Editor’s Note: The following poems are excerpts from Mr. Riyeff’s longer narrative work Leads and Diggings. The poems are written in a Middle Cornish syllabic meter; each line is either four or seven syllables long.
From “The Poetics of Extraction”
Janesville, Wisconsin 2007
North Franklin Street comes alive in powder blue, a slow and humid morning. As the same folks saunter in the Sizzlin' Grill welcomes them into its narrow doorway, decades of cigarette smoke defying the smoking ban and eggs already frying. Molly climbs the squat stairway, grasping the wall for support, her white curls rebounding from the humid air. She plops down at the table north of the door. Nancy pours her black coffee, already placed the order for her biscuits and gravy. She looks down at the speckled white china between fingers, the rim circled, and memory swims inside, the outwash fan's outer edge pragmatically paved behind her rounded back— the gravel and sandy till that made up the glacier's gift to the Rock's mouth: ancient current preparing home for burr oaks and prairie. Coffee bitter on the tongue. Millbrig Hollow, Illinois 1885 Sitting on the riverbank Louis fishes, back against pine, lure in the rippling water. What does it matter if he catches dinner? This is time for rest from work at the plough, winnowing fan, winch and windlass, whatever there is to do. And the leaves are changing shade, they fall on his short lapels. And what's Katherina at? Doesn't she know his hearing's worse and worse now? He served in the great war there away into Tennessee. Fighting didn't do him in, but he drank the Tennessee river's water in late March— measles and diarrhea: that rash drilled red all over, nights in the heat with fever, dehydration, days not knowing if he'd live, if he'd see his firstborn son who'd been born in September, if his eyes would ever look on the Fever's softing banks or sands again, catching crayfish in the mud, walking thru stands of yellow trout lily blooms. But here he is, years before the firing squad let hammers bring salute graveside down in Galena. Here he sits in the hollow, bone and flesh against the dirt, sunlight dappling the Fever low and golden.
From “The Lions of Time”
Janesville, Wisconsin 2020
She’s there still pacing the lawn— a hundred and fifty years in her pocket: a leaden ball, mined ore of generations. This folk, this place, this awesome river valley, all great aunts and abusings, crumbling streets and commercial developments. Geese feeding beneath dead trees in empty fields. Mom and dad off and away months at a time— to Newville and Edgerton, further up the watershed up to refuge. Family terrible branches spreading thru taverns and sun. But this city on the Rock alone is home. Sandhills stand tall in marshes, the homing counties today their call to generations. O, look to the clouds above the Rock River, and know. And know. O, look to the clouds above the Rock River, and know. And know. They said to themselves, we’ll pave the Indian trails, Sauk and Winnebago— a great network spanning marsh and field and glen! The deer will keep themselves clear of these highways. And now the beaver are gone, and elk and buffalo. And from this very valley, and others too, they pushed them out— the Ho-Chunk, the Sauk and Fox— to Nebraska, Iowa, and to Kansas. Some travelled back again and once again. Some stayed, and many did not. And latter-day apologies cannot change what happened then. Violence is a long, long train of many cars. Great God! Who could have dreamt up this slow horror? And this little plot above the gravel pit will have to do. The rattle-call of sandhills is heard away by Spring Brook, water and sediment all off to the Rock.
From “Till and Beds”
Along Highway 51, Rock Cty, Wisconsin December 2020
Their pale shades haunt the cornfields. We ride the plain with outwash, fan ridges east, on our way to Kidder Road, jog to the left in the lightly blowing snow. Up Manogue to Bill Fiedler's, Clara's brother, Sandy Sink Cemetery on the small knoll where she spent her open time. The blades are off the windmill in the cold air— a tripod of weathered wood high above Thresherman's Park. * * * Here in the sleet-strewn ruins of an old watering hole on the highway, shadows of women and men assault the mind— brick chimney sixteen feet high, box of St. Peter's sandstone quarried eagerly down the road, a fine pitched roof, wooden shingles splintering curved in sunken collapse of a century, the plain tile floor turned to scrub, weed, and gravel. Bill sat just here. And so did Hum. And maybe they didn't know what else to do, grown 'round now by thorn and grass. And just 'round the bend on Hurd Road Lou farmed long across the street where Bill laid logs on the tracks one sad, grey night, geese crossing the moon-fed sky. * * * Tobacco growing broad and green on ground moraine back to 1854, small acres about the plots where Fiedlers were laid to rest— Samuel and Augusta, and William and Augusta— and sandhills call overhead, on the watch for grain to glean. The Ruosches asleep southward— John and Bertha, Gertrude and George. And Louise on Rollin Street past the regal line of birches. Around the curve on Broadway my aunt had her heart broken by her father who came in quiet one night, said he was leaving her mom, and left his ring. She and her little brother. The memory still made her cry in the year before her death at ninety-four. Grandpa John across the street hewed and polished and bent the wood to form a wraparound porch— the first there in Edgerton— above the moving water, always the moving water, brown and liquid and alive: Saunders Creek a force marching down into the Rock below Indianford. She is a part of this earth. Albert oversaw all this as park superintendent, toiling in the embrace of Cream City brick. * * * A lone grove but new headstone— Otter Creek Cemetery, where Willie's bones are sinking into dark earth, hummocky moraine edging a farmer's field. His wife and lover and child became earth in other villages. And the windmill's blades are gone. Maple Creek, Wisconsin 1881 Here in the winding bottoms the trout lilies are in bloom. And Gaudenz loves to come here, to this swamp oak to look at the Embarrass, just to watch water slip by on its way down to the Wolf. The riverway overlaps in mind with the Rabiusa raging on below Malix northeast of the Bärenhorn. These flat floodplains and ground moraine, silver maples and green ash, the ericaceous bogland across Highway 54, have made a new home for him, fringed with oxbows. A waterthrush's flight song saturates the evening air as Gaudenz Ruosch looks downstream. Soon his bones will rest westward in a small plot north of County W. His bent frame leans on the oak for its support, the bank pitted, with some give against his linen shirtsleeve. And who can explain this dream of total movement onward? His grey eyes angle up from under his hat to view purple ribs of sky.
Jacob Riyeff (@riyeff, jacobriyeff.com) is a teacher, translator, and poet. His work focuses on the western contemplative tradition and the natural world. Jacob lives in Milwaukee’s East Village with his wife and three growing children.