Jacob Riyeff — Three Excerpts

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.

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