Learning the Letters
Britton, South Dakota, 1939
"F" is for future, bright as a lens,
bubbles in the scrubbing basin,
thin as the skin on aunt Agnes's hand,
the breakable surface of a pollywog egg.
It's no shame to be poor, but a shame
to be dirty, since soap is cheap
and water is free, and hats last a lifetime
for those who can't afford the ribbons and pomade.
One day you will be gee-whiz gone,
just like "T", like "that", the last
Cracker Jack in the box, the last farrier
in a town full of town cars — the touchdown
you scored, the gloves, plaques, and blue ribbons
boxed up for safekeeping, which is never quite
safe enough. Outside, it is bright. It is "B"
and you are abuzz at the start of things,
though you "H" and mother says he who "hesitates"
is "L", which you were once, at the fair,
"lost" in a petrified forest of trousers and skirts,
and will be again job-seeking in Des Moines
or Detroit, the hot, big "D" of Dallas, looking
to make a name that will make the town paper.
There is always a way, when you square up
straight, "F" is for facing the music, the camera,
looking up eye-to-eye as your portrait
gets taken, showing yes, you were "S"
you were somebody, looking, direct and uncertain
down the long barrel of whatever is ahead.
Children of Britton, South Dakota
Filmed by Ivan Besse in 1938
Courtesy Prelinger Archives
8mm projector sound courtesy nemoDaedalus
Music by Valerie Kampmeier
Poem by Robert Peake