This evening rough winds blow the surface of the river.
The starlings and purple martins have flown
to quieter skies. Clouds scud like fast ships
across a horizon blue as the heaven my Jesuit friend
Bill believes awaits the forgiven, and from down river,
gusts carry the sounds of Playing with Fire, a tribute
band whose soupy Hendrix covers echo off the concrete
façade of the loading docks and merge with the rising
shrieks of children playing in the park. Bill and I drink wine
on the balcony, and in this mild August light,
the Missouri gleams as it rolls, ancient and dumb, south
beneath Kerry bridge swaying on its slender cables.
Two nights ago, there was a killing on the Iowa side,
the fifth in the city this summer. Some argument
among strangers, a gun. To the west, the squat Omaha
skyline glimmers. I imagine this river before
its toxic dumps and gangland bodies, its shoreline
we’ve reclaimed as this tidy riverscape, where now no sign
of the murdered man remains, when all that answered
the water’s slow passing was the swish of wildflowers
in the long prairie grasses, the rustle of foxes
and the rabbits they hunted. Bill believes the souls
of the dead are like the wind, that we can see them
everywhere in what they touch and carry. He tells me
we can hear them now, in the plangent closing notes
of “Hey Joe” and the cheers of the crowd borne
up on the air’s invisible currents, as they travel
out over the riverbank, beyond the sun-struck highway.
When she woke in the morning, the only clean part of her pillow was the outline of her head.
I think it must have come to seem to them biblical,
those seasons of drouth, the earth itself a glistering
anvil beneath bleached and empty skies, the sun’s light,
sharp as a blade, piercing the dried and naked stands
of honey locusts their men had set as windbreaks,
withering their roses and pansies and the neat kitchen
gardens, bordered by mulberry hedges, they’d tended.
No living green anywhere for the eye to rest,
they wrote their families back East, nothing thrives
but thistle and insects, the damned rabbits. For miles
around them, nothing but abandoned farms,
no crops to anchor the fields, and when blow season
came, the big rollers and black dusters bearing
their rough freight of blown topsoil to blind
the cattle and scrape the paint off the barns, the air
so charged with static a kiss or a handshake
knocked you flat, it must have seemed a plague.
Sky black as the inside of a dog, the men said.
Blow your nose, your hand comes away black-snotted.
Father Coughlin on the radio blamed the Jews
and bankers, but it must have felt like God himself
was furious, and who could fathom God? Imagine
how they had to wake to it, morning after morning,
a meal of dust sifting through the ceiling,
coating the turned-over pots and soaking through
the wet towels veiling every surface. How it snaked
past the door jams and window frames they’d sealed
with newspapers and gummed tape, rags soaked
in kerosene. Imagine the blackened sheets
and the gritty oil that filmed the water they drew
to wash them in, the layers of dust that rippled across
their scrubbed floors, deep enough for dunes
they had to wake the eldest boy or girl each morning
to shovel out, their mouths and noses masked
like small Jesse Jameses. And when the cattle began to die,
and then the children, the frail sacs of their lungs
shredded and their stomachs swollen with dirt,
some of them went sorrowing, dust mad,
through the vacant streets, but mostly, they endured.
It’s them I think of now, the ones who endured,
how they must have rested, so briefly,
in the evenings, writing their letters home before prayer
and bed by the dim light of oil lamps, how they
must have stared at the unstoppable dust rising
again in the darkening air, the way they
must have breathed it in slowly, slowly out.
after Timothy Egan (The Worst Hard Time) and Caroline Henderson (Letters From The Dustbowl)