Sleeping Bear. A Poem

Republished from Poetry London

By Linda Gregerson

The backstory’s always of hardship, isn’t it?
No-other-choices and hoping-for-better
on foreign shores. A minute ago, as measured

by the sand dunes here, the shipping lanes were thick
with them, from Hamburg, Limerick, towns
along the Oslofjord, and lucky to have found

the work. The Michigan woodlands hadn’t been denuded yet
(a minute ago) so one of the routes was
lumber and the other tapped a prairie’s worth

of corn. There’s a sort of cushioned ignorance that comes
of being born-and-then-allowed-to-live-in-
safety so I used to think it must have been more

forgiving here, less brutal than the brutal North Atlantic
with its fathoms and its ice. But no.
The winds, the reefs, the something-to-do-with-

narrower-troughs-between-the-waves and lakes like this
are deadlier than oceans: in
a single year the weather claimed one in every

four. We come for the scale of it: waters without
a limit the eye can apprehend and – could
there be some mistake? – aren’t salt. Dunes

that dwarf pretension which if falsely consoling is right and
good. Where commerce lifts its sleeping head.
If I had the lungs for diving I expect I’d be there

too among the broken ribs and keels. Visitors need

a place to sleep and something to fill up the
evenings, it’s natural, the people in town

need jobs. Calamity-turned-profit in tranquility. My
father’s father’s father was among the ones
who did not drown. Who sold his ship and bought a farm.


What is it about the likes of us? Who cannot take it in
until the body of a single Syrian three-
year-old lies face down on the water’s edge? Or this

week’s child who, pulled from the rubble, wipes

with the back and then the heel of his small
left hand (this time we have a video too) the blood

congealing near his eye then wipes (this is a problem,

you can see him thinking Where?) the hand
on the chair where the medic has put him.

So many children, so little space in our rubble-strewn
hearts. In alternative newsfeeds I am
cautioned (there is history, there is such a thing

as bias) that to see is not to understand. Which (yes, I know,
the poster child, the ad space, my consent-
to-be-governed by traffic in arms) is true and quite

beside the point. The boy on the beach, foreshortened
in the photograph, looks smaller than
his nearly three years would make him, which

contributes to the poignancy. The waves have combed his
dark hair smooth. The water on the shingle, in-
different to aftermath, shines.


There was once, says the legend, a wind-borne fire or as
some will recount it a famine and
a mother bear with her two cubs was driven

into the lake. They swam for many hours until the
smaller of the cubs began to weaken and,
despite all the mother could do, was drowned,

then the second cub also, so when the mother reached
the shore which then as now betokened
a land of plenty she lay down with her face

to the shimmering span whose other side was quite
beyond her powers of return. The islands
we call Manitou, the one and then the other, are

her cubs, she can see them, we go to them now by ferry.
We are not
the people to whom the legend belongs.


And even on my city block. There has always been suffering,
both little and large. But does it
compare to mine?
Yours is nothing.

I saw the woman running. I heard her scream.
You did nothing.
She said please she said help me we all stood still.

You all stood still. It took us a minute to figure it out,
by then they were down
the street.
And then? The men were on bikes,

I didn’t think that happened here. That wasn’t
my question. Whatever
they’d taken had made her quite desperate, I’ve

never heard a scream like that. Then you? Then we
went on with our evening.


Stroke of the pen. 16:42 on a Friday. Say you were
already in the air.
You’ve given away your blankets, your

tent, you thought you’d seen the last of camps. Or say
it was your buddy from
the 82nd Airborne: interpreter, ally,

engineer. Targeted twice because of what he did
for you. His papers are no good now,
your promises were lies. Detrimental, says

the president. Malicious intent. Says, only those
who love us. That’s
your favorite part.


If a spirit – call him Manitou – takes pity on a
family of bears or, more
to the point, if humans imagine they share

the earth with bears who are worthy of pity and
a cognizant spirit however
remote has pity to spare, why then

why then a sand dune may be more than sifted
silica. The wind goes on with its
sorting, the lake bed cradles its dead.

But part of the language the glacier used
to speak to the sculpted substrate will
include this bit of sediment.

We didn’t mean to fail you. We were here.

Linda Gregerson is an American poet and member of faculty at the University of Michigan. In 2014, she was named as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.