The Alberta Clipper
The Summer 2009 issue of Prairie Schooner included a poem by Jehanne Dubrow entitled “Sea-Change.” Dubrow’s poem was also featured by Poetry Daily on the Fourth of July that summer. On Independence Day in Lincoln, the city’s annual “Uncle Sam Jam” celebration was moved, for the first time, to a date other than the actual holiday. This was due to Nebraska’s own “Larry the Cable Guy” performing a Lincoln show on the Fourth. The rest of the summer was also a tad out of the ordinary; throughout the entire season, Nebraska’s temperature was cooler than average by about 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, with a total of three record lows set in Lincoln.
by Tory Clower
Imagine this: saltwater scrubbing sand
into my husband’s skin,
his fingers pale anemones,
his hands turned coral reef, and in
his eyes the nacreous pearls of Ariel.
This could be my husband, drowning in the swell.
A sea-change means a shift, a change of heart,
and how the oceans turn
glass shards into a jewel,
rip apart familiar things. Waves churn.
The surf is a liquid body that peels a carrier from bow to stern, the keel
bent back, steel bands pliable as kelp.
And long before I wake,
the sailors drown. No point in calling help.
Each night, my husband shakes
me out of sleep. I cannot reach for him
or drag him to the surface so he’ll swim.
Despite September of 2009 being the globe’s second-hottest September on record (and the records date back to 1880), Nebraska’s autumnal weather was quite unseasonably cool. Indeed, the first two weeks in October were Lincoln’s coldest in 122 years. A temperature of 29F on October 4th set a record low for the date. Several years later, David Wojahn’s poem “Mix Tape to Be Brought to Her in Rehab” was selected for The Best American Poetry 2011; it had first appeared in Prairie Schooner during that frigid fall of 2009.
by Tory Clower
Mix Tape to Be Brought to Her in Rehab
Black lacquered circle & the sound coaxed
from diamond to rest within the acetate glimmer,
the agon & the joys commingling. Nina Simone
is conjuring The Boat of Ra Little Darling
from a long cold lonely winter, though outside
it is August & is not all right. Double doors,
then again double doors. You will sign in:
& they’ll rifle your pack of oranges & candy bars,
pry open the plastic case & hold the gray
Maxell against the light. Immense are the tears
of Levi Stubbs. How sweet how sweet the honeybee.
The Smiths are in a terrible place. O Oscillate
Wildly Please Please Please Let Me Get What I want,
to be followed in turn by Mr. James Brown,
his own please trembling the Apollo rafters.
Visiting hours—in the TV room the Haldol reigns.
The President struts among the SS gravestones,
pompadour shiny as a new LP, his movie-actor gait
turned thank God to pastel vapor by Miami Vice.
Flamingos starburst from the credits. Shyly
she will walk the corridor to meet you, your offerings
of Earl Grey, the two black turtlenecks.
Nail cobalt—fingers a-tremble. Gun Shy, Screaming
Blue Messiahs, Dylan at his nadir adnoiding
Brownsville Girl—down here even the swap meets
are getting a little corr-upt. Richard Thompson
When the Spell Is Broken, Jimmy Cliff’s
in limbo waiting for the dice to roll.
When her roommate leaves, you’ll sit with her upon the bed.
Awkward, you will small talk, staring
at your hands. More doors, double doors & triple,
the years the years. Down the carved names
the future with its labyrinths & tailspins, rooms
giving way to rooms, the upturned card, the notebooks
cuneiformed with numbers, pivot & gyre, cache
of Rx pads stuffed into a rolltop drawer. 90 rabid
troubled minutes, coda Robert Johnson. Stones on my
passway & my road seem dark as night. Her eyes in memory
an astonished blue. You reach inside your jacket
& she holds it in her upturned palm. From the bedside
table she lifts the Walkman—the button with its triangle,
the click, the whirr, the eddying forward.
