Joshua Sutherland Allen

Joshua Sutherland Allen

Sunday, November 16, 2014


First rain, then sleet, then lightly sweeping snow,
Swift falling wintry mix that chills the air
And frosts the muddy autumn ground below,

Call to our minds a girl, whose locks of hair,
Both black and beautiful against her face,
Frame sweet eyes closed in some eternal prayer.

A blizzard marked her birth; the holy space
Of hospital room, windows etched with frost,
Was where we held our love and felt her grace.

The snow still brings to us the girl we lost,
Somehow connects us to her once again –
Our spirits meet when earth with snow is glossed.

    When winter sun sets shimmering ice aglow
    We smile, and say that Harper says hello.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Caravaggio's St. John the Baptist

Brooding prophet wrapped in robes of red,
Strong reed scepter, autumnal tree your throne;
Not bound by desert wilderness as in the Gospel,
But bound by pervasive, haunting images
In your mind.  Your lean, locust-fed body
Curved in outward anguish, your eyes
Searching for meaning outside the canvas.
Your hair, the color of the tree,
Is soft and fluffy – full of youthful life,
But somehow old, lost in the hue
Of falling leaves behind you.
Your hand twirls your reed,
Ruminating over mysteries and miseries
Of your yet young life. 
What thoughts invade your calm, country idyll –
What haunts and pains?
Are thou he that should come,
Or look we for another?
Is it your doubt about the Christ:
Wearily wondering whether faith and spirit are real,
Or simply shadows created by the mind
To hide us from the traumas of human life?
Or is it the grief endemic in a prophet’s brain:
Pains that come from knowing

That the earth is not as God would have –
That love, justice, knowledge and truth
Fall when faced with the stronger forces
Of capital greed,
Contented ignorance,
Closed-minded arrogance, and
Cruel apathy?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Why I Dread Going to Sleep

My grandmother sits in her recliner
In her den, drinking coffee, looking out
At birds that fight over the bird-feeder
As autumn shadows march from woods to house –
The sun now angling downward in the sky,
And chilly air signals winter’s approach.

Sometimes we talk about my work at school.
I teach in the school district where she taught
For forty years, and so she likes to hear
How things have changed, and how they’ve stayed the same.

“Your grandfather is at the store,” she says.
“He will be sorry that he missed you here.
You’ll have to come back by again sometime
And say hello to him.” 

                                      The mood is sweet.
It almost seems that she is not aware
That she is gone.  For me, it’s like the scene
From Wilder: Emily comes back from death
To live one day, only to learn that she
Has lost the chance to value every day
And even every minute of each day.
But in our case, it is she that comes back,
And I who lose the chance to value her.

When I wake up I know the truth again:
My grandfather died almost three years back,
My grandmother followed him this past spring.
My mother’s mother, on the other side
Passed away exactly four weeks later.
I see them all, I speak with them in dreams.
They are with me, but not with me, because
I know what they do not know: that they are
Shadows, born in my imagination.

I see my grandfather and hear his walk,
His good leg steps, followed by the bad one,
Paralyzed by polio, made rigid
By a metal brace.  The metallic clink
Of the brace was my signal as a child
That he was home.  The sound echoes and rings
Through the now-empty house, and I can see
His labored steps moving through the hallway,
And I can hear his voice, not heard at all
These last three years.  He calls my name and talks
About the latest Mizzou football game.

Then sadly, I am awake.  The shadows
Were simply shadows, and nothing better.
I lost them once, and I lose them again
Each time I wake up. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Uncle Hubert, Part VI

The sixth installment of a story I am writing about my great-uncle.

“Where are you heading, young’un?”

            The voice that wakes Hubert up from his nap among the crates in the rickety boxcar comes from a man in his early thirties.  He is wearing a torn pair of trousers, a ratty button-down shirt, and shoes that are held together by bailing twine.  Only his hat is without blemish: a new, tan fedora that the man wears cocked slightly to the right.  Hubert wonders where the hat came from. 

            “Wherever this train is going, mister,” Hubert replies.

            “Where did you come from?” the man asks.

            “Poplar Bluff.”

            “You’ve been on this train the whole time?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Son, that had to been almost twenty-four hours ago.  This is Arkadelphia.  When was the last time you ate anything?”

            “I brought some apples with me,” Hubert says.

