168. Looking Back

Sank and sank.
Cotton price had
Sunk, it seemed to them,
Ever since right
After the World War.
Wartime they were
Told to break new land,
Told that cotton,
Wheat would help us win.
Riah’s folks had
Started farming then.

The War over,
Europe fed its
Own. The big
Market, gone. They
Should have cut their
Acres. But who
Could? To head off
Gluts, they should all
Cut back–the price
Then might hold–
But if just
A few did, those would
Starve. Loans and
Tractors, land
Appraisals, taxes,
Interest to the bank! They
Had to plow to pay! Cut
Back? But how to
Tell if others would?
Even here in town were
Other farmers
Elsewhere might plant
More. So, they must
All. Mill owners
Claimed the same
Constraint: Say, I would
Never hire kids,
Make them stand twelve
Hours, feed machines,
Losing fingers,
Barefoot, losing feet–
But old so-and-so across
The road, he
Hires them–they’re
Cheap! If I
Stop, I can’t compete.

And for that same
Reason, farmers plowed.
Planted more and
More, to sell for
Less. Meanwhile
Prices collapsed. And
Their sleep filled with
Nightmares: falling
Down a hole and
Crying out, unheard.

Tom wanted it.
Why, he did not
Know, but Thomas
Wanted it–
That new-vacant
Seat on the Committee.
The Committees,
Roosevelt’s idea: farmers
Supervising crop size
On their own. Committees
Saw to that.
As he sat out
On the porch today, Tom
Granted that his
Chances would be slight.
Riah sat beside him,
Thinking why: first,
Among all landowners,
Tom had least. His farm,
Tenant-sized. Secondly,
Because–though this was
Chill she had felt
Lately from her friends. Might….
Riah halted.
Shook the thought away.

Riah cast back.
Prices low
Forever, so it seemed. They
Kept on trying to bring in
A crop. Someone
Must be making money:
Those who played
The futures. Those on top. Not
Here. Not home.

On the porch,
Riah daydreamed
She sat on her tractor.
Riding plowing
Acre after acre,
Spine vibrating,
Foot jammed to the floor,
Pinned-up hair out
Tumbling free in streamers,
Face awash with
Sun. She shuddered
With delight. She
Plowed so straight!
All admired it, despite
And if they had
Not, she would not
Care. Because
It was there:
It was there for
Her own eyes to see. Row
After row, done

And when she’d
Determined when to plant–
She was wise there,
Too–and cotton
Sprouted green,
It came with no
Coaxing. No, it
Grew because she
Knew what she was doing.
Old days, after showers,
She’d slog toward
The furrows,
Plodding ankle-deep
In mucky
Fields, till only
Cotton could be
Seen–bare lone
And right there she’d
Stop. She might spin slow,
Breathe green earth.
Goodness she felt,
Goodness of a crop,
Waking in her
Blood a gratitude,
For herself and
For this grace, this
Cotton–sun, rain, wind–
Cotton grown from
Nothing, from raw

Just a daydream.
Hunger roused her
Now. Riah
Rose up from the porch
And slipped inside.
Tom sat alone.

Riah was
The finest farmer,
Thomas thought, that
He had ever known:
Canny when to
Plant, and when to sell.
We two took this
Place–too small,
Mortgaged neck-high,
Dry–took it and
Made  a living.
Paid the taxes,
Held the bank at bay.
Tom once watched her
Run off to the fields.
He had seen her
Face above that tractor.
He had walked their
Land, too, on his
Own. Tom

So the teasing,
Sitting with
The men, he let it
Riah plowed:
He knew they all
But you did not–
You just did not–
Thomas reached for
Some right word, and
Found at last
The old, familiar one–you
Did not keep
A person from her

He glanced at
The scorched, deserted
Land. Stood,
Stretched himself,
Went in.

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