Patchwork quilt
by Patrick T. Reardon

     Patchwork of earthwork, see the pattern of soil,
      life force of black dirt, sweat and toil.

What do I have in common with Romare Bearden
except a last name that may or may not have come
from the same root?

Back in Ireland, Reardon was originally Riordan.
The spelling was changed in the USA to cope with
frequent mispronunciation.

Romare was an African-American from the South,
and I have no idea how his family got the name Bearden.
Maybe, once, it was Riordan.

     The cornstalks in flat fields are a fabric of trial,
      the lifework of dead men mile after mile.

His paintings had much to do with the African-American experience.
From a distance, as a newspaper reporter, I wrote much
about the African-American experience.

One of his great works, now at the Museum of Modern Art
In New York, is “Patchwork Quilt,” a 1970 collage showing
a flat, deeply black figure as if on a bed
next to a quilt of brightly diverse patches.

In 1968, on an airplane, I looked down at the flat, gridded
Midwestern landscape and wrote a short poem called
“Patchwork of Earthwork.”

     Hard times in good times, and the ageless cloth is torn.
      Dust unto same dust, and a new baby is born.

If we had ever met,
Romare and I
might have
last names
the African-American experience.

IMAGE: “Patchwork Quilt,” collage by Romare Bearden, 1970 (Museum of Modern Art).

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: For a long time, I’ve felt that the names Reardon and Bearden probably came from the same root, but never had much of a sense of what to do with that idea. Writing the poem enabled me to dance around with the thought.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patrick T. Reardon, the author of five books, is writing a history of Chicago’s elevated railroad loop and its impact on the development of the city.

PHOTO: Patrick T. Reardon in 1967.