Emi Nietfeld

Watching the Iron Ore Tankers Come In

2012 Poetry Prize for Freshmen


All year we froze the heels from our bread.
When Labor Day came, we pulled the Ziploc 
bags from the freezer and put them in the cooler,
loaded with cans of Lipton Brisk iced tea,
bricks of pepper jack cheese and the stout rolls of summer 
Summer folded up, that last weekend.
Every year we drove up to Duluth 
when the sun was still warm and the trees, still green,
through the corn fields and the power lines, 
the exit signs for a dozen small towns
and every hundred miles my mother handed me a brown bag
with a juice box or new crayons in plastic wrapping,
filched from the basket at the Green Mill bar.
From the outlook on the hill at the last rest stop
we stared out at Lake Superior
and the bridges, girdling the water where it thinned.
Excitement rose up in me and swelled
as the highway split off into a tangle of exit ramps
and street signs, one for the hospital, one concrete and grey.
Another hundred miles up to a beach of rocks.
My mother hunched, hunting for agates.
She rolled her pants up and waded in to dig 
for a sparkle under the water. 
I followed and a cold shock 
made me bite my lip until it bled.
In the harbor, I stood on the last green field of summer 
feeding the gulls hunks of hardened bread.
Standing in a parking lot, they swarmed around me.
I swam in the harbor, watching the iron ore tankers come in.
I shook and my skin was pale under the blue-grey water.
Grey sky, water on the highway, rain
Saturday, my parents and I crossed
the highway, climbed through the brush 
and down the cliffs. I hopped the rocks out into the lake.
And the bridges – those endless bridges – 
over into Wisconsin, that long suspension
that gave me nightmares
of driving into nothing and falling, circling down into the water.
Or the suspension bridge, south of Little Rock Lighthouse
where my father began trembling and couldn’t come down.
North of the city, we stayed in a plaster castle 
across the highway from the coast.
Saturday morning, we crossed the highway, slick with rain,
through a tangle of trees and down the crags 
to the short cliffs along the shore. 
I climbed along the rocks and my father took my photograph:
cheeks red, nose wet, jacket sleeves balled up in my fists.
The next summer, we went to the Wisconsin Dells
to Noah’s Ark, “The World’s Largest Water Park.”
My mother and I climbed a dozen flights of stairs in our 
past the signs that said “You are terrified”
to ride “The Point of No Return,”
a waterslide with a ninety-foot drop, straight down.
Side by side, my mother held my hand, sitting in the plastic 
She went down but I stayed. I started crying.
“Push me,” I told the lifeguard, but she couldn’t
so I bit my lip and funneled down the chute.
We ate summer sausage from my father’s camera bag.
I begged him to let me buy Dipping Dots
and he made me promise I wouldn’t spend 
any more of my allowance that week.
That night, my mother and I walked 
from our motel down to an Indian Store.
She looked at mugs printed with “Sweet Home, Wisconsin”
while I stared wide-eyed at fireworks and beads.
On the way back, the sidewalk sprawled out into darkness.
Light fell from the streetlamps and pooled 
into circles, puddles, teaspoons
knowing that infinite lake.
I hovered on the surface of that body, imagining its bottoms.
Mere ripples that ripped through me
with the force of an ocean
whose bottoms I had only fathomed.
We sat on the hotel terrace, the pool
swaying in the cold night breeze.
We drank the free coffee from Styrofoam cups,
mine bleached with creamer and aspartame.
A quartet played pool side and the cello plucked
out its handful of notes.
My father put his hand on my mothers and I
stared back at the floodlights,
wanting to swim but knowing the cold.

First Flights

I like to pretend I was radiant-cool eyed,
but I was no better than the kids staring out the window,
screaming, “It’s like we’re in heaven, we’re above the clouds.”
I am the baby sitter of terror, unleashing my nightmares
to quell young wonder … always fascinated by the black
holes, by centripetal force and condensation,
the way the body can become a pellet, 
compacted like a brick of frozen airliner waste.
They, too, seem perceptive to disaster:
as Detroit comes into view, they ask
“Is that a foreign country? The roads seem different,
there is no one on the highway.” 
The mother says, “It’s Sunday, everyone’s at church.
Besides, it’s only 5 hours till we get to Disneyland.
I want to go to Disney World,
if only to mock Mickey Mouse and make faces 
at Cinderella, Pocahontas. I want my breath taken away 
by something other than pain, to see palm trees for the first time 
to watch the sky split open in the morning without a headache.
We’re stuck on the tarmac for an hour, waiting for a gate.
The kids go off to Disney World and I’ve missed my next flight.
I ask the man at the AmEx booth if there’s a smoking deck,
I just want to go outside and taste the air. 
Instead I sit in the Westin lobby, windows facing the gates.
Where the planes turn and taxi, waddling off like gulls
towards Disney World or Bogotá.
Every time I’m in an airport, I call my mother
and tell her I’m in Newark or in Dulles – 
places that even when I’m there I can’t pronounce. 
Every time my mother sees an airplane she says
“Someone is going home,” but staring at the tarmac,
all I see are planes. They turn and taxi, waddling off like gulls,
towards Disneyland or Bogotá, while a flight goes black
on the “Arrivals” screen.