            “You need something cooked.  Come with me, before the railroad police see us talking up here.”

            Hubert takes the man’s hand and jumps down from the boxcar.  The sun has passed its noontime apex and is taking a southern route in its journey across the sky.  Even though it is a warm autumn day, the sun-filled sky is cooler and more pleasant than the closed up, stifling boxcar that has been Hubert’s home for the last twenty-four hours. 

            Hubert has exited the freight train into a small switchyard much like the one in Poplar Bluff that marked the beginning of his adventure. 

            “I seen the conductor open the door of that car you was in,” the man tells Hubert, “and I seen you moving around inside, trying to hide.  You was lucky the conductor didn’t see you.  He’d a called the railroad police on you.  You don’t want to be messing around with them.”

            Hubert says nothing.  He just keeps following the man through the switchyard.  They pass the traffic control tower and cross a street, leaving the rail yard.  On the other side of the street, the man lifts up a broken down barbed wire fence and motions for Hubert to crawl underneath it.  Hubert stoops down and steps beneath the fence.  When Hubert is through, the man lets go of the fence and steps over it.

            It is a junkyard.  Hubert sees scraps of metal everywhere: old ice boxes, parts of automobiles, carriages from broken down train cars.  On the southern end of the junkyard there is a fire burning.  Several men sit around the fire.  Each of the men represents a different stage of grimy body and shabby dress.  Some of the men are cooking things on the fire.  Some are asleep.

            The man motions for Hubert to sit down by the fire. 

            “I don’t think I caught your name, young’un.”

            “My name’s Robertson, sir.  Hubert Robertson.”

            “Well, Hubert Robertson, welcome to the hobo camp.”

`           The man takes a can out of his knapsack and opens it.  With his pocketknife he punctures a hole in the can, and he fits the end of a sharpened stick into the hole.  Then, holding the stick in his hand, he places the can into the fire.  When the contents of the can start to pop, the man takes it off the fire.  One of the other hobos hands him a loaf of bread, and the man cuts two slices with his pocketknife.  He pours some of the contents of the can onto one of the slices, and he places the other slice over it.  He hands it to Hubert.

            “Bean sandwich,” the man says.

            “Thank you, sir,” Hubert responds.

            “By the way, my name’s Morris.”

            “Thank you, Mr. Morris,” Hubert says.

            “Eat up, son, and then you get some rest.  We’re going to have to figure out how to get you back home.”

            “No sir,” Hubert says.  “I’m never going back home.  I’m going to ride the rails.  Ain’t nobody out here to make me work or tell me what to do.”

            “Just what are running away from, boy?” Morris asks.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Sonnet to My Wife, the Mother of My Child

We’ve heard it said that loss of child divides;
That couples who have borne this grief together
Oft drift apart, forgetting how abides
A love made stronger in those who weather
Adversity, who strengthen one another
To rebuild hope despite enfeebling pain;
The only self they have is father, mother,
Bereft of child, by weeping driven insane:
Unbreakable bonds of husband and wife
Are shattered by the broken, death-wrenched bonds
Of parent to child, cut by child’s lost life.
I know these truths, but still my heart responds:
   We are not they, my love.  We’ve ridden tides
   Of joy and loss, but still our love resides.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Uncle Hubert, Part V

This is the fifth installment in a story I am writing about my great-uncle.

Eddie tried to maintain the farm and the house after James’s death.  For about a year she worked the garden, sent her older kids to school, took care of the young ones, and kept the house.  The farm yielded just enough produce each year to feed the big family, but Eddie knew that it would not be enough as the youngest children grew up.

            Nineteen-year-old Eugene, Eddie’s oldest son and second-oldest child, moved away.  He went north to Michigan, looking for work in Detroit’s burgeoning automotive industry.  Eugene’s ten-year-old brother Henry, who had just completed the third grade, quit school and went to work for his grandfather in town.  These departures helped Eddie makes ends meet each month, but there were still problems.  Mildred and Harold had started school, which meant Eddie had to find money for books, clothes, and shoes.  Old William Dixon was putting Henry up with his other farmhands as long as Henry worked for him, but he was also demanding rent.  William was determined never to let his daughter or grandchildren have a free ride.  He seemed happily unaware that with young Henry putting in between fifty and sixty hours of work on William’s lands each week, the ride would not exactly have been free.

