Sunday, August 15, 2004


It's at press and will be available within a month, the anthology that I have several poems accepted for, America Zen: A Gathering of Poets, edited by Ray McNiece & Larry Smith. It is 224 pages perfect bound, 6x9, ISBN: 0-933087-91-8. It's available for $16 from Bottom Dog Press, PO Box 425, Huron, OH 44839.

And I am recommending that you get a copy of it. Bottom Dog should soon have more information about the anthology available at their web site here, if you're interested.

The poets included in this gathering are: Nin Andrews, David Budbill, Thomas Rain Crowe, Kathe Davis, Diane di Prima, Stanford M. Forrester, Tess Gallagher, Margaret Gibson, John Gilgun, Netta Gillespie, Sam Hamill, William Heyen, Jane Hirschfield, Holly Hughes, Mary Sue Koeppel, Mark Kuhar, Mac Lojowsky, Ray McNiece, Tom Montag, Shin Yu Pai, Paul S. Piper, Maj Ragain, David Ray, Seido Ray Ronci, Andrew Schelling, Paul Skyrm, Larry Smith, Tony Trigilio, Chase Twichell, and Anne Waldmann

"Each poet is fully represented by a biographical sketch, a photo, a statement on Zen and poetry, and a selection of five or more poems," the editors say.

Eleven of my "Ben Zen" poems are included, and four from my "Plain Poems" series. This, from "Ben Zen:"
I push the mountain,
Ben says, and push

The mountain and
Still the mountain

Pushes back.

And this, from the "Plain Poems:"
JULY 6, 2001 (2)

We don't know the ponderous
thoughts of stones. What do they

dream of as afternoon heats them?
Do they dream of arms and legs

or wings? Do they dream of love?
Do they remember glaciers -

the weight, the shove? Sitting with
stones, oh, lost among stones, aren't

you surprised at what you learn?


AUGUST 7, 2004

It was the day for a big move. We needed to make some miles, and so we did. Because the water is low, the expected three or four portages turned out to be seven or eight or nine, hard to say exactly. Creeks you could paddle through the last time Susan's map was updated, well, you can't paddle through them now. Standing atop a beaver dam is like standing on top of the world. Yahoo! you want to yell, and Yahoo! would echo back.

The deepest I got stuck in the muck was up to my knees, both knees, same time. We pushed on, working harder than we expected to. Yet, as I said to the four people waiting for us to clear one particularly messy portage, as I was standing there knee-deep in the muck: I said: This is what we come for, isn't it?

Yeah, it is. If what we got was what we could get at home, why would we come here for it?

This morning the rain waited until we had our coffee and our cups of oatmeal and fruit compote, until we had the dishes washed, the tents rolled up and put away, the gear packed. If it had to rain, we got exactly what you'd want - a shy, beg-your-pardon drizzle. Some little wind blew the clouds away about noon or so and then we had sunshine.

We pushed ourselves pretty hard, made the promised "last portage" three or four times, and finally set up camp towards 5:00 p.m. on a little island with lovely sites for tents, a nice flat rock barely sloping into the water for washing up. I got myself washed up and put on fresh clothes. I would say I was a "new man," but not everything washed off: I am stained with this landscape. It is good to take some of where you've been with you, close as your own skin.



I was invited by Starr Jacobs of Smith Center to have supper in the field with her husband, Brent, and with Brent's cousin, Dan Jacobs, as they harvested their wheat crop. I extended the invitation by asking if I could ride in the combine after supper while Dan continued running it. Dan operates the combine; Brent & Starr's son, Steve, hauls the wheat from the combine to the semi-truck that Brent drives; and Brent hauls the wheat to storage. This continues my account of some time spent riding in the combine on a Monday evening three days into Smith County's 2004 wheat harvest.

How does he know when the bin on the combine is getting full? When the light flashes that indicates "Bin Full," it's too late to swing the auger out and get Steve coming with the wagon. He'd have to stop the combine and wait.

"I let it go up to the top of the window behind me," Dan said. "Then I swing the auger out. Usually when he gets here, the bin is full enough."

There was a pheasant running in the wheat ahead of us. Dan pointed at the moving stalks that gave away its position. Very soon the pheasant exploded out of the wheat, flew up and off to the left.

"If you didn't farm," I asked Dan, "what would you do?"

"I don't know," he said. "I honestly don't know."

"When it gets dark out tonight," Dan said later, "it will be dark. No moon out tonight."

At night in the dark, when the wind is blowing, when you turn away from the dirt the combine throws out, you can see what you're doing. When the wind is not blowing, it doesn't matter which way you turn; either way you are blinded by it.

"There's a fog for you," Dan said as he drove into a cloud of the chaff.

"In the dark," he said, "it's easy to get turned around. You know where you are, but you don't know where the truck is. Sometimes you have to ask the guy in the truck to turn his parking lights on."

