George Venn


Cover by Don Gray



Alex, my son, with backberry jam
smeared ear to ear and laughing,
rides his unbroken joy with words
so fast we let him get away
on the jamjar without clean cheeks first.

He spills frasasass
tea with milk and honey;
a red-chafted schlicker
beats our cottonwood drum.
Thumping the pano keys
like a mudpie chef,
he goes wild with words
at the wittle wooden
arms inside, a hundred
Pinoschios to singsong.
If he can't wide byebye
bike to the candy store,
where he is Master Rich
with one penny, words turn
to tears in his mouf. Once
in a while, he walks home
with pum-pum-pumpernickel bread
his nose twitching so fast
a wabbit would love him.

Now this language is not taught in first grade.
Alicia, his tister, knows this fact.
But he juggles it around all day
until she makes him spit it out like
a catseye marble or a tack. "Ax," she says,
"that's not right." She's been among giants
who wipe off the dialect of backberry jam,
then pour hot wax on each bright mistake.

I hope for a bad seal on Ax and tister,
encourage the mold of joyous error
that proper sad giants, armed to the ears
with pencils and rules, all forgot.

From College Composition and Communication 25.2 (1974): 172. Reprinted Oregon East 1950-85 1985. 211; Reprinted Oregon English Journal 13.1 (Spring, 1991): 21; Reprinted Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach. 2003. 34-35.


Dredge, the Welshman, drunk again
wants to hear a steel-driving song,
says get down to yourself and sing.
“Don't stop now–both feet in the air.”
You have to play for him.

The seedling in the yard grows in
a cage. Protection is the school.
By the greenhouse, girls dance on a fence,
laughing at the mudchuckholed street.
You have to play for them.

At the Emerald Empire Motel, a woman sweeps.
She knows the room's not much,
but the sheets are clean. You can use her
phone for local calls, that's all.
You play up to her.

The miner watches his son pick grounders
on the dirt diamond. He talks big fights,
smokes his pipe inside his pickup cab.
They're all hard-hit liners here. To know,
just play third a while.

The lions at the Lion's Club don't roar
without another drink bought loudly by
the local editor, named Penny, who's
got a copper head that's a company ante.
You play hob with them, not poker.

The girls in Wallace at the Lux will
ask you to their rooms. They thought you'd
left their Coeur d'Alene the day those
kids ran Ballet Folk out of town.
You play fast and loose with them.

The woman from Burke who's eighty-two
says she's the only one left alive
in her family. She brings down a diary,
wants to salvage her own brief history.
Play straight with her.

Your teeth ache, remember the mines
a mile deep. Sunshine's not a friend here,
and Bunker Hill's a war. These men dig all
the silver, and they are always poor.
At work, you ply these words for them,

for anyone patching scraps and fog together
between a year of strikes and bad weather,
for anyone planting tomatoes by the slag heap
by the river running clean again this year.
Just make this play for them all.

Be the two-day singer in this town.
Wait for them to come for coffee in the cafe;
listen carefully and stare up the canyon.
When they go, write this in the streets
and play fair, by god, with every voice you hear.

Written May, 1977, Osburn, Idaho. Reprinted Idaho Handbook. ed. Don Root. Chico, CA: Moon Publications, 1997. 514; Reprinted Idaho's Poetry: A Centennial Anthology. eds. Ron McFarland and William Studebaker. Moscow: U of ID, Press, 1988. 127-28.


If you want to find my place
get out of town any way you can.
Find the Cascades in early morning.
When you see the Tatoosh Peaks
where the Nisqually flows
into Alder Lake at Elbe, stop,
ask directions at the grocery.
I won't be mourning in the tavern.
The Post Office closed last year.
I have no phone and mail hardly comes.

Take the road to Alder by the lake.
When you see the garden above the road
that will be Uncle Ernest's homestead.
He's 95 this year, prays every day.
Keep going. When you reach the crest
you will see Uncle Leonard's pasture
on the left, Grandpa Mayo's honey house
across the road. Grandma still lives
that farm alone. Cross the swamp
on Alder Creek past Uncle Charlie's pond.
My father's house is on the left knoll.
He died and I moved away to town.

On the next wide curve, turn right
onto the gravel going uphill until
you come to a Dead End sign hidden
in the grass and fireweed. Turn there.
To the right. This will be two ruts
a berm of grass down the center
mudpuddles and chuckholes all along.
In one place, a creek flows across.
No more signs now. Curves will be blind.
I'd suggest slowing down.

In two miles, you'll come to a gate.
Park there and get out. You will hear
Clear Creek splashing over stones,
a dipper will welcome you upstream.
Follow the current through bracken
buttercups, devil club, blackberries
skunk cabbage, deadfall cedar and alder
until you come to a waterfall and pool
surrounded by second growth fir.
I should be there fishing somewhere.
You may see the smoke from my fire
rising like a ghost through green limbs.

If you don't see me, don't call.
This place can't hear a shouting voice.
I'll know you have come by the way
the crows and chickadees carry on.
I'll come out then and eat lunch
with you and we can talk and feed sticks
to the fire. If you wait an hour or more
and I don't appear somehow,
I'm simply not the George you knew.

Catch a few fish for yourself then–
under the falls is the best cast.
If my fire's out, there's still wood.
Make a fire of your own, eat, get warm,
and leave the same way you came by dark.
Please do not tell anyone where I live.
Try to forget this place all the way home.

Read in Tamanawis Illahee, 60 minute feature film by Ron Finne, 1982, and featured in statewide programming by the Oregon Council for the Humanities Chautauqua Series. Reprinted Marking the Magic Circle. 1987:180-181. Used as lyrics for trio by John McKinnon for viola, baritone, and piano, performed at Eastern Oregon University, May, 1994.


Poems by George Venn, Drawings by Don Gray 60 pages

Second Printing (1979) (Paperback)
Prescott Street Press, Portland, Oregon
ISBN: 0-915986-10-8

First Printing (1978) Limited Edition of 100
Hardback, signed and numbered by author and artist
Prescott Street Press, Portland, Oregon
ISBN: 0-915986-09-4

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"A true and compelling voice...."
--Eugene Register Guard
"One of the best poets in the Northwest"
--East Oregonian
Finalist, Oregon Book Award in Poetry, 2000
Poems by George Venn and drawings by Don Gray
With drawings by Ian Gatley
Stewart Holbrook Award, Oregon Institute of Literary Arts, 1995 for "Outstanding contributions to Oregon's literary life."
Multi-genre anthology
1988 Oregon Book Award
Best 100 Oregon Books 1800-2000