The wind is blowing through the blighted birch.
Its wormy leaves all toss with gay abandon.
Father, you planted it the year Alf Landon
fought for the good old days. I watch it lurch
beside your hillhouse, where you let me perch,
and still the parlor-pinks and liberals land in
the Government, the moon, this field I stand in;
the rights of man scream from each Negro church.
You loved our town, our little feudal fief
ruled by the rich grocer, accomplished thief
and friend of yours. You worshiped the same god,
and yet, father, you never tried his beef.
Now with black maggots crawling on each leaf,
your creamy birch creaks, rotten in its clod.
Nobody’s here; nobody but the wind.
Over the meadow changing with the hours,
where brooks lie under snow with grass and flowers,
from time to time it blows a leaf, unpinned
from forest crowding in, undisciplined,
to fill this emptiness you say is ours.
But father, have you spoken with the powers
that haunt here now? They watched us come and grinned.
Nobody’s lived here, where the road ascends
the hill and disappears—and here it ends:
a house, with a few saplings poking forth
from the lost ground below, and for their friends,
the wind and the deep cold—which buckles, bends,
and half the stone foundation inches north.
She is the neighbor’s sister’s bastard daughter
adopted to these hills. No one can guess,
except Americans, what sordidness
goes with infrequent use of soap and water.
This little girl, who watches daddy slaughter
the autumn pig and has a bad abscess
in her new tooth, holes in her party dress,
and no wheels on the bike her daddy bought her—
what will become of her? In muddy boots
among the fenders, tires, and inner tubes
of daddy’s junkyard, rotting without roots,
she skips, a little witch among the boobs.
This land has no use for its brightest shoots.
She’ll marry, since we outlaw prostitutes.
One day at nightfall, when thick fog revealed,
by barbed wire fence, a tree trunk, more or less,
which dripped out of its upper nothingness
into a lane and cattle-gutted field,
and even the near neighbor’s lights were sealed
behind a mask of space and timelessness,
leaving the desolation to confess
a fender, lying like a broken shield—
like war, I thought—the horror fields of France.
A shell hole, once a ploughed-out cattle pond,
confronted me . . . and when I tried to lance
my flashlight beam, waving it like a wand,
into the drifting mist and break the trance,
it pointed nowhere. Nothing was beyond.
I often think about these twilight years
of mass murders and race-staggering crimes
and slower death in empty pantomimes
of sentiment, from which a horror leers;
but most I think of one recorded queer’s
velvety vocals, who a thousand times
has crooned emasculated nursery rhymes
into our daughters’ young and helpless ears.
In the beginning men were not estranged
from the earth spirits. Shelterless and dumb
over uncultivated lands they ranged,
uncursed by crooners. To the hollow drum
century followed century unchanged,
and men knew what their daughters would become.
With its great belly heaving, cracked and bruised
from the frost’s push, sore from the ice’s sting,
slowly the earth emerges into spring.
Under the brook-loud hills today, it oozed
at every step, and not a sod refused
my boot’s print. Long imprisoned waters swing
out over sunny meadows, glittering.
The dark tunnels beneath cave in, unused.
What if they do, father? See: dying sun,
striking across the hillsides, has begun
to shape with shadows every mound and hummock.
No one can guess what the deep frost has done.
From steps on the dry road, dark trickles run;
stiff gravel gives, like walking on a stomach.
Originally published in Word from the Hills: A Sonnet Sequence in Four Movements(Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1972)