Jul. 13, 2004

High Plains Farming

by William Notter

TUESDAY, JULY 13, 2004
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Poem: "High Plains Farming," by William Notter, from More Space Than Anyone Can Stand. © Texas Review Press. Reprinted with permission.

High Plains Farming

There's never enough of the right kind of rain,
and always too much of what we get.
We've got not need for casinos—
keeping the farm is enough to gamble on.
If the seed doesn't blow out of the ground in December,
the wheat gets laid down flat in the fields by hail
come summer. Spring blizzards get the calves,
and one year my corn was nothing
but rows of stalks from softball-size hail
a month before harvest. That storm ruined my shingles
and beat the siding right off the neighbors' house.

A little hail and wind can't run me off, though,
and I'll keep dropping the well until the aquifer
dries up like they've said it would for years.
We may not know what it's going to leave us with,
but we can see our weather coming.
When those fronts blow across the fields,
trailing dust and rain, we've got time
to get the cars in the shed, and ourselves
into the basement if the clouds are green.

Next morning I go out to see where the dice fell.
Everything's glazed and bright with the dust knocked off
and the sun barely up. The gravel on the roads
is clean-washed pink, and water still hangs
on the fence wires and the pasture grass.
Sometimes I need to call the county
about a washed-out road, or the insurance man
about a field stripped clean. When I'm lucky
I can shut the irrigation pumps down
for a day or two and give the well a rest.

I like to drive right into it sometimes
when a storm comes up, lightning arcing
all directions over the hills, and the slate-blue
edge of the front clean as a section line.
There's an instant in that border
where it's not quite clear but not the storm
when everything seems to stop, like my wheels
have left the road. The light turns spooky, dust
just hangs, the grass glows like it's ready
to spark and catch on fire. Then the motor strains,
fat raindrops whack the tin and glass
like the racket from a flock of blackbirds,
hundreds of them scattering off a stubblefield.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1798, William Wordsworth wrote one of his greatest poems, "Tintern Abbey." Wordsworth had first seen the ruin of the abbey in the valley of the River Wye in Southeast Wales five years before while on a walking tour. He returned in the summer of 1798 to the same place while on vacation with his sister Dorothy, his closest friend, and it was on that occasion that he wrote the poem whose full title is "Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour."

It's the birthday of poet John Clare, born in Helpston, Nottinghamshire (1793). When he was twelve, he left school to work as a laborer. In his spare time he wrote poetry, and in 1820 he published his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, with the byline "John Clare, a Nottinghamshire peasant." He was suddenly famous, and he went to London to meet other poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb. He continued to publish books of poems, including The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835), but they didn't sell well, and he became a tenant farmer to support his seven children. He started drinking, and he ended up in an insane asylum, where he spent the last twenty-three years of his life.

It's the birthday of short story writer Isaac(k) Babel, born in the Jewish ghetto in Odessa, Ukraine (1894). He published his first stories about the Odessa ghetto in a St. Petersburg monthly that was edited by the writer Maksim Gorky, and later collected them in Tales of Odessa (1931). Gorky encouraged Babel to see the world, and Babel took his advice, serving in the Cossack First Cavalry Army. He drew on that experience for his book Red Cavalry, published in 1926. The original journal from which this book was written, 1920 Journal, was published in Russia as the Soviet Union crumbled; it was translated into English in 1995.

In 1939, Babel was arrested by the Soviet secret police for writing a screenplay they believed was anti-Stalinist. On January 27, 1940, after a twenty-minute trial, he was executed in Moscow.

It's the birthday of novelist Dale Peck, born in Long Island, New York (1967). He made his name in the literary world before he reached the age of thirty with the books Martin and John (1993), about a young man's attempt to cope with his lover's death from AIDS, and The Law of Enclosures (1996), about two couples and their marriages gone bad.

His collection of book critiques, Hatchet Jobs, was published earlier this year. It's a collection of scathing reviews he's written over the years. He calls one writer "the worst writer of his generation." And he says another writer "starts his books like a boxer talking trash before the bout, as if trying to make his opponent forget that the only thing that really matters is how hard and how well you throw your fists after the bell rings." He said, "To me the novel is nothing more than a strongly expressed opinion and so it seems like the only thing you can respond to it with that is even remotely worthwhile is an equally strongly expressed opinion. Whether it's for or against."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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