Death of an Iowa Farmer

click here to read Elaine Sexton's poem in Bloom.


Three by Ai


Hailstones puncture the ground,
as I sit at the table, rubbing a fork.
My woman slides a knife across her lips,
then lays it beside a cup of water.
Each day she bites another notch in her thumb
and I pretend relief is coming
as the smooth black tire, Earth,
wheels around the sun without its patch of topsoil
and my mouth speaks: wheat, barley, red cabbage,
roll on home to Jesus,
it's too late now you're dead.



Rain, tobacco juice, spit from the sky
shatters against your body,
as you push the pane of glass through the mud.
The white oak frame of the house shakes
when I slam the door and stand on the porch,
fanning myself with a piece of cardboard
cut in the shape of a ham.

There's a pot of air on the stove.
You drove seventy miles, paid for that glass
and I can't remember the last good meal I had,
but bring it up here. I'll help you. I'm not angry.
We'll paint the sun on it from the inside,
so if we die some night, a light will still be on.
It's hell to starve in the dark.
I don't know why. I'm just your woman,
like you, crazy to lose all I've got.
It's rotten, you know, rotten.
The table's set. What time is it?
Wash your hands first. You're late.



Beside the river, I stop the wagon
loaded with the plague dead
and have a drink.
I fill my mouth to swallow slowly,
then climb back into my seat.
The old horse drops one turd, another.
Corpses, I give you these flowers.

:: Ai, Cruelty (1973)


Visiting My Father in Florida

Forty years, every working day he drove
through the roiling haze of Cleveland streets
to the Harshaw Chemical Co., past Union Carbide,
Rockwell International, Bethlehem Steel, all the
barbed-wire, bricked-window plants, sulfur
rising from their stacks to rain on playgrounds
and reservoirs, the states downwind. He knew

the neighborhoods of Italians and Poles, Greeks
and Slovenes, Slovaks and Croats before they moved
their kitchen tables, photo albums and ceramic jockeys
to the suburbs. He couldn't understand the girls
in platform heels and slit skirts who'd whisper
"Hey Mister" from bleak doorways. "Go home to
your mother," he told one. "Your white ass,"

she answered. He persisted so long even he changed.
Now we drive through his new "planned community,"
banks and K Marts garish as modern churches,
acres of offices of oncologists, proctologists,
urologists, ancient women pedaling tricycles,
Lincoln and Cadillac dealers, the old in bunches
raising blouses and shirts to show their latest scars.

Later we fish his new canal. Caloosahatchee mullet
leap stiffly toward the sky. He lifts his rod
and a whiskered, flat-headed catfish the color
of sludge lands between us, writhing. I've never
seen a thing so old, so ugly. It leaves a trail
of slime on the new dock, lost in so much sudden light,
blind. Its mouth gapes the precious, useless air.

:: David Citino, in Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life


Spring Plowing

God knows it’s slow work, especially
when March streams like a broken faucet,
or gluttonous snows fall through February.

You batter the gates till you can’t stand it,
then you try . . . Next thing you know,
you’re axle deep in a dead furrow

or your rig sinks like a big green boat
above some broken drain tile. You can bury
yourself in any square foot that lies low.

But you can only gnaw the stall door so long.
My dead father would curse the weather
for days or weeks at a time, hovering

inside the kitchen like a dark gray cloud,
having changed the oil in every engine
and greased each conceivable part,

waiting, waiting, good God, for better weather.
And that, gentle reader, is why I left
the goddamn farm.

But there were other days, magazine-cover,
tractor-ad days, when the ground turned itself
over, the way a woman unpeels her robe,

anxious to be loved. The very wind
smelled of apple flowers and diesel smoke,
and you believed you were born for a reason.

:: William Jolliff, in West Branch #60 (2007)