Poems of my Father

A sequence


A bone-chill drizzle seeps—
            through flaking skin,
            through multiple lifetimes’ muscle ache,
                        neurons slow to send any
                        signals save the pain of hunkering beneath cows
                                    hundreds of times daily,
                                                                        thousands of times weekly,
                                                                                                            ad infinitum . . .
                        the pitchforks picking up manure,
                        the buckle boots sloshing,
            through lungs clogged with crop dust,
                        mucous laced with alfalfa and corn silage—
            settling in a heart that beats the irregular rhythm
                        of songs no longer on the radio.


He sprouted from a patch of earth
            and bloomed at the dead-end branch of the county trunk,
                        where he prowled cedar swamps and hardwoods,
                        hiked a logging road to Spiece Lake
                                    to fish for black bass and bluegills
                                    or sun himself with giant snapping turtles,
                        worked rows of beans and cucumbers his father sold to Friday Canning,
                                    Wisconsin’s summer sun sledgehammering his back,
                                    and he never knew a nickel.


He enlisted in 1963,
a whip-thin farmboy trading
John Deeres for jeeps, a twelve-gauge Belgian Browning for a G.I. rifle.

I know some of what he brought back—
the leather-cased radio
            purchased with winnings from a Saigon slot machine
                        (we spent summer nights and Sundays listening
                                    to Bob Uecker),
and the slides he rarely resurrects—
            ghost images of him, projected on cracked plaster—
                        standing on a landing strip, arm
                        encircling an ARVN officer half his size,
                                    smiling (or squinting—I can’t tell which),
                                    or sitting in a tent,
                                    tossing back Budweisers with friends
                                    whose names he never speaks.

Now, his olive drabs hang in a forgotten corner upstairs.
            In my sophomore year of college, I took the heavy winter poncho
            back to school with me—
            “Winkler” in fading stencil on the upper left chest pocket—
            and wore it while protesting the first Gulf War.
            One hundred of us marched over a bridge,
            our breath white wisps rising into January-blue skies.
            A reporter placed a microphone before me, cameramen captured
            my every move as I spoke,
            holding a picket sign that read “49 Senators Voted NO!”

I wondered whether he’d see me on tape at 10,
            and what memories
            rose like frost in the fields of April.


Every April, he sat on a tractor,
            pulling plows,
                        dragging disks,
                                    driving north and south,
                        east and west,
            back and forth into the night—
            reminding the soil
            to welcome the seeds he would sow in parallel rows
                        tracing the contours of the land—
                        the sandhill swells,
                        the hollow of clay bottoms.

As the Earth rumbled,
            I wondered what stirred in him.
Did billowing dust part,
            revealing long-forgotten faces staring from a screen
            he’d pulled the curtain on decades ago?
            Did their eyes slope in narrow slits of defiance,
            or were they wide-open, round and lifeless,
            unable to see the spill
                        of pale purple snakes
                                    writhing in crimson clouds
                                    suspended in yellow
                                    paddy water?


The cow stood in her stall,
            her udder an over-inflated basketball with
            teats like hard, thick fingers pointing in different directions.
Translucent hooves poked from under her tail,
            and a low moo built within her,
            ready to burst into the wet air of the barn like the terrible blat
            of a trombone with too much air in a low register.

He rolled a flannel shirtsleeve past his elbow,
            sprinkled silicon powder over his hand and arm,
            reached in to check the position of the calf.
Finding only tail and hips,
            he tried to shove the calf back, flip it,
            so it wouldn’t die in birth.
            Failing, he looped
                        baler twine around the hooves,
                        ran the twine around the steel bars
                        of the stanchion, had me wrap
                        it around my hands and brace
                        as he stepped hard on the taut length of twine,
                        letting physics urge the calf’s cooperation.

It slid out with a sucking sound.
            Straw chaff and stems stuck to its slick, black-white patchwork,
            and a length of afterbirth, pink and knotted, spilled from its mother.          
Without a thought, he rushed to the calf, dropped to his knees,
            cleared its mouth and nose.  Then placing
            his lips over its mouth, he blew
            three times
            before a high-pitched bleat rattled lungs
            still thick with fluid.


On winter days he sits on frozen lakes on a plastic pail,
            pole in hand, jigging for perch.
His cracked hands thread wax worms onto chartreuse teardrop hooks,
            slide tiny slip weights that take maggots into water
            black as night,
            cold as hell.

And when he comes home late in the afternoon,
            his pail is packed with snow, the fish cold
            as he finishes milking and chores;
            some fish still gasp, gills opening and closing
            even as he scales, slices, and slits,
            pulling spoonfuls of guts
            for the cats’ dish.
He fillets the remaining pile,
            a gray-white mound ready for flour,
            butter, cracker crumbs,
            and the spitting grease of the frying pan.

—Scott Winkler, Casco, WI