American Portrait (11)

by Ken Harnisch

Came that autumn day

When Erwin Rasmussen spied

The Mayflower Van moving on the hill

The only hill in Custer County,

South Dakota, she had told him once;

The only place a free spirit could go

To touch the stars, and only then

On the summer nights

When the mosquitoes were as big as crows

And the black flies bit the tender skin

Of anyone who dared to soar away

To a planet where she promised there was life


He put his hands in his Oshkosh pockets

And felt the straps sagging on his melancholy

Shoulders. Resisted the urge to put a thin stalk

Of yellow wild grass between his parched lips

But needing something to bite on, he did so

Anyway, peering out at the trillions of waving

Fronds across the fields, that were like seas

Of ochre rolling on and on.


Right off the two-track rut that was the county

Road, she used to point to the place where

The school house had been swallowed by the

Grass, where the silo had come down in

The tornadoes in ’89 and still rusted

In the corn. There were three small

Houses there when they had made love

In the sweet spring mist, but those


Were blackened empty hulks

And their former owners

Now working the grain elevators, or, like

Sam, driving trucks somewhere

In Minot.


“Not my idea,” her father said,

Wiping his brow with his leathery hand

“But maybe she has a point

Maybe we’re not all cut out for the land

And maybe the land don’t want us anymore anyway

You have to start to think it, son.”


Erwin was angry then,

Ready for the debate, ready to say a man with

A tractor and the will could conquer any

Place on earth, but her father just smiled

And said, “I don’t think John Deere ever

Met a place more goddamned than South Dakota


He had semi-promised her to stay away

When she moved, but spying him walking up the hill

She held out her arms and let him take her deep

Into their embracing wells. He drank in her sweet lavender,

Cringing only when she broke away. She smiled at him

Trying to avoid seeing Erwin the Gentle Giant weep

While his final kiss  rested on her coral cheek.


“Stay,” was all he said, his words always as spare

As the Prairie from whence they sprung as children in the


“I can’t,” was her reply.


She took two steps and turned around;

Came to him; rested once more in his arms.

Then she slowly cut the cord.

“I can’t read, sweetie.

I can’t think;

I can’t dream;

I can’t live.

Not here.”

And looking at the pearling

In his periwinkle eyes she

Added, “Come on, Erwin,

Even you know

Driving fifty miles

Just to see a movie

Is too damn much”


Author's Note: I read some years ago that the Great Plains are actually winning over attempts to farm them or tame them...and I think that this may not be a bad thing, humbling the minds of mankind

Posted on 06/22/2003
Copyright © 2022 Ken Harnisch

Member Comments on this Poem
Posted by Agnes Eva on 06/22/03 at 08:20 PM

sad, this end of romance in the waving wheat, the girl who wasnt' born for it, and the boy that stayed despite the odds of the land... i feel both their positions. i love his emphatic idea that "a man with/ A tractor and the will could conquer any/ Place on earth"

Posted by Alex Smyth on 06/22/03 at 11:51 PM

Poignant, tender~ I grew up in the rurals and saw this happen, but also saw what happened to the ones who tried to compromise. Better to remember the dream, I think...

Posted by Max Bouillet on 06/25/03 at 07:06 PM

You tell a story extremely well... even though I have never been to the places described physically.... I now feel as though I've been there. Nicely crafted.

Posted by Kate Demeree on 06/28/03 at 09:25 AM

I have read this several times, and am finally getting around to commenting it. I love every AP you have written Ken, this one is as much alive as the rest, in some ways more so. The simple words exchanged saying more than a thousand would.

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