Mark My Words

Mark My Words

MARK MY WORDS, at the Pump House Regional Arts Center in La Crosse, WI

When I worked at Old World Wisconsin, I read every account left by 19th-century immigrants to the Upper Midwest that I could find.  These diaries, letters, and reminiscences continued to be relevant (and compelling) after I took a job developing and scripting instructional video programs for Wisconsin Public Television.  Most recently, while writing a novel about Swedish immigrants (The Runaway Friend), I went back to archives and local history collections to see what else I could find.

I’ve been developing a collection of poetry about immigrant experiences.  I was honored to have one of my poems, “Facing Forward,” chosen for the MARK MY WORDS exhibition at the Pump House Regional Arts Center in La Crosse, WI.  The exhibit organizers selected twenty poems and twenty artists, and asked each artist to create a piece in response to one of the poems.

My poem is about a Norwegian immigrant couple starting a new life.  I wrote “Facing Forward” to honor those women who faced inconceivable hardships, but still took joy and strength from Wisconsin’s landscape and opportunities.

Facing Forward

In the old world, Emil muttered prayers over trenchers
of lutefisk, peered at the sky and sniffed the air to decide
when to plant potatoes, counted coins before Rilla shopped.
She tended her hearth as she’d been raised to do, an endless
chain of chores, and worn-fingered women doing them.

In the old world, when the hungry time came,
rye crop blackened with rust, children whimpering,
empty bellies and purses, Emil said We will go.
Rilla wept to leave her mother and sisters, lefse and cod,
smoke-stained village, mossy gravestones, all she knew.

In the new world, walking west, Rilla bore weight:
an unborn child in front, the toddler on her hip, worry.
When the oxen foundered she knotted her mother’s
kale seeds and candlesticks into the shawl
tied over one shoulder, and hefted the rifle too.

But in the new world Rilla walked with a step lighter
than heels rubbed raw, feet on fire, muscles’ ache,
sunburned skin.  She walked toward the prairie,
the unexpected promise of possibility, new grace
in her heart, a life not defined before her wedding day,

while Emil trudged behind, dragging an anvil
of doubt and fear, missing his father,
looking over his shoulder; but looking forward, too,
toward the woman he once knew, wondering
what he’d lost, and how she’d come to find it.

Reading "Facing Forward" at the Mark My Words reception

Reading "Facing Forward" at the MARK MY WORDS reception

“Facing Forward” was given to Monica T. Jagel.   Monica, a certified botanical illustrator who works primarily with colored pencils, does exquisite work.  I spent months wondering how she would illustrate a poem that covers travel from one continent to another!

The artist, Monica Jager.  What talent!

The artist, Monica T. Jagel. What talent!

Last Saturday evening, my husband Scott and I attended the opening reception for MARK MY WORDS.   Seeing my poem hanging beside a gorgeous work of art was one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me as a writer.

Monica made an unexpected choice.  Instead of simply illustrating my poem, she chose to continue the story.  In her own words:  “Now time has passed, the struggle is over.  The kale seeds were planted and harvested.  Her memories are carved in stone but the future holds possibility.  This strong woman can rest with the warm light from her candlestick that she has carried so far.  She is Facing Forward.”

I love it.

Facing Forward, by Monical T. Jagel.  All rights reserved.

Facing Forward, by Monica T. Jagel. All rights reserved.

If you look closely, you can see a map of Scandinavia “hidden” on the tombstone.  Monica also told me that in order to paint the kale, she called Seed Savers Exchange, ordered the oldest variety of kale they had, and grew some in her garden.

Heartfelt thanks to Monica; also to Lynne Valiquette and the rest of the MARK MY WORDS committee for putting the exhibition together.

At the reception, poets read their work, and artists explained how the poems inspired theirs.  The collaborative effect is fascinating!  The show will be at the Pump House Regional Arts Center through November 14.  From there it will move to the La Crosse Public Library.  If you’re traveling through the area, check it out!

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7 Responses to “Mark My Words”

  1. Alice Trego Says:

    Kathleen, what an honor bestowed upon you! Congratulations, and thank you for sharing this wonderful event in your writer life. I agree, the artist did a wonderful job of continuing your poem through her colored pencils. I just know you’re beaming 🙂

    Alice

  2. Cynthia Becker Says:

    What an intriguing idea for an exhibit. Congratulations on the selection on your work. You and artist Monica T. Jagel were well matched.

  3. Eunice Boeve Says:

    Kathleen,
    Wonderful poem! How beautifully the artist visually rendered your wonderful poem. Congratulations on your work being accepted for this honor. For the first time in my life I wish I lived in Wisconsin. Eunice Boeve

  4. Mary Peace Finley Says:

    Kathleen,

    What a deep, rich, evocative, complex poem! Monica Tagel’s art adds even more complexity. Together, you and Monica have captured the challenges of ancestor pioneers from everywhere. Congratulations!

  5. Joyce Lohse Says:

    This is a remarkable and touching collaboration! Congratulations for being so rightfully chosen to participate in this wonderful cooperative expression between artist and writer.

  6. Dawn Says:

    Your poem touched my heart and made it ache for my immigrant great-grandparents from Italy not Norway, but facing similar trials and hopes.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I’ve been reading and thinking about immigrant women for a long time, now, and so many of the stories touch my heart. I often write poems because I can’t fit every story into a novel. You can find a few more, including my first video-poem, on my website, http://kathleenernst.com. Have you ever tried writing about your Italian ancestors?

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