            Finally, in the spring of 1928, Eddie Robertson made the decision to move back to town and to place herself at the mercy of her father.  It was the only thing she could do.  The mortgage on the Stringtown farm was past due, and she was faced with the choice of paying the bank or feeding her children.

            William Dixon allowed Eddie and her children to live in one of his houses on two conditions.  First, he wanted the Stringtown farm.  Even with the back mortgage payments that would have to be paid, the farm and the big house would make William a nice profit.  Second, Eddie and the children had to work whenever and wherever William needed them.

            Eddie Robertson and her children were about to become slaves of William Dixon.

Eddie Dixon Robertson

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Uncle Hubert, Part IV

The storm that killed James Robertson began somewhere deep in the western plains of Oklahoma.  It was a cold front that moved like a soul-less, mindless monster steadily northeast, churning and pushing up the warm, humid May air as it went.  It crossed into Kansas and produced thunderstorms that swept across the dusty, over-worked, nutrient poor farmland.  It moved into southern Missouri and created a wave of tornadoes that followed the Arkansas state line.

            Finally, it reached Poplar Bluff.  The cold front met the soggy, warm spring air and pushed it upward, creating a swirling vortex.  The tornado that resulted was the worst in local memory. 

            That town was essentially destroyed.  The Missouri Pacific Depot downtown experienced only superficial damage, but the great, four-story Davidson Hotel across the street was leveled.  After the storm passed through, downtown Poplar Bluff looked like a demolition zone.

            James Robertson, who worked at a mill just outside the limits of downtown Poplar Bluff, was doomed.  As the air turned a sickly green-gray and the winds started to whip around the mill yard, James and his co-workers tried to take shelter inside.  But the building they entered was too flimsy to be of any use.  The great storm tore the roof off the structure, and then it started tearing gaps in the wooden planking of the walls.  Wind and rain swept through the small building, and so did a huge tree branch, which plowed through the wall and into James Robertson.  He died instantly.

            This was in May of 1927.  Hubert Robertson was barely a year old.

            The next day, The Daily Republican, Poplar Bluff's afternoon newspaper, published a list of the dead.  The only obituary James Robertson received was a single line misstating his name his name as James Henry Robinson.

            Hubert’s older brother, Harold – who was four years old when their father died - would later say that the only thing he remembered of his father was making the trip from Stringtown into Poplar Bluff for James Robertson’s funeral.  Too young to understand what was happening, Mildred, Harold, and Harlan – the three children closest to Hubert in age – sat quietly in their Sunday best clothes, bored and fidgety, as the Baptist preacher talked about faith in Jesus Christ and about a land across the Jordan River where there is no more sorrow or weeping.  Throughout the funeral, Hubert slept in his grandmother’s arms, stirring only when the preacher’s voice hit a particularly enthusiastic note and momentarily woke him from his infant dreams.  Hubert would never have any conscious or unconscious memory of his father. 

A street in Poplar Bluff following the May 9, 1927 tornado.




Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Uncle Hubert, Part III

The switchyards occupy about a hundred acres of land five blocks to the west of Black River.  They are only a few blocks south of downtown Poplar Bluff, but the neighborhood that borders the yards is cut off from the rest of the town by the railroad tracks and the river.  Because of this fact, the area is known as South Poplar Bluff, as if it is a different community.

            Hubert Robertson lives just a short walk away from the switchyards.  As he grows up, they will become his downfall.  Trains sitting on tracks waiting to move forward toward unknown destinations appeal to young Hubert’s imagination and desire for adventure. 

            The train whistle blows.  The cars lurch.  Slowly, the big freight train moves forward along the southbound track.  In one of the boxcars, Hubert Robertson’s heart is beating faster and faster as he hides among the crates, daydreaming about where this train will take him.

            As the tracks leave the town, they run along the banks of Black River, squeezed in between the river bluffs and sweeping acres of cropland.  William Dixon, Hubert’s grandfather, owns much of this land.  The evening air blows past the boxcar, easing in through the cracks in the car walls.  Hubert presses his face against one of these cracks, both to feel the cool breeze and to watch as the land passes by.

            Hubert has never been more than a few miles away from his home, so he is excited about the possibilities that lie ahead along these railroad tracks.  He wants to be free: away from the school that bores him and the grandfather who beats him.