John Palen's "September 1941"

Every poem is its own little world. In that world you can do anything, go anywhere, create whatever kind of logic, imagery, connections, or resonance you like. Of course, all choices matter: line length, syllables, rhythm, rhyme (or the lack thereof), and absolutely every single word. A short poem can seem simple and as clear as a glass of water, but is the result of a lot of labor from the poet. Labor similar to what I imagine a wood carver must do—shaving off the excess wood to reveal the essence of the imagined form.

This poem that I’m about to read today by John Palen is short and simple: four stanzas, each four lines long, the diction straightforward and mostly plain. But he makes great leaps in such a small space—back in time and halfway across the world. In the process, he fits in hens, apples, Leningrad, and a fetus attentive to his mother’s beating heart. It’s like a beautifully-made small wooden box, planed smooth, with careful dovetails and a lid that fits snugly on top.

Here it is, John Palen’s “September 1941,” published in Off the Coast, Summer 2014. John Palen lives in Urbana, Illinois.

Hens in the henhouse
lift and settle, go quiet.
The orchard takes a step,
another, out of the mist.
Early sun on the Winesaps’
ripening skin. She likes
his morning stubble, coarse
and wiry. Gives him a poke,
while half a world away
the Blockade of Leningrad
lumbers into being. That next
winter, me in utero, the city
in fetal position, all of us
listeners together:
the metronome on state radio,
the tub-thump of a mother’s heart.