Millers are attracted to the lights of the combine. Twenty of them were fluttering in front of the windshield. They were good for occasionally cleaning a little dust here and there off the glass, otherwise they just reflected the headlights back at you. Millers are moths with wings that look dusty or powdered, thought to suggest the dusted clothes of a fellow who works in a grain mill.

"Some of this ground here we're going to want to disk, so we can put a crop in this fall," Dan said. "But I'm not sure you're going to get a disk in the ground - it's rock hard."

We were out along the road at the east edge of the field then. "My dad told me there's one thing they don't produce more of," Dan recalled. "That's land. If you've got it, keep it. There won't be any more. They can produce more money; they can't produce more land."

"Here," Dan pointed out, "there used to be buildings. There was a house here, a bunch of trees there. We tore them all down. The old well is where we made that curve right there. The house set over there. We had a guy with a Cat come in, push the house in, and cover it with dirt. We tore out the trees - more brush, really, than trees. It was rough ground here for a few years but we've smoothed it out."

I got a chill at the back of my neck. Ghosts on the landscape. Right here, right now, in this very place.

"The wind picked back up, didn't it?" I observed.

"Yeah," Dan said. "The way it was acting earlier, I thought it was going to stay down."

Now there was a blizzard of dust in the lights of the combine again. It was difficult to see the wheat right in front of us.

Dan turned the combine tightly and headed it back the other way. "If you really want to turn short," he said, "you can stand on the turning brake and it'll come right around. It's hard on the tires, though. They're not made to turn that sharp, so they slide."

It was after 10:00 p.m. when we unloaded the last bin of wheat into the wagon. Dan couldn't see the truck. He knew where he was, but he didn't know for sure where the truck was. He had to drive only a short distance to a terrace to get his bearings; he adjusted his direction slightly and soon enough we pulled to a stop near the road, near where I'd left my car.

I had to get down out of the cab of the combine and head for town. Steve was unloading the last wagonload of the day into the truck. The other truck was being parked a quarter mile down the road. Dan said he was going to park the combine over there, too. It's the neighbor's ground, it has been disked and is bare dirt. "We won't leave the combine or the other equipment out here on the wheat stubble," Dan said. "Lightning could start a fire in the stubble and burn up our equipment."

Even when you sleep, you have to worry.

I thanked Dan for letting me ride with him. I got into the car and turned it in the other direction. In my headlights I saw Brent walking back up the road to get the other truck. I stop, get out to thank him, too, for the chance ride the combine.

"You know your way back to town?" he asked me.

"You head that way and that way," I said, indicating a direction straight ahead, and a right turn from straight ahead. "I just keep going that way and that way til I reach the main road."

I knew where I was. I knew where I was going.

"Just watch for the lights," Brent said. He meant that the lights of Smith Center will show up off to the northwest.

And they did. I was driving back roads in the dark, I was headed for Smith Center. I knew where I was. I knew where I was going. I know where I've been.

These Kansas farmers are not so different than the Iowa farm folk I grew up among.

To be continued....


AUGUST 13, 1998

Years ago - twenty years ago now - when I was hauling bundles of the regional newspaper Fox River Patriot store-to-store along a four-hundred-mile route, I first sensed so strongly that the place makes the man. In very marked contrast to the good black prairie where I found people of good cheer, on the marginal sands those I encountered were crabbed and a little more surly, short-tempered, hard-pressed. It wasn't just one or two incidents that gave rise to the observation, but repeated occurrence across two years of hauling papers. A hard land makes a hard people. A hard land deforms a man, perhaps. A rich land blesses him. I would add that the better land resulted in a better store as well - brighter, better stocked, better kept. On the marginal sands, you could see the stores themselves were more marginal.

I could make that same trip again now without papers, couldn't I, stopping the same places, observing the people, getting a gauge on whether anything has changed - either in my way of seeing things, or in the people themselves. It might be an interesting trip.

Moisture on the windshield this morning. A blue sky. High, thin clouds. And some low, wet, cold ones too, scattered. We won't know for a while what kind of day is coming.

The earth has a forgiving memory. She is mending where the tree came down along Washington Street. When the green grass grows in thick, we won't know a tree ever stood there.

Sometimes we don't now how to read the signs from our own past.

A thick ground haze out in the country, almost a Canadian morning, folks! More sweet corn has been taken, all of it so far on the east side of Highway E, none of it on the west side. Duh, Tom, look close to the ground in that field you thought was soy beans; don't you see the purple? That's how you tell it's a field of beets! Even knowing this, even with my glasses on, it's still tough for an Iowa farm boy to recognize a field of beets.

A good poet would make poetry of a day such as this. The lingering, smoky smell where the barn burned. The sweet, wet aroma near the new houses north of Five Corners. The diffusion of light in the curtain of haze to the east. That woman and her dog, walking. I, on the other hand, will simply note that they've been seen. Been scene. Been here. You hear that, people? We were here; we mattered this little while.

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