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Category archive for: Barton Sutter

What Does This Mean?

In those days, eighth-grade boys drove cars,

Grain trucks, and tractors on the farm,

So Dad was only half-surprised

The little men he catechized

Drove themselves to the village school

(Cream and milk, not church and state,

Were what they worked to separate)

Where he recounted Luther’s rules.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

What does this mean?

We lived so near to Canada

No one was shocked that Saturday a

Black bear loomed outside the glass

Where Dad was questioning his class.

The kids evacuated, rushed

To pickup trucks and beater Fords

To chase the bear down gravel roads

But lost him in the underbrush.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,

Nor his manservant, nor his maidservant,

Nor his ox, nor his ass,

Nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.

What does this mean?

My father’s teaching was homespun:

Father, Holy Ghost, and Son

Were peanuts in a single shell.

His ways were easy, slow, soft-sell.

To those who could not memorize,

He’d feed the answers, phrase by phrase.

Some girls would stammer in his gaze,

Distracted by his light blue eyes.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

What does this mean?

They’d work an hour, then take a break

For thirty minutes the boys would make

The most of, charging through our woods,

Chasing rabbits, hot for blood,

Armed with pebbles and slingshots,

Helter-skelter, crashing brush,

With shouts and yelps when one would flush,

And then return to talk of God.

Thou shalt not kill.

What does this mean?

Less than a dozen years before,

My father had come back from war,

Where many of his friends had died.

These churches in the countryside

Called him to marry, bury, bless,

Ambitionless for wealth or fame.

Those few who still recall his name

Remember best his gentleness.

Honor thy father and thy mother

That thy days may be long upon the land.

What does this mean?

from The Reindeer CampsFind it in the library

Copyright © BOA Editions, Ltd 2012
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of BOA Editions LTD.

Those Finnish Folk

      for Jim Johnson

Live out to Toivola, skinny woods and bog,

Sorry sort of country, overlooked by most,

Pioneered by people awful fond of failure.

They branch out to Twig, you know, down as far as Esko,

Askov, Bruno, over there to Togo, Effie, Emily,

Tenstrike, Shooks. Wherever you would never,

There you’ll find a Finn.

They believe in Sauna, Nudity, and Coffee.

Their wallpaper is birch bark; their La-Z-Boy’s a stump.

The women are good-lookers, the menfolk

Not so much. They specialize in blueberries,

Hayfields and alders, rocks and pickled pike.

They don’t go in for paint much, like a weathered look:

Tarpaper buildings, wood piled high . . .

Go and introduce yourself. Coffee’s always hot.

Their names are Nordic music, silly and profound,

Descended from the polska, calling to the cows,

Whittled willow whistles, woodwinds, drums.

Names like Ada Aho, Paavo Havumaki,

Sulo Saari, Joki Koveroja.

Where’d they learn such laughter? Poverty and wolves.

Love cries of women. Crooning of the loons.

Watching how the crops grow. Here comes the hail.

Water makes a big splash; then it runs away.

Wind whacks the window, sifts through snow.

from The Reindeer CampsFind it in the library

Copyright © BOA Editions, Ltd 2012
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of BOA Editions LTD.

My Mother at Swan Lake

       This is the day which the Lord has made;

       let us rejoice and be glad in it.

         —Psalms 118:24

A maniac for picnicking,

  She’d pack us up to go

The very first thing in the spring;

  Sometimes we sat in snow!

But we were well into the year;

  The swans had all long gone.

We’d shed, like leaves, our nagging fears.

  The lake went pink and calm.

Her hair’d come back; her light, low laugh;

  Her cancer in “remission,”

A state that gave us some relief

  From pain and vain religion.

My dad had let me start the fire.

  I saw my mom was proud

Of how the flames kept growing higher;

  They wouldn’t flicker out.

I’ve clutched this day near fifty years

  But always felt so stupid

That it could bring the sting of tears

  When there was nothing to it:

My sister makes a small bouquet

  Of weeds and faded asters,

But I can’t hear my mother say

  What she bends low to ask her.

My brother’s down beside the shore;

  I see his silhouette.

My father calls out, as before,

  “Now don’t go getting wet!”

My mother leans against a tree.

  She sighs. I hear her say

Across the half a century,

  “It’s been a lovely day.”

from The Reindeer CampsFind it in the library

Copyright © BOA Editions, Ltd 2012
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of BOA Editions LTD.

This program is supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council, a State-based program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this (publication, website, exhibit, etc.) do not necessarily represent those of the Idaho Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.