Theology at Black Earth Creek

Christopher Bakken

BPR 47 | 2020

Winner of the 2020 Collins Prize

The creek I loved propelled itself through
soybeans, corn, and three small towns
before it tired of Dane County’s
Atrazine and suburban sprawl
and stalled under a railroad bridge,
became the deep hole where suckers
would rise to mutilate our worms.

Reagan hadn’t killed the Russians
yet, and they hadn’t yet killed us.
The world was toxic and beautiful,
still safe, at least, for
everyone ignorant and Lutheran like me.
Really, I cut classes hoping
to set my own idiocy in stone.

You could follow the railroad tracks
all the way to Mazomanie
and the creek would never be more
than half a field away, veering
along slopes the glacier riddled
into the granite. Parallel,
dull, Highway 14 ran there too.

That’s where I’d park the Pontiac,
tie hooks and slather on the Off.
You had to cross a nettle-ditch
to get there, and rusty barbed-wire
my uncles hadn’t bothered to clip.
Trespass enough on anything
and you stake a claim upon it.

But we didn’t really own the hole,
the hole owned us, in its creek way:
with the church bells out of earshot,
we dragged our tackle here to brood.
In town, a man named Peterson
babbled on about catching God,
but God had pulled his bobber down,

snagged the line on one of the drowned
limbs at bottom. It did not rise.
He was still somewhere in Black Earth
drinking his way back up, or down,
as he’d been taught. From what I knew,
biggest thing ever pulled from the creek
was a carp the size of a dog.

The creek babbled no rejoinder
in answer to my confessions,
just hurried every lie I spat
downstream to bother the cut-grass.
I think of all the fish I killed
because I could, so terrified
I’d come to kill myself instead.

I was too weak for that. But I could
come in winter to crack the ice,
break windows into creek water
more clear for being cold, being here,
miles from the village where my people
believed they had been hooked on sin,
where I’d watch trout go belly up.