Poems by Patti Capel Swartz

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Fallout

by Patti Capel Swartz

From Canary Fall 2013

Patti grew up and currently lives in the watershed of the Middle Fork of Little Beaver Creek Wild and Scenic River, a part of the watershed of the Ohio River. Her office overlooks the Ohio between Southern Ohio and the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia.


I hold one share in the corporate earth and am uneasy about the management...
The correct amount of strontium with which to impregnate the topsoil is no strontium.
E. B. White, 1956


We sat at the dinner table, seven of us, eating beef from our cows, mashed potatoes, corn from the garden. “I don’t know what this new nonsense will mean,” Father said. “Radioactivity in the milk. Strontium 90, whatever that is. The government is going to tell us again what we have to do. Whether our milk is fit for sale. If they decide it’s not, what will we do?”

I listened, an eight-year-old anxious to know what the grown-up talk meant. “What IS that stuff?” my brother asked. “They say it's fallout from those nuclear tests. That the wind blows it across the country, and the rain washes it onto the ground. The cows eat the grass. The milk gets radioactive. They’re saying the milk isn’t safe.” I looked at the half glass of my milk, raw milk, cooled and dipped straight from the cooler. From the corner of my eye, I saw the others look too.

When the ban on DDT came down, Father was disgusted. “Don’t know what we’ll use to keep down the flies,” he said. I remember the sprayer, my job to spray the cows in summer when they were in the barn being milked. I was so short, I had to tip the pump sprayer back. I remember the dirty, sticky lines the spray made as it ran down my arms to my elbows. I remember wiping my face with a sticky hand, waiting for my bath to feel clean.

When the sand ran out, my brother and I played in agricultural slag, by-product of the mills, full of manganese and other metals. We built roads, caves, landing strips for airplanes.

When my brother was undergoing chemotherapy, I realized how like my German grandfather he looked.

The same nose, high cheekbones, shiny forehead. Only his feet were like my father’s, high-arched, curled tight. Within a year he was dead.

When my sister had her bone marrow destroyed to treat her leukemia, I realized how much she looked like my father’s mother, the same English features, blue eyes.

And Jay. Who could forget the sister who died when only twenty four? The image of Mother, but skeleton thin, curled tight in pain, the tumors rising higher than any of her other parts.

Three of five dead to cancer. Formidable odds.




The Furnace

by Patti Capel Swartz

From Canary Winter 2013-14

When I was a child, the furnace sat, a behemoth, in the cellar, roaring when Mother shoveled coal, its uneven heat allowing us relative comfort in winter. Coal rattled down the chute into the shiny black pile that fed our house.

When coal ran out I rode with father to the strip mine, curving round and round the pit where machines cut into the earth exposing the “black diamonds” that filled the pick-up bed.

Close to our house, less than a mile across the fields, the night filled with lights and noise, shovels creaked, bulldozers roared when a field close to our house was stripped. We slept fitfully to the sound of the machines. Stripped out, topsoil under subsoil, my friends and I were forbidden to go there in fear of acid water. But we went, sneaking up the road, leftover shale crunching underfoot, walking mounds of earth that would grow nothing, staring into ponds where no frogs, no fish lived.

Soon new lights will disturb the country quiet of my home as derricks fracture old seams releasing gas from shale. They, too, will create water in which nothing can live.




The Potteries

by Patti Capel Swartz

From Canary Spring 2014

The Brownfields Law defines a "brownfield site" as:
...real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance,pollutant, or contaminant." Brownfield sites include all "real property," including residential as well as commercial and industrial properties.

In the potteries’ heyday when East Liverpool, Ohio, was called the pottery capital of the world, women licked tiny paintbrushes to apply gold leaf to china, and glazes were bright from the lead. When pottery was misshapen or broken, shards were dumped in lots the potteries owned or on the riverbank leading to the Ohio River. Silicon filled the air, dust from the clay. Workers swallowed lead, breathed silicon, smoke from the kilns.

Thirty years after TS&T pottery closed, the buildings sat, still, hulks, reminders of a past when whole families shaped clay, painted, fired. Some men carried clay on boards resting on their heads, some ran wheels. Others loaded kilns, turning their faces away from the heat. Children packed china in barrels: plates, cups, saucers, bowls immersed in straw. At the plant’s close, buildings sat idle, although families lived in what had been an office building, and low-income housing developments mushroomed next to the site.

Then buildings, half razed, weathered for six years, asbestos insulation, open to the rain, blowing in the wind. Two silos that held clay and a smokestack stand. The skeleton of the plant reduced to piles of yellow brick stands above foundations under foundations, rooms below ground, a labyrinth needing to be filled.

Shards of pottery still dot the riverbank. Water courses down the steep bank, carrying its burden of lead. Children, their parents, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, drink water from the river. Birth defects,

Intellectual disabilities, and, of course, cancers rate the area highest in health problems. Cancer here is endemic.

Brownfields beget brownfields. Other dirty industries locate here. There is no way to prove blame.




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