The Boyfriend

I had a boyfriend with a Mormon mother
who drove him into Minneapolis on Saturdays that summer.
It was like day camp: cruel calisthenics (he mowed our lawn,)
field trips to Pizza Hut and tennis at Windom Park
where I beat him in singles then kissed him in the grass.
Someone said poverty is only sexy
when accompanied by a sweet sort of sluttiness.
Sipping a can of Coke, I had perfected the cold-eyed
stare when I said, “I prefer Taco Bell to thirty-dollar pasta.”
That time tasted like so much sugar and freedom,
sitting on the tar roof or walking down the alley.
Once he said, “I could see myself
with you when I’m old.” And I laughed:
I couldn’t imagine my thirteenth birthday.
And Marc was old already – sixteen – and a fool
who owned bowling shoes and a classical guitar
he couldn’t play. The fact that he dated me killed his credibility:
who was I but a twelve year old, kissing a bourgeois boy 
in the yellow light of a stairwell?

For Susan Sontag

Inspired by “A Photographer’s Life” by Annie Leibovitz

The first time I caught your stare across the terrace
you had one hand caught in your hair, 
the other pressed against the windowpane.
Then we passed through a thousand hotel rooms,
summers of clammy-backed insomnia and legal pads
with notes for The Volcano Lover.
Locked in the underground 
Sarajevo paper, you read Kafka on a cot.
In the afternoon they let us out, 
and we found a Serb, a boy,
shot dead off his bike.
You rode back with the body to be counted
while I went to the Hilton to shoot
a Croatian beauty queen.
And you, the philosopher of illness, 
slept limbs akimbo on the sofa.
You left your sneakers on and sprawled 
out on the bed in Berlin under Tungsten light.
Death lay dormant in your veins, 
painting every day prophetic.
The cancer came and we left, 
for the Nile anyway.
Standing on deck, you glowed
orange in the sunset 
and like oil on the water, 
your absence hung over your presence.
After weeks of chemo and flat Coca-cola, 
I saw you in a double mirror: 
you watched yourself watch yourself
split off into infinity.
When I got the call, I was on the road.
I curled up in the backseat and I cried 
for the moments I couldn’t fix and for the constant
fixing, for the thousand pictures
in lieu of you. I want to build a monument
to this life: to your pens, to your hair, to the songs on the radio
to your lit window in the New York night.

VHS’s of Death

McDonald’s at the Quarry, Northeast Minneapolis, 
sold 99-cent happy meals on Tuesday nights. 
My mother and I bought six and sat
at the high-legged tables, a mound of apple dippers between us.
I gnawed on child-size fries and sipped a kiddy cup of Diet Coke.
In the AC, we watched Hillary give campaign speeches and lose.
The August heat clawed me and the need for caffeine
left me sweating and sick in the empty apartment
upstairs where I slept on a foam pad made for aerobics.
A little fan blew on my face. I dragged myself to the kitchen,
to that fridge, empty except for elixirs – 
Diet Mountain Dew and Gatorade – and leftover Apple Dippers.
Then out, into the bright-hot world, down Central Avenue 
where I caught the number 10 bus downtown and transferred
at Nicolette Mall to a bus for Columbia Heights.
I got off at a strip mall, between Taco John’s and a shipping plant
and went into the storefront where I went to Driver’s Ed.
All the acne-pocked boys and the sunburned girls learned
to park twelve inches from the curve, acronyms
to maneuver minor stunts,
to “watch out for retards at every stop sign.”
The instructor popped in a VHS of death.
I laughed at all the mock collisions, 
at the crying mothers in faded green spandex, 
at the accidental killers and their guilt.
Then we scattered for break, wandering into Taco John’s
or down to the gas station. I bought a banana one day, 
came back to class and puked into a potted plant. 
The AC huffed and blew and the Olympics
played on the TV wedged between two vending machines.
Sprawled out on the tables, curled in plastic folding chairs,
we watched the water shimmer with the blood
red torsos of the Chinese divers.

After a Year Away

At Home Depot we bought a twenty-foot tarp
and laid it out over the patch of grass
between the back porch, the burning bush and the woodpile
draped with a raft that wouldn’t float.
My mother went in to gather the comforters – 
which I laid out flat over the plastic – 
then armfuls of pillows. 
“Just don’t use my buckwheat one,” 
my mother said. She’d be back
after her “bedtime routine”
of one hundred vitamins, sitting on the toilet.
I pulled the covers over me and stared up at the sky – 
at that tangle of grey and the telephone lines.
Head on my mother’s buckwheat pillow,
The sent of mice and mold and mildew,
that familiar smell of home.


For more than 20 years, Exposé has annually showcased outstanding essays written by students in Harvard’s first-year course in the Harvard College Writing Program. All students are required to take “Expos,” a tradition since 1872. Expos asks students to work intensively with their teachers on the skill of writing thoughtful arguments that respond to challenging ideas, complex debates, and puzzling social phenomena.