The first half of 2009 was the third driest on record for Lincoln, which contributed to a warmer than average spring. This dryness and heat also led to a reduced number of tornadoes in Nebraska—fifty percent fewer than the year before. The spring issue of Prairie Schooner featured “Seven Days of Falling,” by Adrian Matejka, a poem that was later included in The Best American Poetry 2010.
by Tory Clower
Seven Days of Falling
Today, I’m assimilating like margarine
into hotcakes. I’m getting down
like Danny LaRusso after the against-
the-rules leg sweep. So low,
I’ll be a flower in common decency’s
lapel. Factual, the same way “Zanzibar”
means sea of blacks to anyone who isn’t
from there. Where is Juan Valdez,
his burroesque dependability when
you need him? I had a friend who minted
t-shirts with Juan front and center,
an afro instead of a sombrero, a power
fist instead of a smile. The inscription:
100% Colombian. I’m going the way
of skin—radio waves, thoughts
like ear-to-ear transmissions grounded
into the ozone on the way from mindless
space to forgetful Earth. Man, my skin
doesn’t need me any more than mold
needs cheese. On this day of cellophane
lunchboxes and hand grenades reshaping
my palms into their own militaristic orbit,
there are only oceans to catch me.
On this day, something needs
to catalogue me: a hall monitor
doubled wide by ambition,
a goldfish with thumbs hitchhiking
toward a fishbowl full of dub.
The fall of 2008 featured particularly rainy months, netting more than four inches of precipitation above average, including one of Lincoln’s ten wettest Octobers on record. During this soggy autumn, Marvin Bell’s “The Birth of Ulysses”—a poem later nominated for a Pushcart Prize—was featured in Prairie Schooner.
by Tory Clower
The Birth of Ulysses
They were asking, “What have we come to?”
when they first saw Circe, and were bleeding
to learn what was out there. They flinched then,
when the boat knocked, and when the waves rose,
it led them to question who among them
were hands fit for the whiteouts of storm water.
They latched the latches and buttoned down.
They pulled on sleeves to sheathe their tattoos
and sat beneath decks riding it out, affecting calm
while milking each story for a hint of landfall.
These who were so earthy sat now in a ring,
each of them locked in fear. Not one who might
incline to an expression of it dared to say so.
They had used all the words they had been given
and now had to invent the story of Ulysses
and picture in their minds the beautiful Circe.
Breaking a drought dating back to 1999, Nebraska’s Platte River reached “flood stage” in late May of 2008. July in Lincoln was fairly hot, with temperatures up to 10 degrees above the average high, but August was mild and September was cooler than normal. Maxine Kumin, the United States Poet Laureate of 1981-82, was published in Prairie Schooner that summer. “Coleridge’s Laundry” was later nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
by Tory Clower
I wanted to talk about Coleridge
who was anything but handsome
and was always leaving his wife
to walk amazing distances
for conversations with his pals:
Poole, Lamb, Wordsworth, et al.
I said, so what if the Pantisocratic
ideal was just another hippie
utopia where everyone labored by hand
in the morning and studied or wrote
in the afternoon? So what if the project
conceived in poverty went down
in unexpected endowments,
the Lannans and MacArthurs of their day?
I wanted to read about laudanum:
how many drops at bedtime and
did he add them to water or tea
or something stronger.
When I closed my book I fell
asleep as instantly as if I’d downed
50 drops in two fingers of scotch straight up.
In my dream this poem was given
a communion wafer
and a blood transfusion.
I woke with baked cotton on my tongue.
My pulse was vigorous, my heart
was with Sara, the mountain
of laundry, her always absent Coleridge.
Domesticity and migraines,
miles and miles on foot.
