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American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice

American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice book cover

American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice. New Village Press, 2011. Contributor.


Turn the alley sideways, running north to south.
Remove the houses on the south side of the alley.
Remove the years of cobblestones, tar, small stones.
See for quite a distance, knowing the water
Is just out of sight.  Take a chair to the alley
Which is no longer an alley but a strip
Of ancient beach which your beautiful imagination
Has made.  Sit in your chair and listen
For the waves.


Fair to choose the other side
And cross towards it.

Fair to cross over.

Fair to spend one hour
Of one’s life considering
The meaning.

Fair to be humble
Yet take the chance.

Now you’re on it
And you wonder:

What holds it in place
What if the wind
Picks up
Will the beloved
Be waiting
Will anyone else
Thing it fair
That you have crossed
Will what you imagined
From steel and air
Be True
When you arrive
And go no further?


Art and nature… that’s what lights it up
— Jean Valentine

The cottonwood tree was what mattered first to me.
Cottonwoods meant water close by, I could follow
The trees which led to the creek which led to the river.
And I did.

The prairie was what mattered first to me.  How the wind
Moved the fields, how the wheat and prairie grasses
Lay down to let the wind pass by, rose up to hid
The wild turkeys, the frantic, focused field mice,
And me, not frantic, not focused, just a girl in the middle
Of the country.

The sun was what mattered first to me.  We would drive
North to find my Swedish relatives, stop near open fields,
Throw down a blanket, eat our lunch and watch red-winged
Blackbirds race and spin in the ditches, the sun burning
Away the smell of my dad’s cigarette smoke, my mom’s
Low voice.

Summer was what mattered first to me.  Freed from proving
My goodness each school day I would walk in the bed
Of the creek as farmland gave way to wilderness. On lucky
Days the cotton would be floating and flying, turning
The ground white, or landing on the water, and the water
Would rush the cotton away.  Better than snow, in that heat
The cotton would cover the world as I knew it, and no voice
Could reach me in that little valley.

Between then and now matters to me.  This northern star
State where I have abided, my ancestors arriving in
New York Harbor, making their way to Moorhead,
Living by the Red River, farming, running newspapers,
Building little cabins and tiny saunas,

Stealing away from their endless labor to linger
In summer sun for just a few days.  And we would
Drive towards them, through hours and hours of
Silver gold fields, and it mattered to me.

But the first thing that mattered to me was the cottonwood
Tree, anchor and glory, shade and beauty, sign
Of water nearby, tree I could follow, then and now.


He can go to the moon. And Mars, too.
Take his patronizing face, vicious voice,
His appalling definitions of loyalty,
He can go.

The rest of us, we need to not get tired
Of the earth. Need to care for parrots,
Even if we don’t, revere sand, and buffalo,
Butterfly weed and dunes. We need to not
Get tired of the shattering beauty we live with,
Need to not get tired of wacky little city
Gardens, need to not be bored with
Starlings circling, the holy crows
Calling, the prairie grass replanted,
Blade by blade. No Sleep! No Sleep!

Or, at the very least, no sleeping
All at the same time. The ones who
Want to leave for Mars seem never
To sleep, yet seem unable to hear wrens
Arrive in spring, the last lion roaring
Out his furious, golden protest.

I won’t get tired of the earth. Will
Love the moon from here, will
Rejoice when those who do not
Love the earth can only imagine
it from their new permanent homes
in the sky.

(First published in Orion magazine, then a letter press broadside from Laurel Poetry Collective, artist, Georgia Greeley.)


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