Anya Achtenberg

Postcard: Lake Calhoun, Minnesota*; Barbed Wire in the Desert*: Anya Achtenberg


Postcard: Lake Calhoun, Minnesota*

There’s a white crowd pushing into the center
Red hats, blue scarves, yellow suns above the heads of children
who run like rabbits, or would, without the puffy clothing of the north, without
the stiff boots, their little arms ending in cartoon mittens

There’s a black lake beneath the shield of ice
The crowd scatters, then pushes back toward the center
pierced by the loudspeaker’s music. They are drawn, hypnotized,
become one.

I cannot believe the ice is not cracking.
Can’t believe nothing hides in the glare of winter sun,
in the bright colors of rainbow clothing, in the ache of cold
in the bones I carry
to the edge of the lake, in the way
the loudspeaker swings its song
over the crowd pushing toward center.

The speaker pops free of the pole it is hoisted up on.
It swings by one black cord

but sturdy, the sound is so sturdy
the crowd keeps dancing, trusting

the hanging song.




*Since this poem was written, the name of Lake Calhoun has been changed to
Bde Maka Ska, which means White Earth Lake in Dakota language.
The poem recalls the postcards made from photographs of lynchings of African Americans, 1882-1950, sold as souvenirs (100 of which were gathered by James Allen and published in Without Sanctuary (1999, Twin Palms Publishers); and the lynching by a mob in Duluth, Minnesota of three African American men in 1920, referred to by Bob Dylan is his song “Desolation Row.”


Barbed Wire in the Desert*

In front of my eyes, one spit of fire
two spectral hollows of dog, tent of straw
cloth, twigs, howling belly dark
the entrance

Under clouds laying lazy in blue
a woman headscarfed red, red the cooking bowl
she tilts. The tub of water one dog noses
holds nothing
but the trick blue he licks

There is no soil worth having here
proved by what does not grow
All the bowls are clean
Good housekeeping
An empty hung kettle dances
in the breeze, light with air
tipped to pour nothing but jokes

Enormous clothespins, hungry for the lens
hang naked with open maws
from the line of barbed wire
that cuts the sky jagged
chops the hut’s crown. More people
than I can count crouch
under the wire, backs to it
around the one red eye
the bowl filled with shadow

That bowl plays its tricks
without blinking
The clouds are dark fists
that won’t open
There is nothing I hear that is growing
Try as I might, I hear nothing
but bone against bone
and music at my back




*From a photograph by Chris Johns of a Bushman settlement in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, published in Through the Lens, National Geographic’s Greatest Photographs.


Anya Achtenberg, an award-winning fiction writer/poet, author of Blue Earth (novel), The Stories of Devil-Girl (novella); poetry books, The Stone of Language, and I Know What the Small Girl Knew, is currently completing another novel, History Artist, centering in characters converging after the Khmer Rouge regime, around a young Cambodian/African American woman born with the U.S. invasion of Cambodia; and a book of poetry, Matadors at the Crossing. Anya’s international creative writing teaching offers creatively expansive and cutting-edge approaches through her Writing for Social Change: Re-Dream a Just World Workshops and The Disobedient Writer Workshop Series. She’s also a manuscript consultant and coach. Her forthcoming blog, Writing in Upheaval, connects the larger world and its issues with our fine craft of writing.