Happy World Poetry Day, everyone! To celebrate, we have a poem from our 2022 McNally Robinson Booksellers Poetry Award Winner Jody Baltessen! Thank you Jody, for allowing us to publish this fabulous poem digitally for World Poetry Day!
Before we get to the poem, if you are not familiar with the history of World Poetry Day, which happens every March 21st, please check out the World Poetry Day page on the UNESCO website. (Click here!)
On to the poetry!
Portrait of an Archive by Jody Baltessen
… whereas a great number of inhabitants have represented
that it is desirable to be incorporated as a City–therefore …
I. … the said city shall be bounded as follows …
The city takes root in the hard black mud of the floodplain—scant buildings
sprawled along the banks of two rivers: one pushing silt and sludge up from the south;
one meandering out of the western frontier.
So too does it take root in the minds of self-made men.
For there is something truly gainful in the air.
“Start here!” they shout, plunging their survey monuments into frozen ground.
“Here!” Where the northerly limit of lot 224 strikes the water’s edge of the Red River.
Up from the slippery bank, they cut cross country at a north-westerly angle
turn southeast at the intersection of the street laid out by the Company
follow the street to the water’s edge of the Assiniboine River
dive in and let the current take them to the forks and north again
until they are back at the beginning.
All of this they capture in words.
Words woven into a rough fabric shaken out and made to fall demurely
between the rivers’ far-flung legs.
II. Portrait of an Archive
… 9 February 1874, Moved, that the Clerk be instructed to obtain
a Cupboard to contain the Corporation papers. Carried. …
An ornate wrought iron fence.
Elms on a greening lawn. Repointed limestone.
Smooth-cut, rusticated. Restrained classical.
Inside, a vault. Its perimeter
lined with shelving fixed to walls
anchored to the floor.
Aisles and aisles braced
against the weight of words
In the vault. Paper spellbinds.
Supple linen inflected with flax chaff.
Friable pulp desiccated, split along its folds.
Ink. A flourish. A trail winding into
buildings where there once were none.
Where Tyndall stone forms corridors
and Ordovician fossils
hold the portraits
of successive men.
Light falls, visible wavelengths fix.
Albumen gelatin emulsions bind the civic scape
stay its cart cut streets, an overhang of signage.
Decades swill indiscrete, lean one into the other.
Shoulders square. Arms fold. Hold.
Pose immobile under a wash of sulfide.
A face like no other. Settles into scene.
The panorama of a bird’s eye
Plans in sequence. Mark time
inside a grid performing presence.
Lines demarcate edge.
III. Elemental Archival Units
A leather-bound volume pulled from a shelf.
… the rough interior edges of governance …
along with pressed flowers, a flattened mosquito, a smear of dried blood
around a rusted pin.
Here and there, haloed words disassembled spell elemental
the red brown dust of scraped s-k-i-n
shatterings of brittle p-u-l-p
crushed oak g-a-l-l cutting into paper washed clean of lignin a reader
follows the trail of oxidized ink. A turn a curve a fork a junction. Her elbow
slides back and forth across a polished desk. The burl of its oak
curled in on itself.
Reads against the staid pace of the clerk’s pen.
Slips her pencil
into each tightly woven phrase.
Italicized text adapted from An Act to Incorporate the City of Winnipeg, 1873 and Minutes of the City of Winnipeg, 1874. City of Winnipeg Archives.
Sketch of the City of Winnipeg, Manitoba. 1874. Winnipeg as it is in 1874; and as it was in 1860. George B. Elliott of the Canadian Press. Ottawa. 1875. City of Winnipeg Archives.
The line: “… the rough interior edges of governance …” is from Ann Laura Stoler’s Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton University Press, January 2010.