Three Poems

Like many of my generation of Mennonites, my introduction to “peace poetry” was Peter Ediger’s 1971 The Prophet’s Report on Religion in North America. Ediger’s flat, faux-Whitman lines and Blakean rhetorical stance defined for us what poetry should do. Once in a while I’ve wished my poems could reach Ediger’s level of outrage or political truth-telling. But I’ve also wondered if that idea of a poem “doing” something might not be a trap.

Public poets, as Richard Hugo calls poets like Auden (and by my extension, Ediger), “must always be more intelligent than the reader, nimble, skillful enough to stay ahead, to be entertaining so his didacticism doesn’t set up resistances.” That’s not to say there aren’t great, profound public poems—I’m thinking of the poems in Robert Bly’s The Teeth Mother Naked at Last, or Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, both written during and against the Viet Nam war and at roughly the same time Ediger was raising his own voice. But that public voice, as Hugo points out, is hard to sustain. Even Bly writes that “by the end of the war, I felt some affinity gone in me, and I wanted to return to privacy rather than to go on judging, useful as judgment is.”

Which is to say, at least for me, that a poetry of peace or protest in the long run might not be declarative, but meditative; that poetry comes not from the relationship between writer and reader, but between writer and language. William Stafford said once that “every poem I have ever written is a quiet protest poem.” However much I might wish my work louder, more direct, more prophetic, more overt in the cause of peace, it’s Stafford’s attitude I’ve ended up sharing.

Poem with Blue Center

Today turning compost
I found a nest of mice.
Little chirps and squeals
of one then two then five.

I hunted them down
with my blue pitchfork.
I was a little crazy.
I don’t know why.

They were gray and
a little blue, a little brown.

Tonight I line up the pine
on a star west of north.
It sparks, then disappears
behind clouds, sails free

again above the house.
It’s so far away I can’t
hurt it. Daisies with
their mindless beauty

are waiting for what
I will do to them.

There Instead

Squirrel in the walnut. Racket.
Autumn. Then the thump of nuts
in the grass. A glitter of leaves falling.

One white moth skitters tree to tree;
Chickadees—they’ll stay all winter—
drop their two notes into the weeds.

What loyalty keeps them here
I don’t know. Where nothing lasts
why do we stay with nothing?

This is where there ought to be some
sunlight, a chance, a sigh, an all-clear,
but look over there instead. Finches

nattering will stay the winter, too.
Crows, jays, the woman in the ball cap,
the noisy Labrador, all stay. Grass stays.

The war with its low-grade fever stays—
the thumping of its guns so far away
they might as well be something else.

In the woods insects are rattling, writing
letters home from the war we’re losing.
There’s no inoculation; no holding it

in the jail of our blood. After this
there’ll be something else; then, after that,
what’s after. Hope? Look over there instead.

Originally published in Fifth Wednesday 6 (Spring 2010):141.


In the news today, the "drift of families from the countryside to the cities."
Like leaves against the house.
The photo of two kids breaking rocks with a homemade hammer
as if for their own good.
Meaning at gun point.
Meaning the drift of meaning, how we found ourselves in the war.
How the oldest sense of drift is to be driven.
How flags wander, how electricity wavers in the amplifier.
Meaning my friend Omar, who used to say what mattered about a writer
was how he held his mouth.
By which he meant style.
By which he meant who knew what the truth was.
Two kids sitting on a pile of rocks, cracking them like walnuts.
Piling up until.
Somewhere on the Indian subcontinent and then.
Meaning for their own good.
The clench of the girl's mouth, the boy's opening in the direction of a wail.
The drift of rock dust, how the kids make gravel by hand to spread on the roads
so their families can drift over them to the city.
Which is the tendency of small things.
Which is what we were driving at.
How the President has said, "We have made mistakes."
As if style were an act of will, which it is.
What is driven, how we are driven, the road we are driven along.
And they found Omar in his car, dead from an overdose.
Will, then willy-nilly.
Mission accomplished, etc.
Like leaves blown against the house.
Here's how Omar starts a story: "Suddenly they were born."
Here's how Omar starts a another story: "When Raul Cascara died no one believed it."
Outside the begonias are little red cuts in the garden.
And yarrow, the war herb, has broken into the sage.
The tendency of cattle, all day, toward the barn.
The news today: Mothers in Iraq, etc.
Two Marines rape an Iraqi girl etc.
Omar would have loved the war, the president's mouth.
How they set her on fire with lighter fluid, etc.
How the president said today to the troops:
"I was injured myself once in combat with a cedar. I eventually won." etc.
Who knew so many small things could be beaten
into even smaller things?
Here's how Omar ends a story: "And what was left was the blue ash of the moon."
Here's how Omar ends another story: "Okay."

From: Then, a Thousand Crows. Anhinga Press, 2009

About the Author

Keith  Ratzlaff

Keith Ratzlaff’s books of poetry are Then, A Thousand Crows; Dubious Angels: Poems after Paul Klee; Man Under A Pear Tree; and Across The Known World. His poems and reviews have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Georgia Review, The Journal, New England Review, The Threepenny Review, Arts and Letters, Colorado Review, and The North American Review. His recent poems and essays also appear in The Best American Poetry 2009 (Scribner, 2009); Poets of the New Century (David R. Godine, 2001); A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2003); In the Middle of the Middle West: Literary Nonfiction from the Heartland (Indiana University Press, 2003); and in Snakebird: Thirty Years of Anhinga Poets (Anhinga Press, 2004). His awards include the Anhinga Prize for Poetry, the Theodore Roethke Award and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches writing and literature at Central College in Pella, Iowa.