They: A Letter to America Chapbook

By Jeff Schiff

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They’ve upped

failed balloon refi
sibling knockdown dragout
COVID casualties
or bad juju fogging the air
southbound beat it
humped it down some golden road
the Wolperts
Henry and Estelle to start
lakeside lot 69
foundation poured: 1949
Janice and Julie and six
grandkids later
their name now
a palimpsest on faded siding
pennants folded
monumental bird houses suet-free
those lately retouched lawn jockeys
crammed cheek by in cavernous Mayflower van
their outstretched lanterns
no longer a signal home



They church-averse

Faith United and Calvary Home
their Delton and Gobles homes
a breeze behind them
down M43 and CR388
put in
at our public launch
theirs a different reverence
a scaled and slippery payback
five cornmeal dredged and panfried crappies
to sate a bachelor
a couple dozen at least
for those in a family way



They put in

at the public launch
driven to the lake
flasked coffee
hardly a pink in the cockcrow sky
by marital dissonance
a family damned
or shattered
run-ins at work at the Legion post
a tally of irresolution
creditors and PTSD blurt
large-mouthed succor
out there for sure just out there
in the you know it sweetwater
or slaloming through sedge
water’s edge
snagging what flirts beneath
nearly enough to set things right



They forage here

you’ll spot them gloved
chest strung with adapted creels
edging through bramble barbedwire
squatting with trowels in leaf litter
bent and at the base of ruined trunks
ramps are easy
sweet leak stew
bulb stem and leaf
thorny fruits
black and raspberries
one in the mouth
five in the pail
hickory nuts
shagbark and shellbark
appearing unbidden at the base of trees
subtler candidates
prairie birdfoot
and northern marsh violets
fiddlehead ferns sheep sorrel
lamb’s quarters dandelion greens
shrooms of course
an expert seeker’s bonanza
hen of the woods
bear’s head tooth
golden chanterelle
morels if you live right
burn-site morels
if the fruit of disaster is your thing



They are stern here

in the sterns and bows
of flatbottom dinghies
their stares empty water
across fiberglass gunwales
distance a palliative
the silent movie of their theatre
(drifting allegiance
buoyant infidelity
workplace catastrophe)
framed by the wail the tremolo
the yodel of fickle loons
and the mewl of caged peacock
strutting in their hidden aviary
where all can hear
but none can witness



They explode

from brush
from roadside culverts
and brambled trenches
from behind decayed stumps
that have bested gravity
from under quilted vetch
lily of the valley
wintergreen and wild ginger
ground cover so dense
there is no ground to cover
ride by walk by drive by
they bing bing
shoot across the road
from covert nowhere
as if as if
there was only the other side
and only that ordained moment
to be there



They Husqvarna they Stihl

they Craftsman
kneeling full throttle
early Spring
garden by garden down
our backwoods lane
to nub them clean cut
to buzz them off
where nascent trunk meets sodden mulch
wind-scattered pick-up-sticks
volunteer saplings
a rural I-Ching tossed without so much
as a by-your-leave
sugar maples  hornbeam beech  blackgum
knowing we are orderly
we are rooted
in our own invented ways



They surveil

snapping their feathered disdain
if you happen
to stroke or drift by
cherry kayak dinged canoe
three mute swan pens
three truculent mute swan cobs
three mounded nest piles
rushes and rhizome
withered sedge
a humpy repository
three clutches this year
spread equidistant
along our north shore
five weeks of mother
warming the mound
five weeks of hard
stare you down



They worship

Spanish bluebells
and newly risen Solomon’s seal
fringing their strawberry plots
where amended loam
and snipped runners
and summer’s bargain
are bound by trenched gullies
and motley fields
where one learns early
that scatter trumps premeditation
that all gods and germination
and taking root
are often the fruit
of windblown chance




Jeff SchiffJeff Schiff is the author of That hum to go by, Mixed Diction, Burro Heart, The Rats of Patzcuaro, The Homily of Infinitude, and Anywhere in this Country. Hundreds of his poems, essays, recordings, and photographs have appeared in more than 150 publications worldwide, including The Alembic, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Grand Street, Ohio Review, Poet & Critic, McNeese Review, Salt Hill, Tulane Review, Tampa Review, Louisville Review, Tendril, Pembroke Magazine, Carolina Review, Chicago Review, Hawaii Review, Southern Humanities Review, River City, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, Salt Hill, and Southwest Review. He has taught at Columbia College Chicago since 1987.

Read three poems by Jeff Schiff previously appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Lucas Allmann, courtesy Pexels.

Dark Horse

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.