Thursday, May 21, 2015

Shards of Blue: Sample Poems

For those wanting a sampler of poems from my forthcoming book, Shards of Blue, I offer the following. Shards of Blue is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press at  The book ships August 21, 2015. 

The poems in Shards of Blue tell the story of my great-great grandparents, John and Mary Ratcliff, often in their voices, from their migration to Kansas in the 1850s as part of an Abolitionist community through the Civil War, in which John was wounded, and through the years after during which their relationship changed, to their divorce in the 1870s and Mary striking off on her own, with their four youngest sons, and taking out her own homestead.


John Ratcliff, from the Ohio Town Company settlement, Marshall County, Kansas, 1855

Dear Mary,

I don’t know when this letter might reach you,
but I want you to know that I am well. 
I miss you and the boys.
There is much work to keep me busy,
but still I find myself stopping at times
to think about what you might be doing.
Nights feel so long without you next to me.

The journey to Kansas passed without event,
though the riverboats down the Ohio
and up the Missouri were crowded and hot.
Westport was boisterous with activity—
migrants stocking up for the trails
to Oregon and California,
Mormons bound for Salt Lake,
and Free-Soilers like us,
all armed and setting out for Kansas. 
We bought our supplies
and headed for our claims.

We measured out the boundaries
of the town, marked the corners of our farms.
Pro-slavery men are already here—
South Carolinians in Palmetto,
Missourians in Marysville—
but they seem peaceful enough.
Still, we are on our guard
and take turns patrolling day and night.
Oh, if the Elders in Mt. Pleasant could see us—
we carry guns at all times. 
We decided we will fight if it comes to that.
Kansas calls for a different kind of Quaker.


Mary, August 1862, when John leaves for war.

There’s no beauty in blue today.

Only darkness in this August sky.
But I’ll not cry while you’re away.

Summer has turned to winter’s grey.
Cornflowers are dull to my eye.
There’s no beauty in blue today.

You march to end slavery’s sway;
a noble cause for which you fight.
But I’ll not cry while you’re away.

I tell you that I wish you’d stay.
That you must fight is your reply.
There’s no beauty in blue today.

For safe return from war, I’ll pray;
that soon beside me you will lie.
But I’ll not cry while you’re away.

Be strong for our young sons, you say,
with one last look into my eyes.
There’s no beauty in blue today.
I will not cry while you’re away.


John, Marshall County, Kansas, 1863

I see the signs of spring.

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 live 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 unnerves me.

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.

Gene Ratcliff, 1874

We knew the day would come
when the darkness that troubled Father
would become too much for Mother to bear.

Father had another of his spells,
then, without word, was gone for days.
When he returned, silence hung heavy
as the air before a summer storm.
Tension built like thunderheads over the prairie,
then released in a storm of words
between him and Mother.
John and I took our younger brothers
out to the shelter of the barn.
Fremont fetched his bag;
said it was time to move to town.

I don’t blame Fremont for leaving.
I would’ve left, and John too,
except Mother needed our help on the farm
especially after she told Father to leave.

I see Fremont when I go into town.
He says he doesn’t miss the farm.
I told him it’s calmer now that Father’s gone.
But it’s different, too—
like corn stalks flattened after a storm.

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