Peat. Thatch. Potatoes pulled from the earth.
Newly sheared fleece. Irish rain. The milk cow’s teats.
The work-warmed worn wood handles
of the butter churn, shovel, hammer, awl.
Wool as it is being spun, as it is being knit.
Cotton thread, an old silver thimble, a sharp needle.
Rosary beads. Some school books, chalk and slate.
The family Bible. Newspapers with stories of America.
The calloused, skilled hands of mother, father.
Their own faces when tired, in thought, weeping.
The last embrace of those they said goodbye to.
A pebble palmed from the lane as they left home.
The wooden cradles of the ships that carried them.
Pots of dinged steel for urine and vomit tossed to the sea.
The first rocks pocketed after coming ashore in New York.
The railing of steamships. Faded boarding house upholstery.
The shanty door latch, corn-husk pallets, ashes, whisky flask.
A compass, ruler, pencils to draw bridges and aqueducts.
A rag doll. Leather shoes, beyond repair. Ribbons for braids.
Shell combs for a woman’s bun. Hat pins and quilts.
Hands, lips, faces, each other’s body on their wedding day.
Wages paid in Blue Dog and Red Dog scrip. Letters from Ireland.
Umbilical cords, placentas, amniotic fluid, blood from childbirth.
The same stuff as calves, lambs, and foals were born.
The axe and plow working an eighty acre farm. Seeds planted.
Weeds pulled. Harvests of corn, string beans, potatoes, milk, eggs.
Each newborn’s hair, sunbeams, darkening, becoming human.
The family pew at St. Peter’s. Grave markers for dead children.
Sarsaparilla root. Corn starch. Salt. Bread dough. Lard. Cast iron
skillets. Lye soap. Shaving cream on a brush. Talcum powder.
Newspapers with headlines about John Brown, Gettysburg,
Lincoln’s death, Wounded Knee, the Wright brother’s flight.
Shards of broken crockery. Buffalo nickels, Indian pennies.
Train tickets. Telegrams. Ballots. Bills of sale. Deeds.
Maps that showed Western territories becoming states.
McGuffey’s Readers, loaned by nuns at the parish school.
Lilacs from the bush planted near the bedroom window.
Water from the hand-pump by the back door.
Gray hair brushed loose, given to the wind. Tears cried
on each child’s wedding day. New-born grandbabies.
The tiny fingers of the infant who would become
my grandmother and hold me as baby.
The shawl of an old woman. The cane of an old man.
His hand in hers, holding on tenderly, as she lets go.
—Liza Hyatt (Marion County)
This poem is from Once There Was a Canal (Chatter House Press, 2017).
Liza Hyatt is the author of The Mother Poems (Chatter House Press, 2014), Under My Skin, (WordTech Editions, 2012), Seasons of the Star Planted Garden (Stonework Press, 1999), and Stories Made of World (Finishing Line Press, 2013). Her newest book, Once There Was a Canal, will be published this summer by Chatter House Press. Liza is an art therapist at IU Health Charis Center for Eating Disorders. She is adjunct professor in art therapy graduate programs at St. Mary of the Woods College and Herron School of Art.
Poetry Prompt: What They Saw, Touched or Heard
Write a family history poem by listing details that appeal to one of the five senses. Your poem might reflect, as Liza Hyatt’s does, the journey of immigrant ancestors who learned to adapt to a new home.
Indiana Humanities is celebrating National Poetry Month by sharing a poem and prompt every day in April. Indiana Poet Laureate Shari Wagner selected these poems and wrote the prompts.