According to a study of the Midwest conducted by the Illinois State Water Survey, the summer of 2004 had a disproportionately high number of clear days. In Lincoln, the departure was 110% above average! Strangely enough, all those clear days added up to a summer that was about four degrees cooler—and with precipitation of two inches more than the norm. Gabriel Spera was the winner of the 2004 PEN Center USA West Award for poetry; during that summer, his poem “All the Rage” was published in Prairie Schooner.
by Tory Clower
All the Rage
Only psychos and felons got tattoos back then,
which covered everyone I worked with on the truck -
Fitch, who lost a rose-twined dagger with half the skin
on both legs when his bike jumped a median, struck
a street lamp, and combusted. Or Pete, with the mermaid
he still showed off like a new bride, trying in vain
to make it shimmy on his arm, blind to the grayed
green tail and blur of what years back had been a smile.
Even Blatz, with his army-navy drabs, wound
a thread around a needle tip, dipped it in a vial
of India ink, and pecked out across the fat mound
of his thumb a skewed gunmetal-green-black
swastika. That should've been enough. And yet I found
myself strangely tempted, watching Donny with his slack
side-eyed saunter climb the loading dock,
indifferent to the diesel and seven o-clock cold,
setting his coffee on the punch clock, a hard pack rolled
in his shirt's short sleeves, baring the rocks
of his biceps, lit up like a beach-side casino
in blues and vermilions, bright forms that stole
from his knuckles to elbows, elbows
to collarbone. And while the rest of us, blessed
with nothing to hold out for anyway, cashed
our paychecks at the pool hall Friday nights, he stashed
what he could of his away, saving up, obsessed,
evidently, with gemming over the arms he'd once
used to beat a decent man to near death
in a life-staining minute that bought him nine months
in Riverfront. And we few of no design, who knew less
beauty than truth, who would always equate
violence with strength, could not help appreciate
how the foreman gave him space. How suddenly foolish
I felt, when I asked him, one such morning
he showed up, skin swollen beneath a jewelish
sheen of baby oil, some new tensed beast adorning
his already busy forearms, when I asked, because
I could picture him with his fist flopped
like a blood donor's on a vinyl table top,
the walls papered with available designs, the buzz
like a streetlamp on the fritz, when I asked in
all innocence if it hurt, having that needle pop
again and again and again the drum of his skin.
Susan Blackwell Ramsey’s “Pickled Heads: St. Petersburg” was selected for The Best American Poetry 2009, but was first published in the Winter 2007 edition of Prairie Schooner. 2007 was Lincoln’s fourth-hottest year on record, with an average temperature of 48 degrees Celsius. In contrast, St. Petersburg, Russia, experienced snowfall on two-thirds of the days from November of 2007 through February of 2008—quite a frosty winter!
by Tory Clower
Pickled Heads: St. Petersburg
Susan Blackwell Ramsey
For years they floated in adjacent jars,
two heads on a dusty storage shelf,
abandoned in a back room of the palace:
Mary Hamilton and Charles Mons.
We want to make things last. Salt, sugar, sun
will work, and tannin from chestnut bark, and brains
spread on the skins that toted them, and sometimes
words. But new two hundred years ago-
these "spirits of wine." (Fermenting's nature, but
distilling's art.) Not all steam is water,
just as not all passion's love. Boil wine,
catch what evaporates, trap that alcohol
and it preserves whatever you drop in,
the head of your wife's lover, for example-
Peter ordered his queen to display it on her mantle-
or your mistress, killed for infanticide.
They say Great Peter kissed the dead head's lips.
The bodies sinned, the heads were saved. Don't be
distracted by stories of Joaquin Murrieta
glaring in a jar in California.
Though he was gunned down by someone named Love,
his problems were political, not erotic.
He really should remind you of Evita,
beautifully embalmed, better than Lenin,
then passed around, hot political potato,
hidden in attics, propped like a doll behind
a movie screen for weeks, deaths unfurling behind her
like a red scarf from Isadora's car.
And even if Jeremy Bentham's head was found
once in a luggage locker in Aberdeen,
once in the front quadrangle being used
as a football by medical students, he died
a natural death and landed in that cabinet,
stuffed, propped, dressed, through his own will,
wax head on his shoulders, catastrophe in the drawer,
still convinced Utility was his goal.
