Monday, May 21, 2012

More Farming Poems

Afternoon Walk*

I found them in the shade
of an old oak. The cow

on its belly, moaning, tried
to lift its weight on one leg, but slipped

in the mud, the leaves,
and its own blood which stained

the valley floor. My father, alone, red
as that blood, too focused to even

cuss anymore, murmured
soothing words as he struggled

to secure a harness impossibly
around the shoulders of the calf still

halfway inside its mother. A tractor (also red)
idled on the other end of the harness.

He pulled the harness himself, one foot
on the cow's behind, the calf

struggling, my father frantic
until he saw me. "The tractor!"

he yelled. I moved, never mind
the fear, the blood, never mind
that I couldn't drive it.

He barked orders, steering me
with his words as though
I were an engine, my arms, the gear-shift,

my feet, the peddles. I eased
forward, watching him, both feet
on the cow, his whole body pulling

as I kept the wheel straight. The calf
moved; the cow lowered its head

as though concentrating on a difficult problem. The calf
squeezed out and, suddenly free, landed

on my father, who fell to the ground, laughing,
dragged by the harness which jerked forward

as the tractor lurched
into the oak and stalled out.

*Originally appeared in Barnwood Poetry Journal


We sat in line,
a dozen trucks
in front, a dozen behind,
all grey or faded
green, the colors
of dust, rust, time.
Rice chaff filled our lungs,
covered our clothes, our faces;
we could hardly tell brown
from pink. All of us swarthy,

My brother's arm, thick
as oak, thrown
over the window
sill of the truck door, his
cap pushed back.
I reached up, lifted
my new Riceland cap
my father had given me the day
before and smoothed
my hair, as I'd seen my father do,
trying to look

We moved up the line,
grumbling. Beside us,
beyond us, the sky
stretched blue, the land
stretched green, all rice
fields, all flooded
as though we were Noahs
in our arcs waiting
for the

My brother fiddled
with the radio, found only
country, switched it off, tapped
his fingers twice and turned it back on.
"Old piece of shit," he said.
"Piece of crap," I said.

We pulled up,
got out. My brother went in. I stood
aside, seeing for the first time
the concrete dryers towering,
the color of old bone, the tallest
things in the world.

My brother came out, ash faced,
a wad in his hand he hid
quickly, ashamed.
"Wait all fucking day for four and a half,"
he said and pulled
up to dump the load
while I practiced

On the ride back
to the field, we topped out
at forty, listened to more
country music,
watched the land slide
by like clouds. I was learning
to complain, learning
impatience with the enthusiasm
of a dog chasing a stick.
"Time is money," Dad said often.
"Idle hands are the devil's playthings."

My uncle in the combine
met us and we waited
while the radio twanged.
"Come on, now," I said, pleased
to be the first to complain.
My brother scowled
and said nothing.

Then back
to the line, all of us,
trying to remember not
to look up at those concrete towers,
out at those fields; keeping our eyes
forward, sullen, down;
to wait, to wait, to wait.

*originally appeared in the Arkansas Review

When I was a boy, I heard roaches sing.
It only happened at night, after Mom became sick
and went back to St. Louis. Dad was drunk. Everyday
I came in from the rice fields,
too sweaty to sleep but too tired not to,
pressed my cheek to the wall beside the bed
because it was cool,
and they were in there, singing.

This was different from in the fields. I’d heard mosquitoes,
but never roaches, sing. I listened and forgot
the water moccasins stroking my leg like fingers
as they swam past, the shovel dribbling mud down my back
like a heavy breeze, the dull gray levies
that stretched out before me that day
and would the next,
the weight of my father’s tired muscles
as we dragged him from his truck to bed,
the quiet of the house since Mom was gone;
I forgot it all, and listened to them sing.

In the mornings, I woke, staggered
into the dusty light of my father’s truck
and tucked the memory of my nights away,
under the hard slap of the sun,
and the drunken jokes of farmers that didn’t make any sense.
I sank into the mud of those fields
and into myself, waiting

until night came;
when I would crawl into bed,
press my face against the wall
and listen.

*Originally appeared in Nimrod and Story South. "Roaches" was also the winner of the Blue Collar Review's Working People's Poetry Contest.

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