David Kann came back to poetry, having made his escape from a long walkabout in the desert of academic administration. He returned to school and earned an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He presently teaches poetry and American literature and works hard at keeping his head down and avoiding any and all administrative duties.
The Language of the Farm
1. The Language of the Farm in Autumn
The farm in autumn speaks
the plain sense of things
without frill or filigree, speaks
true and solid as well-sunk fenceposts
enclosing fields spiked with stubble, speaks
in the wind carrying rags of leaves
and the flinty smell that comes just before snow, speaks
in a tongue so cold we’re driven
from mirrors, from still water, even from shadows,
terrified of its indifference,
each word icy-bright and sharp as a knife
that peels flesh from bone,
and opens nerves to the dull November sun
or the frost-misted moon’s tarnished silver
pouring thick over the bare land.
2. Death of Innocents
We were fourteen and fifteen-year old kids,
bussed from the July city’s swelter
sent to work on an upstate farm,
strangers to each other
who hardly knew the gulfs we tried to bridge
with mumbled crumbs of sentences,
judging each other’s clothes, shoes, hair.
Eyes aimed away, we barely talked,
trapped in our angular stiff bodies.
The next morning we were bunched,
mute, behind a swaybacked barn,
told there were chickens to be butchered.
Even that early in the morning
the hot sun raised the rich reek
of piled manure and rotting hay.
I could hardly take a breath.
To one side, a trench under two poles
linked by a pine plank so old
it seemed to grow splinters,
four broad, dented metal funnels nailed to it,
a deep-bellied, sooty pot simmering beside it,
scummy water over a low fire.
By the pot, a door on sawhorses,
marbled with stony black stains
and the stacked low wooden cages
filled with birds crammed
into a shit-stained solid mass.
Amber eyes looked through the dowel-bars.
Quiet clucking and low crooning rose.
A farmhand yanked a bird by the neck
through a door at the top of a cage.
It squawked, flapped and shed feathers until
he shoved it head-first
into one of the funnels,
drew its head through.
With a casual left-right slash
he cut the throat.
The loose head dangling
and a soft patter into the dry trench.
My breath stopped.
The trees’ rustle stopped.
I believe the clouds stopped.
Some of were given small, wood-handled knives
with burred crosshatching on the edges
and sent to the trench.
Others with long knives
were sent to the table and waited quietly.
I snatched a chicken by its scaly legs.
It jerked my arm left and right,
Scrawing, wings flapping,
head curved upward, until
I jammed it into a funnel.
I reached for its wedge head,
like pinching my heart.
It fought in my fingers.
tried to pull back.
Then I drew it through.
The blinking eyes nailed me.
I drew back,
left the chicken hanging there,
scaly talons upward, grasping at the air,
under the warming summer sun and leaf dapple.
The head jerked left and right,
the beak opening and closing,
chewing at the air for voice.
I filled my lungs.
Taking the knife in one hand, the terrifying head in the other,
The head dropped into my palm.
Blood poured through my fingers,
over my wrist, dripped from my elbow.
I flung the head in the trench.
The hen’s eyes were still rolling,
the beak still searching for the air to cry out.
Spinning, wringing and shaking my hands,
I sent bird blood flying everywhere
stained my face and my new white tee-shirt.
Everyone stared at me.
What else could I do
in front of their gaze
but take another bird?
Three boys joined in.
Together, it seemed easy.
We grabbed and slashed, grabbed and slashed.
We laughed, passing the slack dangling drained birds,
their combs gone pale pink, to the black scalding pot,
then to the plucking table
and then to the next table
where they were butchered.
We sorted ropes of intestine, green gall bladders,
red gizzards; garnet, lobed livers, pale pink meat.
The air was filled with slither and slop.
The barn cats under the table,
yowled, and clawed over spilled innards.
I found a dull, split-shanked, rusted hand-axe,
took a chicken,
stretched it out on a stump,
struck at its neck, two, three times
and the head flew to the side.
The bird body sprang up, running, tumbling in blind somersaults
blood spurting from its crushed neck that spasmed
in and out of its feathered stump.
