Country Life

A poem

Tema Stauffer, Field of Sad Trees, 2008.

They came for land. For hog-high wheat to Dixon, Weeping Water, Garland Falls;
came to Midland hamlets, made their farms from bogs & marshes,
fens & bottomland: immigrants from Kraków, Darkov, Lasko

who fled famine, coming wars, or the Eastern factories, left
the city rivers thick with indigo & slaughter’s crimson, tenement
air: TB & boiled tubers, fled the bellows & gutter cast, sawdust & accident;

left forever what Riis called the strip of smoke-colored sky so that
their children’s children might grow up corn-fed, reverent,
thrifty; that they might join 4-H & raise lambs, might

crochet & macramé; might play the clarinet or their fathers’ accordions, always
optimistic despite the blizzards & drought, locust & blight.
Where there’s space to push the earth aside: that’s the place

to raise a child — here amid arrival’s plenty: starch & punch in a church basement;
even so, a century later their descendants hear another music
over the television, the civics lesson, over the highway’s drone:

a white noise off the flat plain, an echo of the empty well’s temptation,
as if something in them yearns after all for chimney spill, the gritty stink of war,
how else to explain how some came to worship this caustic god,

taking in their bodies his small poison, in abandoned barns & chicken coops:
battery acid, lye, brake cleaner, Sudafed, salt & red sulfur —
Was it to hear clearly the deep corn’s chorus, maybe; maybe

to be nightwind, milkweed, goldenrod, chaos & immersion: to be the intolerable
wild unplowed field, to be the one elm black with starlings?
Those whose parents thought they’d never be suppliants, never

wilt or starve — but we’ve seen them in mug shots, baffled
& sallow, broken as those girls in sweatshops going blind,
or the rawboned young Spinner in a Carolina Mill 1901

or the miners’ families evicted, or the garment workers corralled:
faces smeared & scattered as blossoms before the plow; all
catastrophically struck in the light of their own interminable

now, weary, girding themselves, helpless before the lens.

Editors' Note

“Country Life” was originally published in The Kenyon Review, Fall 2010, and will appear in Now Make an Altar, forthcoming next month from Carnegie Mellon University Press. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Amy Beeder, “Country Life,” Places Journal, December 2011. Accessed 05 Jun 2023. <>

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