another from
the family of origin, and

gathered on a loom,
the body it becomes will ever

bind it to the human and a trail
of woe. Or so

the garment argues. These
were hung as in an abattoir.

Immense (12 feet and more from upper
cables to the lowest hem). And vascular,

slit, with labial
protrusions, skeins of fabric like

intestines on the gallery floor.
And beautiful, you understand.

As though a tribe of intimates (the
coronary plexus, said the weaver) had

been summoned (even such
a thing the surgeon sometimes has

to stitch) to tell us, not unkindly, See,
the world you have to live in is

the world that you have made.

An Arbor

          1

The world's a world of trouble, your mother must
                    have told you
          that. Poison leaks into the basements

and tedium into the schools. The oak
                    is going the way
          of the elm in the upper Midwest—my cousin

earns a living by taking the dead ones
                    down.
          And Jason's alive yet, the fair-

haired child, his metal crib next
                     to my daughter's.
          Jason is nearly one year old but last

saw light five months ago and won't
                    see light again.

          2

Leaf against leaf without malice
                    or forethought,
          the manifold species of murmuring

harm. No harm intended, there never is.
                    The new
          inadequate software gets the reference librarian

fired. The maintenance crew turns off power one
                    weekend
          and Monday the lab is a morgue: fifty-four

rabbits and seventeen months of research.
                    Ignorance loves
          as ignorance does and always

holds high office.

          3

Jason had the misfortune to suffer misfortune
                    the third
          of July. July's the month of hospital ro-

tations; on holiday weekends the venerable
                    stay home.
          So when Jason lay blue and inert on the table

and couldn't be made to breathe for three-and-a-
                    quarter hours, 
          the staff were too green to let him go.

The household gods have abandoned us to the gods
                    of juris-
          prudence and suburban sprawl. The curve

of new tarmac, the municipal pool, 
                    the sky at work
          on the pock-marked river, fatuous sky,

the park where idling cars, mere yards
                    from the slide
          and the swingset, deal beautiful oblivion in nickel

bags: the admitting room and its stately drive,
                    possessed
          of the town's best view.

          4

And what's to become of the three-year-old brother?
                    When Jason was found
          face down near the dogdish—it takes

just a cupful of water to drown—
                    his brother stood still
          in the corner and said he was hungry

and said that it wasn't his fault.
                    No fault.
          The fault's in nature, who will

without system or explanation
                    make permanent
          havoc of little mistakes. A natural

mistake, the transient ill will we define
                    as the normal
          and trust to be inconsequent,

by nature's own abundance soon absorbed. 

          5

Oak wilt, it's called, the new disease.
                    Like any such
          contagion—hypocrisy in the conference room,

flattery in the hall—it works its mischief mostly
                    unremarked.
          The men on the links haven't noticed

yet. Their form is good. They're par.
                    The woman who's
          prospered from hating ideas loves causes

instead. A little shade, a little firewood.
                    I know
          a stand of oak on which my father's

earthly joy depends. We're slow
                    to cut our losses.