Saturday, June 29, 2013

SPRING, 1863

John Ratcliffe, Marshall County, Kansas

I see the signs of spring around me.
Birds have returned
or are passing overhead, flying north.
Flowers are in bloom,
and buds have appeared on the fruit trees.
But I cannot shake this winter.
Though the days grow longer,
I am in darkness.
Though I am home,
the storm of war surrounds me.

I cannot find the beauty
in the blossoms and the buds.
In the singing of the birds,
I hear only the cries
of the wounded and the dying.
The boys clattering through the house
sound like brigades rushing to battle.
Every clang of a pot or pan makes me jump.

Only in the depths of night,
when all is still do I find peace.
There are days I wish I’d died on that battlefield.
Then there would have been only one death,
instead of the pain from my wounds
and the daily deaths I endure.


Across the river
darkening storm clouds appear,
steely bulks on this languid afternoon.
We lie somnolent,
slumbering through the sweated heat,
hoping for a savior breeze come soon
with wind-cooled waves of air
breathing life into lifeless bodies,
ushering one magnificent moment
of rapture and resurrection.


There on the prairie, on the edge of settlement,
the great sea of grass flowing to the west,
cities, towns, and farms to the east,
these Ohio men laid out their town,
measured out their farms,
knowing it would be some time
before government surveyors arrived,
but only a short time before claims jumpers,
Missourians, and Border Ruffians.

They came with plows and ideals,
to sow and reap new lives from the Kansas soil.

Raised on abolition, they had seen
runaways pass through their villages,
had seen the fear and hope in the eyes
of men, women, and children;
heard it in the whispered voices
in barns and cellars, under cover in wagons
as they waited for the slave hunters to pass.
Quakers to a man, they sat in Meeting
listening to those who counseled patience
and trust in God that laws would change.
They had helped hide runaways;
bought only goods made with free labor.
But this was not enough.
When Kansas opened, they went west
to send a message to the nation.
Kansas would be free,
by the ballot, they hoped;
by force if necessary.

It was their season,
and they waited for conflict to sprout.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


She insisted on dinner first—
fried chicken, corn bread, butter beans,
and glasses of cold sweet tea—
and then they could talk about
bringing the union into the pickling plant.
Dinner finished, she served dessert,
and then she and the union organizer,
sat at the kitchen table and made plans.
They wrote out demands;
discussed strategies between bites
of her peach cobbler.

In her grandmother’s time
she would have had a cook
to prepare dinner and dessert.
In her great-grandmother’s time,
she would have been waited upon
and would not have sat in the kitchen
when visitors came calling.
But, those times were gone.
In her mind she kept a list
of all that had been lost,
determined she would lose no more.
She was a strong woman,
willing to take on the plant’s bosses,
toughened by years of dealing
with a hard-drinking husband
worn thin by reaching
for any work that paid.

The union rep knew he should not talk
of capital and labor, or the role
of the proletariat in history,
not with her patrician past.
If he wanted to unionize the plant
he would have to listen to her.
And, he knew that he had better
eat a second helping of her cobbler.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


The Oracle sits in her garden.
Only the breeze comes,
rustling through the branches
of the apple tree of knowledge
and the cherry tree of life,
the blossoms of both
falling gently to the ground.