Archive for the ‘POETRY’ Category

Winter Worship

February 13, 2022

Studying and imagining the past often helps keep my own life in perspective. In that spirit, since many are experiencing frigid weather, I share this poem:

Winter Worship

They arrived in November and found
no preachers in the settlement
of crabbed cabins, towering oaks, prairie.
Time dragged, full of cracked lips, frozen toes,
brittle sunshine, looming shadows.
Logs groaned, ice fractured, men cursed.
children burrowed hollow and dull beneath quilts.

Cora paid her tithes at the woodpile,
perched on a board in the snow,
ax clothed in mittened, frost-bit hands.
Chop and haul, chop and haul, bless
the warming muscles, curse the freezing sweat.
Then into the cabin to worship
at the cast iron altar, source of life yet
insatiable, glowing red as brimstone.

This selection is from my collection Balancing: Poems of the Female Immigrant Experience in the Upper Midwest, 1830-1930 (Little Creek Press, 2021).

(Top images courtesy Pixabay)

First, Second, Fortieth

June 2, 2021

I’m excited to announce my first book of poetry, my second release of 2021 (with one more to come), and my fortieth book! 

If you’ve enjoyed the Chloe Ellefson Mysteries or my non-fiction A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through The Seasons, I think you’ll like this collection as well. Here’s the scoop: 

The poems in Balancing were inspired by the experiences of women who, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sought new homes in the Upper Midwest. Few women recorded their struggles and satisfactions, but by juxtaposing research and imagination, Kathleen Ernst breathes new life into their forgotten stories.

Balancing will be released on July 1st by Little Creek Press.

Please join me for the virtual launch party!

The party begins at 7 PM Thursday, July 1st, 2021. My beloved local independent bookstore, Mystery To Me, will host. Attendance is free but pre-registration is required.

I’ll share a few of the poems, and the stories that inspired them. Celebrated poet Andrea Potos will have some questions for me as well. 

I will be happy to sign and personalize copies of Balancing pre-ordered through Mystery To Me.

I’ve been reading immigrant diaries, letters, and reminiscences for forty years. These poems were inspired by details and moments that touched my heart.

I hope they touch yours as well. 

Lost, 1867

November 10, 2013

I’ve been compiling a collection of poetry about immigrant women’s experiences in the Midwest. I can’t possibly use in novels all the compelling tidbits I find when doing historical research! When something calls to me, but it won’t work in whatever book I’m writing, I often channel it into a poem instead.

Two years ago one of my poems, Facing Forward, was chosen for an exhibit called “Mark My Words” 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. I was thrilled to be included! (You can see the poem and accompanying artwork HERE.)

The Pump House

Last spring the good folks at the Pump House put out another call for entries. “Mark My Words Again: Artists Respond To Short Poetry” was more of a challenge because I don’t write many short poems, but I managed to submit a suitable entry:

Lost, 1867
From the train, the prairie looked flat as a cracker.
She didn’t learn until settling on their new place
that the land sank and swelled like a restless sea;
that the tall grasses, gently beckoning, hid swales that swallowed
the silk bonnet blown from her head while they wagoned to town,
the plump ruffed grouse she’d hoped to shoot for Sunday dinner,
and—as she pegged out wet laundry, humming a hymn—
the child who toddled from her side, chasing a butterfly.

In this poem, I wanted to reflect how life has both changed and stayed the same since 1867. While the loss of a bonnet may feel irrelevant today, the loss of a child evokes timeless emotions.

My poem was given to an artist, who had three months to create a partner piece. I didn’t see the results until the exhibit opened.

Mark My Words KAE

A reception to celebrate “Mark My Words Again” was held at the Pump House last month, and it was a fascinating evening. The poems selected for the exhibit were diverse, and so was the artwork. Some artists chose to illustrate the poem they were given; others used an idea in the poem as inspiration to move in a new direction.

My poem was given to talented photographer Jerry Weigel.