The uses the dead are put to by the living.
Peter saved one for hatred, one for love,
and they outlasted hatred, love, and Peter
to become flip sides of Death's two-headed coin.
Heads win. Maybe the story
isn't the heads but Peter, unstoppable
monster consuming youth, a Minotaur
trapped in the labyrinth he built himself.
Finally Catherine freed them. After decades
she found them, observed how well their youth and beauty
were preserved, and had them buried, though no one says
whether bottled or free to stop being beautiful.
After Lincoln hit a record high of 75 degrees in January of 1990, the following fall was also quite warm. An average temperature around 57 degrees over September, October, and November put the fall of 1990 over five degrees warmer than normal. Reynolds Price’s icy “Spirit Flesh” was featured in Prairie Schooner that fall, providing a frigid counterpoint to the unseasonably warm weather.
by Tory Clower
Horn Branch, its homely pond, accept the snow.
Weeds and scrub hunker their winter crouch
This last gray week before the darkest day.
Same branch, same pond and these weeds’ hardy forebears—
Three decades back we lay in summer dusk
And counted fish: their skittish leaps for bugs,
Their agate eyes. Still nothing we saw was half
As fine as we—our coal-black hair, our eyes,
Your seamless skin, pure and taut as a bolt
Of creamy silk. Just at dark a snapping
Turtle surfaced, big as a tub;
You named this Turtle Spirit Pond.
He’s down there still, realer by the year.
We’re here, still hot to yoke on this white page.
The spring of 1959 featured some huge weather fluctuations in Lincoln. In April alone the temperature ranged from a low point of 26 degrees to a high of 86. May was nearly as variant: from 37 degrees all the way up to 93. A poet published in the spring issue of Prairie Schooner that year had experienced much of this kind of weather as a young man. Weldon Kees, who had disappeared four years prior, was a native of Beatrice, Nebraska, and an alum of the University of Nebraska.
by Tory Clower
A Musician’s Wife
Between the visits to the shock ward
The doctors used to let you play
On the old upright Baldwin
Donated by a former patient
Who is said to be quite stable now.
And all day long you played Chopin,
Badly and hauntingly, when you weren’t
Screaming on the porch that looked
Like an enormous birdcage. Or sat
In your room and stared out at the sky.
You never looked at me at all.
I used to walk down to where the bus stopped
Over the hill where the eucalyptus trees
Moved in the fog, and stared down
At the lights coming on, in the white rooms.
And always, when I came back to my sister’s,
I used to get out the records you made
The year before all your terrible trouble,
The records the critics praised and nobody bought
That are almost worn out now.
Now, sometimes I wake in the night
And hear the sound of dead leaves
Against the shutters. And then a distant
Music starts, a music out of an abyss,
And it is dawn before I sleep again.
April 4 of 1978 was unseasonably warm. At 82 degrees, it set Lincoln’s record high temperature for that date. In stark contrast, June 8 set a daily record low of 47 degrees. The Spring 1978 issue of Prairie Schooner featured a poem by a then-unknown writer by the name of Sharon Olds. Olds’ first collection of poetry wouldn’t even be published until two years later—proof that no matter how unstable the weather, Prairie Schooner’s pioneering spirit is a certainty.
I see your son at school since your death.
He is so vivid, he is burning with life for you.
His jokes in the elevator have lost
their mean edge. His face looks caught
in the blaze of headlights.
He is swimming on into the glare; with his head up
he is taking on a whole life without you.
Into his sleep you dive from the high board,
the white bandage from your head uncurling slowly in the air
like a bon-voyage streamer.
The distance between you looks steep
as the side of an ocean liner.
Death pulls out from the dock. The gap spreads
rapidly as black scorch.
From the high metal side you dive neatly
right into his heart.