1. The Farm House Burns


September 21, 1925:
The Farm House Burns

Got an idea—saw a flash—
Lightning started up this fire.”

Overhead, the placid night clouds drifted,
Blank. Down below,
The crop that held the field.
And a torch: a house.
Heat had beat them back,
Their foreheads scorched.
They stood restless
By the cars they’d ridden out.
“Where’s the truck?
Damn truck.”
No hose, water, nothing.
Crackling of huge kindling in their ears—
Ground wind, high.

“Engine, it won’t start,
Won’t start again!
Dust’s too thick, the air—
Wind kicked it up.
The ignition.
They’re way down-road,
Pushing it toward here.”
Beams crashed, flame stabbed out—
A cry?—
They rushed the house,
But fell back coughing, blind,
Drowned in smoke.
They’d tried buckets.
Wouldn’t work.
“All in there?”
“But one, far as we know.
That boy, hired man, Tom, he’s away.
Daughter’s out.”
“Whole rest of them?” someone asked, unwilling.

Roaring, baseboards
Warped. Groaning with fire’s
Weight, the roof faltered,
A high whine—
Windows split with flame.
The house fell,
Frame churning in a ball.

The men’s cheeks burned,
Though they stood upwind.
Eyes that ran from smoke
Were squinted tight.
Angled shadows
Sliced each face.

Naked, a horse-blanket on her back,
She crouched, braced
Against a car’s back door. Clothes had
Burned away. Fingertips had
Burned off, and were blood;
Arms, ashen glare.
Her eyebrows, singed clean.
Hair, massy with static,
Floated round the smoke-blacked head.
Rocking slowly,
Facing to the fire,
She stared in.

“Well,” one of them said,
“She’ll get the farm.
Can’t work it alone. She’ll likely sell.
Wives along yet?
Someone’d better take her,”
Nodding toward Mariah, by the car.
Shouts came from the distance.
“Lord, Lord.
Go and tell them,
Too late with that truck.”

2. Outside the Sick Room


October 1, 1933:
Outside the Sick Room

As if it were a clock,
Thomas wound the wick up in the lamp.
He sat, watched it burn,
Wound it again.
When the doctor’d come—
How many hours back?—
He’d asked Thomas,
“No electric lights?”
Tom said, “Maybe next year.
And a phone.”
He wished now he’d bought them—
This year, last year—
Riah getting quieter,
Here on the farm alone.

Kerosene—can’t smell it.
Sitting in the kitchen, he
Couldn’t smell the beans he’d cooked
For James. Because of that stifling
Sickroom odor.
Tom had helped birth calves,
Up to his shoulder in the cow—
Wetness and blood. Being in
Where no one was to be.
He wished he could leave, but he
Would not. He heard
Riah breathe.

Doctor’d tied a rope onto the bedpost,
Gave her it to pull when she got bad—
Tom saw her quick seize it,
Not to yell. He had
Heard the doctor in there saying,
“Whoa, now.
Hold on, Missus. Don’t do that,”
In the musing, thinking-out-loud voice
Tom used with busted tractors.
Tom went to her door—
He couldn’t help it—
And he’d seen a dark stain
On the wall. It had exploded
From her?—Commotion,
Riah’s noises fast and high.
Doctor brought out something,
Wrapped in paper, to his car.

Now, from what Tom saw
When he peeked in,
Red was seeping,
Slow as oil from a can,
On the mattress—
Patching folks up could be hard—
How long since she spoke?
Ten, twenty hours?
Tom picked up a spoon
And stirred James’ plate.
Boy hadn’t eaten.
Patty’d took him with her,
To her house. James was not
This hard! No doctor, either.
Tom leaned on his hand.
Yes, James was hard.
Thomas had forgot.
Turned out all right.
He held his ears,
Recalling that rope jerking—
The bedpost, how it squealed.

Bang!—Thomas jumped.
A banging at the door—the doctor’d said
He’d sent for someone,
To sit in and help.
Tom opened up.
Behind the screen,
A woman—big, not fat,
Arms folded—
Dressed in bright green print,
Too tight across.
Her hair drooped,
A red frizz at her ears—
Green smears on her eyelids,
And the reddest mouth
That Tom had ever seen.
It left thick prints
On her cigarette,
Held to the side.

She looked Tom in the eye:
“Good day.”
She tapped an ash off
With a fingernail.
“I’m the nurse.”

3. The Nurse Assists


The Nurse Assists

“Hello there,
My dear Mrs. Kemp,”
The doctor called out in his
Hearty voice. Broad backside
To her, he searched his bag.
At the sickroom,
Leaning in the doorway,
She took in the scene.
“Mrs. Kemp, my dear—
I fear I must ask,
No cigarettes.”
She blew smoke,
Walked slowly to the bed.
She sat down.
“Forget it,” she said.

He didn’t blink.
That woman, Lord, was rude—
Was worse than rude—
And no nurse, of course.
But he could speak plainly,
In her presence,
Of ills indelicate—
Those secret, leaking parts,
This baby business—
And her husband didn’t care
She left the house.
When she sat with them,
More women lived,
Even those most weak;
And she came cheap.

“I see,” she said,
“Rope tricks, once again!
Magic, ain’t it—give them one of
These, pains disappear.”
She picked up the rope,
The clenched-on hand—
“Yep. Nice and quiet,”
Sucking in some smoke:
“Palm’s raw. Pass that salve.”
The doctor tossed a tin.
“She’s out,” she said,
“I’ll peel off her fingers.”
Yawning: “I assume
You’ve yanked it out by now?”