Mark My Words Again photo

Jerry said, “The poem reminded me that we only find new things when we are lost.  Like the child chasing the butterfly in 1867, this little guy lost himself in the vine tunnel just to see what was on the other side.”

Heartfelt thanks to Lynne Valiquette and the “Mark My Words Again” committee not only for selecting my poem, but for mounting such an extraordinary exhibit!

Ballads of Antietam

September 17, 2013

Wherever I am on September 17, I pause to remember the horrific battle that raged in and around Sharpsburg, Maryland, on this day in 1862.

Antietam cannon

Last year I was fortunate enough to spend the 150th anniversary weekend at Antietam National Battlefield and nearby Harpers Ferry. Several of the guest speakers mentioned that their initial interest in the Civil War was sparked during the war’s Centennial commemorations, 1961-1964. Many of my reenactor friends also began their life-long hobby during that time.

Betty Bauer,  a writer and friend who lives in Kansas, surprised me a year or so ago by sending a book of poems that her mother, Ora Ann Ernst, published in 1960. We’re not related, and until then I had no idea that Betty had Maryland roots.

Ballads of Antietam

The poems are lovely, and I was delighted when Betty said I might share some here.

Antietam poem 3

Ora was a teacher, reporter and editor, and historic preservationist who lived on a beautiful farm in Clear Spring, Maryland—not too far from the Antietam Battlefield.

Ora Ann Ernst

Photo published in Hagerstown’s The Daily Mail, December 24, 1990.

When she died in 1983, her eulogist noted that Ora “used her gifted pen to record little-known facts of history of the county she called home.   . . .The closing achievement of her journalistic career . . .  was in behalf of historic preservation in the Clear Spring area—her legacy to a cause so dear to her heart.”

Antietam Poem

In honor of her many gifts to her community, a Clear Spring Park and Recreation Area was dedicated to her memory. But as her poems show, her reach extended beyond Clear Spring to the rolling fields around Sharpsburg.

Antietam Poem 2

In the many years I spent prowling Washington County archives while researching Too Afraid To Cry:  Maryland Civilians In The Antietam Campaign, I somehow never came across Ora’s booklet of poems.  I love this glimpse into her thoughts and emotions as the 100th anniversary of the battle approached.

Like Ora, I’ve often found myself “with ghost men all around” when walking over the field.

Abandoned Farmhouse

April 14, 2010

I often photograph abandoned old houses.  I map them in my mind, and the next time I drive by, I always look to see if something has changed.  Every once in a while, I’m enormously cheered to find that someone is fixing up some once-lovely place.  More often, I discover that one wall has caved in, or that someone has razed the place altogether.

A few weeks ago I packed my laptop and my cat into the car and headed to Door County, Wisconsin, for a weeklong writing retreat. I’ve been driving this route periodically for almost thirty years, now, and I always look for a couple of special houses.  I’m a bit worried about one of my favorites.

This house must have been spectacular when it was new. (Of course, in its own way, it still is.)

The original owners must have been good farmers, for even with the red bricks produced locally, these homes weren’t quick and easy to throw together.

Whenever I see such a place, I am reminded of the poignant poem “Abandoned Farmhouse,” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser.  I’ll reproduce just the first stanza here:

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn

Mr. Kooser interprets his abandoned farmhouse in the same way curators hope museum visitors interpret artifacts carefully chosen to help tell a story.  If you love history but haven’t discovered Mr. Kooser’s work, I recommend Delights and Shadows, or any of his other volumes.

I am interested in historic architecture.  Still, like Mr. Kooser, I think mostly of the people who once lived in these abandoned farmhouses. Who proudly stepped inside for the first time?  What joy and anguish did the house once hold?  How did the last occupants feel when they moved out?  Did they know the house would sit empty, and perhaps crumble into the landscape?

I pass this one when I drive toward Lake Delton. Don’t you love the gingerbread trim?

Say the phrase “historic site” and most of us think first of a place formally preserved; a place we now need an admission ticket to explore.  But historic sites surround us, every day.  All we need is a little imagination to bring them to life.


