Alberta Clipper 9/29/15: “Well, Millstone, Cistern, Cliff (1892)” by Steve Lautermilch


September 29, 2009, is a date that rocked the world. In Samoa, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake sparked a tsunami that produced waves as high as forty-six feet. In Lincoln, Nebraska, meanwhile, it was a calm and sunny seventy degrees. One year later, a poem called Well, Millstone, Cistern, Cliff by Steve Lautermilch appeared in Prairie Schooner, depicting a storm after a drought, another time of disaster. –Kara Cosentino


for Paul Cezanne

The cistern has run dry. Now the stone well,
shaped rock and unshaped, collects sound, and what
is beyond sound, the crackle of wrinkled stems
curling to flame. Watercolor scratched,
scraped to bare stock—trees, saplings, twigs.
Roots and brush, windfall limbs and fallen trunks.

Broken, unbroken ground. A tent of shavings, tinder,
leaves, wick and wicker bleached to windless scraps,
rag and bone for the match. Canvas of oil and graphite,
artist's paper of charcoal and flint. A table, a candle,
a workshop of candles, a bench of burning sight.

Winding back to the village, threading sycamore
and elm, a ribbon of unribboning steps that vanish,
packed clay turned dirt cobbled stone, the first drops
of rain pattering on pickets, spattering a gate.

Roof tile and slate, forked branch and fern
beginning to blossom and burn, palette knife wind
working, edging open door and window frame, threshold
of the weather to come, already arriving, the pour
and slather and following mist that breathe
and fan household and land ablaze.

What were you feeling, old young man,
haunting that grove, leaf-hold
where a millstone was cut and hauled,
makings for the mill that never was built.

Gathering colors, one after another, brother of
half patches, stepfather of quarter tones brought
to a sketch, an easel, like offerings for a poor box.
Open air tent, tabernacle and altar cloth where
the silence swells, running and sweeping a shore
that has no need of other tides. Hard to get down,

hard to let go. No, not the colors or pigments, not
the blunted stabs of pencils grains of minerals
and daubs of washed clays, and
not the pounding storm or slashing gale that pares
sharpens and drives grass blade and pine straw
into the side of barn fence post and pine.

Only the timed give and take, right hand and left,
the rhythms of the water clock ribs,
this free flight of wind, lift of limb, bird wing of breath
that chalice and paten the bones, the workaday canvas
of harvest and prayer. Slashing, stroking, patching,
repairing. Coming about. And always

under sea the eddy and ebb, below and within
and between each pulse, the bead and bell
of the unknown, unwatered life.


Prairie Schooner, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Fall 2010)