Two Poems

by Barton Sutter

The Immigrants: A Story by Tom McGrath

Have you heard the parable that Tom McGrath,
Who felt at home beneath Dakota skies,
Worked up to tell us why we’re still so lost?

Norwegians in their canvas-covered wagon
Creak across the endless prairie grass
When suddenly Lakota braves
Appear like distant birds along the skyline
Far behind them. Worried, Pa whips up
The horses, but the birds are ponies closing
Fast. The wagon’s way too slow, and so
The family dumps the pedal organ off
The back; there goes the sacred music from
The last three hundred years. Still too much weight,
But who needs Shakespeare in translation here?
The Edda also goes. And Ibsen’s too
Newfangled anyhow. They’re rolling now,
The sweaty horses flecked with foam, but still
The braves are closing, so the Norskis chuck
The chest with all the porcelain. Kersmash!
No more fancy dinners now. They fling
The Bible, too. All those thees and thous.
The wagon shakes, about to fly apart,
The Indians are fading, but the quickest
Still persist, and Ma can see their faces
Streaked with paint. The children help her push
Poor Grandma out the back, and there she goes,
Cartwheeling through the sky. Farväl, mormor!
They crest the hill and shudder, jounce along,
The wagon empty, having ditched the braves,
And rattle on another day, arriving, finally,
At their claim of New World dirt and grass,
No history to burden them and nothing in their hands.

That’s the myth McGrath made up to say
Why, even though we’re fat from stolen land,
We know somehow we’re missing something,
Something thrown away, and everything
We’ve worked so hard to win feels thin as dust
The next ferocious wind will blow away.

Dagna Fahlstrom Fails to Send a Postcard Home

When Dagna found herself at last
In Kalmar, the city on the Baltic
From which her grandmother had emigrated
As a girl, she was so excited that she bought
A dozen postcards, all the same
Picture of the castle, which delighted her
It looked so like a medieval hat.
Imagine that—a castle! Which could have been hers,
Kind of, if her grandmother had just stayed put.
Dagna indulged a daydream, briefly,
That she was banished royalty
Before she told herself, Enough of that!
And, ordering a kaffe from the cafe,
Found herself a table by the window
That opened on the sea. Think of it—
The sea! There it was, crashing on the sand.

Dagna dug the ballpoint from her purse,
The little red address book that contained
All her relatives and friends in Minnesota,
Overturned a postcard . . . but she had so much to say
She couldn’t start. To tell the truth,
She’d been fascinated by the dungeon
And peculiar forms of torture
To which transgressors were subjected long ago,
Proving that her ancestors were really not so nice,
And she guessed she wasn’t, either,
With her interest in such things. But
She could write about the Baltic,
The brightly painted houses Minnesotans
Would condemn as “gaudy,” though they’d like
The way the flowerboxes overflowed with color,
And the clothes the women wore, so simple,
Rich, and tempting—tweedy, nubby, creamy—
She could hardly stay her hand
When they walked by, and then
The handsome man who’d gazed at her
So long in Stockholm she’d felt weak,
Not to mention all this funny money, so unreal
She was spending like a sailor come to port,
And, my goodness, Dagna understood
Quite suddenly, all of this would never fit
Within the limits of a postcard!
Besides, how would friends react,
Stuck back home in Detroit Lakes,
When her castle cards arrived
With their exotic stamps?

Oh, she knew how she had felt
When she’d received such cryptic missives
In her mailbox—first a little lift
To think a friend had thought of her
In the midst of an adventure overseas,
Followed by the icky burn of envy.

No. She would not hurt her friends like that.
Dagna looked down at the dozen
Medieval castles in her hand
And tapped them on the table
Like a deck of playing cards,
Ashamed of her extravagance.

Outside, the sea, the sky, the . . . everything
Was slowly growing dark. She slipped
The postcards in her purse and thought,
“I guess they’ll work as bookmarks.”

Barton Sutter is the author of eight books, three of which have won Minnesota Book Awards. The Reindeer Camps and Other Poems (BOA Editions) appeared in 2012, and his collection of haiku, Chester Creek Ravine, will be published by Nodin Press in 2015. He is at work on a book of poems with Scandinavian themes.

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