February 4, 2010

A year or so ago, the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville announced plans for an online literary journal.   I submitted five poems to the editor, and was pleased when they were accepted as a collection.  These poems are part of a larger collection I’ve been slowly assembling about 19th-century  immigrant women, and the varied experiences they had in the Upper Midwest.

Publication was delayed—not sure why—and the Driftless Review evolved into a blog, instead of a website.  Nonetheless, I’m delighted to announce that my poems have been posted.  If you’d like to take a look, the easiest thing to do is Google “Driftless Review” and my last name, which will get you to the proper string.

For now, I’ll share one of them here.  “Empty” was inspired by my time at Old World Wisconsin both in content, and in style.  On the surface, it’s the story of an immigrant woman.  But I tried to tell her story with images of her things, and her place, instead of with her own words.  When I was a curator, I might have tried to tell the same story by carefully choosing artifacts, and their placement within an historic structure.

An unidentified woman.


The immigrant trunk, where she’d tried to tuck
the essence of home—an embroidered collar,
her mother’s prayer book—among the fry pans
and hatchels and sturdy boots.

The cradle, after her daughter died.
Faded blue blanket gone for a shroud,
no lingering scent of urine or milk,
no echo of chortles or cries.

His seat at the table, too, more and more often
as the wheat was devoured by chinch bugs,
so thick on the ground that her boots crunched
as she walked the scoured field.

The jug as well, cast aside on the threshing floor
meant for sprawling piles of golden grain on canvas,
the measured tread of oxen or the rhythmic beat of flails,
baskets brimming with winnowed wheat.

And the cracked blue crock on the pantry shelf
where she tucked coins earned
selling her noodled geese on market day.
Empty now, set a bit off-angle, as if ashamed.

Mark My Words

October 12, 2009

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!


September 25, 2009

Hensley Settlement

A cabin at the Hensley Settlement

The southern Appalachians hold a special place in my heart.  A few years ago I finally had the chance to visit the Hensley Settlement, within Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.  This community on Brush Mountain, established in 1904, remained home to two extended families until 1951.   It is remote, accessible only by an eight-mile hike or a guided tour via a small park service van.  Once on the mountain a visitor can look across the way, or out of a cabin window, and see a landscape completely devoid of modern intrusions.

The ranger providing the tour on the day I visited did a superb job of bringing the settlement to life in our imaginations.  I found one offhand comment particularly intriguing, though.  After showing us the trap door to an interior root cellar, she said, “The man who built this cabin must have loved his wife.  He didn’t want her to have to go outside to fetch potatoes in the winter.”

In my motel room that night, I thought about her remark.  How else might someone in this time and place have demonstrated their feelings?  (Authors think about such things a lot, since “show, don’t tell” is hammered into our brains at every workshop and critique session.)

I began scribbling.  The result was the following poem.

Inarticulate, 1908

He never said he loved her,
but he dug a ‘tater hole by the hearth
so she wouldn’t have to go outside.
He split extra rails, and stuffed hay in the deep fence angles
to catch snow before it drifted across her path
when she fetched eggs in bitter dawns.
He ordered a cookstove at the valley store
and groaned it up the mountain
with a stout sled and team of oxen,
and he built a fire at four each morning
so the kitchen was warm when she started breakfast.

She rarely met his gaze,
but she made twelve-layer apple stack cakes
because his eyes crinkled at the corners when he ate them.
She scrubbed sand into wide popple boards
with a break-back broom so the floor
stretched smooth white beneath his boots.
She chopped her own kindling so he’d have time
to play his fiddle on summer evenings.
She saved flour sacks’ shiny blue liners
and papered the wall by his pillow
so the firelight glowed pretty as he drifted to sleep.

They never rose above their raisin’ with fancy talk,
just pondered the night-dazzled skies and knew
she had captured the stars in her apron,
he the moon in his sickle-scarred hands.

(Originally published in Appalachian Heritage)