Nebraska 15 – ‘Portrait of Viola’ by William Reichard

They lived without electricity.
Their water came from a hand pump
at the base of the windmill.
A Nebraska farm, 1935.
She said, you can’t miss what you
never had. Drugstore goldfish
in the water tank turned into
giant orange and white carp,
Koi prized in another country,
another class. Her father threw them
out into the prairie claiming
they’d poison the cattle.
Rattlesnakes, a way of life,
careful checking before eggs
were gathered from the darkness
of nesting boxes. Everywhere, heat.
Gone with the Wind
in 1939. She was fourteen.
During the war, she looked like
one of the Andrews Sisters.
First child at twenty, last at thirty-nine.
All survived save one, gone
at thirty. The death of her daughter
turned her hair white.
Eighty-four and she’s lived alone
for longer than she was married,
her husband a man with a wild imagination
but a weak mind. He was born
the year the Titanic sank.
That should have told me something.
Now, central air for the worst
of the heat. In her lifetime:
organ transplants, space flight,
television, artificial hearts.
On still nights she sleeps with
just a sheet, the window open wide,
summer’s heat hard and dry.

– from Two Men Rowing Madly Toward Infinity © Broadstone Books, 2016

I like this poem, as with so much of the best poetry, for its apparent simplicity. This is indeed a portrait, one that is swelled with detail prompted by its many specific references: the ‘Koi’ carp that signify insularity and stubbornness; ‘Andrews Sisters’ and their wholesome personas; births and death; the uncertainty of her husband – and throughout this, Viola as a still-point of endurance, carrying on and on like the expansive landscape that doesn’t change.

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