I Imagine My Great-Great Grandfather on the Illinois and Michigan Canal

By David Starkey

                        The steady hoofbeat of six draft
                                     horses pulling his boat south
             from Chicago to LaSalle. You’d think
their rhythm would distract him
                        from the cargo that he’s hauling,
                                     but always his mind’s on things:
             rags and rosin, soap and sugar,
potatoes and mechanic’s tools.
                        Early fall. Blackberry bushes
                                     along the bank beginning to wither,
             the peppery smell of wet soil.
Sometimes he thinks that 1857
                        will never end, that the pig iron
                                     and millstones weigh
             down Time itself. Fifty-pound
sacks of salt and horseshoe nails.
                        Plow blades and marble and lead.
                                     Dawn breaks the color of broomcorn,
             and evening’s golden as rum or rye.
At night, the others snoring, he lies awake
                        on his bed of freight and canvas,
                                     staring at stars, praying for God
             to enter him … but the closest he can get
to the Divine are smells:
             freshly-cut tobacco and vinegar,
                        salted mackerel and turpentine.

David Starkey served as Santa Barbara’s 2009-2011 Poet Laureate and is Director of the Creative Writing Program at Santa Barbara City College. He is Co-editor and Publisher of Gunpowder Press, as well as the author of eight full-length poetry collections. Also by this poet: Sheltering in Santa Barbara and The Secret of Longevity.