We all were red-splattered.
First silent, we stared.
Then we laughed.
Then we roared, then howled, then danced
around the white rag of the dead bird and the blood-muddy killing trench.
We smeared each other’s faces with chicken blood,
heaved guts at each other until we were speckled
with flecks of liver,
draped with thin blue strings of intestine,
painted with shit.
That night, I kissed a girl,
slipped my blooded hand in her shirt,
felt her small nipple rise against my hot palm,
let her sleek hot tongue in my mouth,
staggered by her silky sex cupped in my hand.
with the moon into the night.
loving death and my flesh,
into the brawling dark with all its spinning stars,
dancing with crickets’ and nighthawks’ bright calls.
3. Incidental Divinity
It’s late for mowing,
but we’ve forgotten
an outlying field carved from the woods,
left fallow for hay we’ll need this winter.
I’m sent out this morning,
thirteen years old and proud
to be trusted, alone
on a beat-up red and rust Farmall Cub.
At the end of the field
I lower the cutter bar,
engage the power take-off.
I leave a track behind me
like a ship tacking into a stiff wind.
Dust, hay fragments and the chatter
of the scissoring blades rise around me.
The cutter’s rhythm stutters;
the belt slips and squeals;
the engine staggers under a sudden load,
picks up again.
There’s a splatter of blood on my hand.
Cold in my gut, I slam the ignition off,
stumble from the still-coasting tractor.
There’s a big woodchuck on his side.
His head is almost gone.
He paws at the air.
From his ruined mouth.
a ruby pool spreads over the stubble.
I look around for a sharp tool,
a spade, anything to chop with;
I think of stomping his head.
But he stops in mid-stride,
seems to shrink.
The surrounding woods recede and grey.
I can’t breathe.
Then I remember how.
The trees regain their green.
I knuckle my eyes,
climb back in the saddle and finish the job.
For days after
I can find the body by its rank stink.
I stand in the mowed and raked field,
staring at the rice-grain maggots
pouring from the mouth like speech
and in the ragged eye-holes left by crows.
With each visit, the chuck seems to fold into itself,
sinking into other dimensions;
hunks of matted fur,
rags of blackened skin,
yellow teeth, ivory bones
in the middle of stubble so sharp
I can feel its pinch through my boot soles.
By late winter there’s only crusted fur,
disarticulated bones, scattered teeth
and brittle pelt frost-welded to the dirt,
hard as iron when I poke it with my toe.
One March night I drop to my hands and knees,
nose close to the softened ground:
an animal, maybe a coyote
sniffing the strewn ruins.
There’s only the flinty smell of air just before snow.
It comes on spring.
Sent to harrow the new grass
and plow the field for seed corn,
I fire up the Cub.
At one spot there is a greener hummock,
ecstatic with the flicker
of Indian paintbrush,
cornflower, and buttercup.
The morning light picks out mayflies,
a boiling swarm of gnats,
and a hunting swallow’s eccentric circle.
4. Fallow Field
Cela est bien dit . . . mais il faut cultiver notre
As this October day limps westward,
I find myself
on my way to someplace else
on a back-highway smelling of hot tar,
arced by maple, oak and weeping birch
that autumn’s dry fingers have barely touched.
A sudden turn-off takes me
down a high-crowned dirt road
winding through the woods
with no more direction than a stream
bent by granite’s refusal and dirt’s embrace.
In these woods snarled in wild grapes
and up to its knees in deadfall
someone’s carved out a field
given to bright gold rye,
defying burdock, sumac, and spurge
to stay true to its borders and corners.
I stop and step into cool shadows
among bone-bleached stumps
giving themselves to worms and foxfire.
It think that I could make a warm bed
in the furrows of this field,
lie down among stalk and beard,
brothering the crop, tilting and falling with their ranks,
then turned under in a breaking wave of stubble and soil
sheering left and right under a gang plough’s
bent shoesole blades worn shiny with work,
waiting under loam and snow,
dreaming dirt’s annular dream
of bud, blossom and brightening blow.