Bart Sutter: Two Poems



             at my grandparents’ grave


I park beneath the gnarled locust tree—

A welcome break, halfway to the city—

And lift the hard cardboard vase free

Of the seatbelt, thinking: Cheap. Still pretty.

Then say aloud: “I’ve brought you these fake flowers.”

I place them in the little graveside cage,

Where they will slowly fade, whipped and scoured

As the sleet storms and the blizzards rage.


I like to read the flat, smooth stones:

Esther, born in 1894,

And John, who lived his final days alone

And died a quarter century before

She eased in here beside him. She was plain,

Big-boned and sturdy, but she wanted him

And won him with flirtatiousness and girlish games,

This boy who looked so dangerously handsome

The day he came to plough her family’s garden.

The earth turned over as he held the reins

Of that huge horse. Her desire hardened,

And eventually they married, half insane

With foggy dreams of middle-class glory.

She wanted a bungalow with a white picket fence,

But he, poor fellow, longed to be somebody,

He and a million other immigrants.


An affable man, he had a gift for sales

And sold himself on many things: windows,

Pots and pans, a gas station that failed

For not collecting money he was owed.

“They loved him at the hardware store,”

Esther said in later years. “He should

Have stuck with that. The pay was rather poor,

But it was steady. He thought he was too good


“For that, so he went chasing something else.

Then we got caught, of course, by the Depression.”

And even he could see his dreams were false.

Handyman, gypsy electrician,

He stole some juice to light the house on one

Cold Christmas. Saved by World War II.

Shipyard work. He could run a rivet gun

And hammering hot metal got them through,


Although it ruined his hearing, naturally.

Well, he’s awfully hard of hearing now.

No point in yelling how he gradually

Destroyed his marriage, drinking, doubling down

On dreams, the sexy women he attracted.

When I faulted him one time, my aunt

Attacked: “You don’t know the half of it—

Her pushiness, her carping, her demands.”


And so they slowly pulled apart, although

Esther swore that John was a terrific father.

“I’ll never complain about that.” And this we know

From the loving testimony of his daughters.

But there was trouble, like the day the Spaniard

And his son both lay in wait with baseball bats.

Warned away, John skipped his shift at the shipyard

And took the family picnicking at Fond du Lac.


Approaching seventy, she’d had enough

And said so when she got back from a trip.

Done with sneaking, whiskey, lies, and snuff,

She stepped into the room, set down her grip,

And spoke the words she’d only thought before.

It was like a movie: Bogie and Bacall.

Surprised, he turned to ask her, “What’s the score?”

She said, “Your life caught up with you, that’s all.”

But when he died, she saved his dignity,

Rescued him once more, to bury here,

Not unlike the time the Model T

Fell off the jack and she just lifted up the car

So he escaped without one broken bone.

She bought this plot, the one beside him, too,

And saved for years to buy these simple stones

To show their love, however false, was also true.


Not far from here, they’ve built a grand casino.

Don’t we always bet? It’s just a gamble

When we marry. There’s so little we can know!

The dreams of these two ended in a shambles,

But who am I to judge? I’ve also stumbled

And can guess how hard they tried. And so

I bring bright flowers every fall and mumble

My affection, which means nothing to the snow.





Ancestral memories brought me here,

   The dream in lilting words,

The homesick ache of kitchen talk.

   Small boy, I overheard.


Small boy, himself, my granddad left

   A century back and more,

Fared forth with family from Göteborg

   For the mist of America.


My family has the diary

   His father tried to write:

Three pages long, the story stops

   As Sweden sinks from sight.


Seasick, maybe. Or racked by doubts

   About his headstrong deed.

When he resumes, it’s all mundane:

   The price of tools and seed.


We know what’s missing in that book,

   The heave and toss, the wind,

The waves, the retching as they thought

   Of those they left behind.


The generations rose and fell,

   Our svenska flickered out,

But some old song insisted on

   The tickets that I bought.


We circle the lake by rental car

   And cross the causeway where

Dead men used to strain with oars.

   Prodigal son, I’m here,


Although I can’t say why for sure.

   To somberly stroll the graveyard

And trace my last name carved in stone,

   The dream of home rock-hard?


We find our temporary house,

   Reserved for “cultural workers.”

A welcome note, food in the fridge,

   Fish roe and knäckerbröd.

The living room has a fireplace

   With kindling set to light.

Upstairs, a porch looks everywhere,

   But I want second sight.


Why would anyone want to leave?

   We wonder as we walk

Beneath dark pines and glimmering birch,

   Then realize with a shock


Potatoes that cover a small field

   Can’t be spuds. It’s June.

And of course a closer look reveals

   No harvest but brown stones.


Back at the house, we murmur and snoop

   Where Margit and Suzanne

Have left their notes on the dialect

   In a dark blue hand.


The language of the old folks here

   Is vanishing, it seems,

Like bream that break beyond the net,

   Phosphorescent gleams.


After supper, I stroll alone

   Down to the village pier,

Where shadowy men have gathered to launch

   The dream they built this year:


A boat. A lightweight, lapstrake boat,

   Handmade, in Viking style,

From planks they steamed and slowly bent

   To form this buoyant smile.


The strakes were edged and overlapped,

   Rivets driven, clenched.

They planed and shaved long winter nights,

   And now it’s time to launch.


Each in turn, they row the skiff

   To laughter, muffled shouts,

And then they ask the foreigner,

   Would I care to take her out?


It floats, the boat, like a memory,

   Deja-vu come true,

Swivels and glides in the dusky light,

   So buoyant, slippy-smooth.


“Oh, Grandfather,” I want to cry,

   “We’re whispers on the water.”

But I know how to choke such thoughts,

   Don’t want to be a bother.


Rowing backwards to the beach,

   I step from the waking dream,

With neither Swedish nor English words

   To venture what I mean.


I offer, “Tack. Tusen tack!”

   And leave them to their triumph,

Returning up the long, slow hill,

   Thrilled by the curlews crying.


The nights are white on Sollerön

   In June. They’re gauzy, pale,

And we sleep lightly, wake and turn,

  The sheets like tangled sails.


Where have we traveled, love, and why?

   Once, in the night, we kissed.

At dawn, we wake to another dream:

  Dark horses in the mist.


Bart Sutter is the author of eight books and a three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award. He has written for public radio, he has had three verse plays produced, and he often performs as one-half of The Sutter Brothers, a poetry-and-music duo. His most recent books are The Reindeer Camps and Other Poems (BOA Editions, 2012) and Chester Creek Ravine (Nodin Press, 2015), a collection of haiku.