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American Life in Poetry

Our sense of smell is the one sense most likely to transport us through time. A sniff of fried fish on a breeze, and I can wind up in my grandmother’s kitchen 60 years ago, getting ready to eat bluegills. Michael Walsh, a Minnesotan, builds this fine poem about his parents around the odor of cattle that they carry with them, even into this moment.

Barn Clothes

Same size, my parents stained and tore

alike in the barn, their brown hair

ripe as cow after twelve hours of gutters.

At supper they spoke in jokey moos.

Sure, showers could dampen that reek

down to a whiff under fingernails, behind ears,

but no wash could wring the animal from their clothes:

one pair, two pair, husband, wife, reversible.

Poem copyright 2010 by Michael Walsh from “The Dirt Riddles” (University of Arkansas Press), and reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. American Life in Poetry is supported by the Poetry Foundation and the English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


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