The doctor snapped his bag.
This one, she would make it,
He thought, satisfied—
She’s young, not too spent.
Only her third try.
“Yes, the poor child’s gone. A tragedy,”
He sighed. “’Ripped untimely
From his mother’s—“
“Yeah, okay,” said Mrs. Kemp,
“I passed third grade, too.”
She unscrewed the lid
And dipped some cream: “You
Just go out and tell that scarecrow
Husband, round up sheets somewhere.
Smell is getting to me.”
She unmade the bed,
Wrinkling up her nose
And shaking quilts:
“Like a sow
Wet in her own dead litter.”

His eyes flinched,
Brows rose. “Madam,”
He said tartly,
“You’ve a way with words.
I’ll be right outside.”
He shut the door.

4. The Sick Room: Outdoors

From down the road,
Anyone could see it–
Trouble home.
Windows lit,
And kerosene was dear.
Neighbors driving past,
They might turn in.
From the road, the house
Beamed raggedly, beckoned
Like a jack-o’-lantern
In the night.

Passers-by might
See the doctor’s car.
Might go to the door.
“Evening, Tom.
You need help here?” Or,
Strange to them, times
Being what they were,
They might first think twice
And drive away,
Seeing their own bill-pile
Home, doctor’s bills
That got so hard to pay.
What Tom needs, they’d figure,
We can’t give.
And leave.

But no cars passed by.
The hour was late. Long ago
The moon rose, and had set.
Shadows flitted windows,
Crossed and paused,
Settled down.
Deserted road: no
Business in the dark.

5. At Bedside

She said nothing,
Lying in the bed.
She could not be waked up.
The sheets, changed,
Were clean.
Gown was dry.
Body quiet, pale.
Riah McKenna?”
Mrs. Kemp called to her, now
And then, low-voiced, judging
It was not yet time.
Mrs. Kemp pulled up a chair,
And settled in.

I’m sure glad
You lost a load tonight.”
She spoke free,
Expecting no reply.
“I swan, me at home,
Stir-crazy as a
Penned-up bull.
Bo’s downing quarts,
Two bottles–I bust out.
I wind up here. Here’s
One night I bought peace.”

She surveyed the bedroom:
Mostly bare. Shabby
Curtain. Chairs and table, in
The kitchen, a few sticks.
Staring at the pattern
On the quilt, she
Sank in her thoughts.
She nodded off.
Crickets softly throbbed
Out in the yard.
Sparrows stirred
And chattered in the dark.
Mrs. Kemp’s head
Snapped up: could
Lose patients this way!
She stretched awake. She
Looked down at the face.

Not bad, she thought,
As such faces go. So
Light, that she hardly
Dents the pillow–
Oh, those skinny girls!–
But her shoulders, broad,
And arms were strong:
Field work, sure.
Under her gown, flat.
Dark-skinned, Louise thought,
Although now she lay, pale
Yellow-white, the temples
With blue veins–broad
Brows, broad mouth, broad nose,
Big eyes–likely brown–brown
Hair, Injun straight and thick,
Longer than the style this year–
Like my hair, she thought, mine’s
Longer, too. Lord–ought to
Cut mine short.
Town would grow theirs longer
Double quick, so anxious
Not to look like me.

She laughed out loud, coughed,
And checked her patient.
Steady breathing rose and fell,
The lips apart.
Louise lingered
On the darkened eyelids.
No prissy face, she thought:
Lays open, wide.

Hope when this one wakes
She won’t put up a fuss
She lost it.
I think not.
If she woke up now,
What would she say?
Mrs. Kemp felt for the pulse–
Might be glad to see me,
Since I sat here.
She’ll say, “Can’t you come
For supper Sunday? I’m
So grateful!” on and on,
Or–the way most do–
She’ll cry, pay me no mind,
Not at all.
Mrs. Kemp gave Riah’s wrist
A pinch–
I’ll leave her here,
Before then.
I’ll go home.

Thinking “home,”
She squirmed against her chair.
Mrs. Kemp tucked sheets
Around her patient.
This one, she would live.
But not next time–
She’s in a bad way,
Torn all wrong.
Where’s the cigarettes?
“Too bad, honey,” she said.
“Life shits.”

Brown hair strewn,
The drawn face lay, unknowing.
Unchanging, it
Turned toward Mrs. Kemp:
Harmless. Dreamless.

6. Spending The Night

The windowsill in Matt’s room was cut
Deep. Sitting, James fit,
Barefoot, chin to knees.
Matt snored lightly.
His ma’d tucked them in.

The nightshirt James borrowed
Scratched his neck.
It smelled strange;
Gingerly, he sniffed.
Back at home,
He had his wakeful nights.
Difference was,
Riah had kept watch.
From nowhere,
Her shade would cross his door.
Cranky, he’d be fidgeting
With his book, his quilt,
Or cardboard pony,
Tired and vexed.
Moving slow,
So’s not to startle him,
She’d ask nothing.
Only smiled, and said:
Leave it alone.
Then her weightless hands
Would empty his.
Smoothed the sheets–
Leave it alone now, James–
Fingers traced his cheek,
Then her face faded.
He would sleep.

James’ head bobbed,
Popped up. He gazed out.
No clues on the street,
No doctor’s car,
Nor Willie’s dad,
Who picked people up
When they were dead. Most
Dead folks stayed home, though–
Riah would, sure, want
To stay home with him,
Dead or no.
It was me, he thought,
Dug that splinter
From her fingernail–
Her right hand–him careful
With the needle: “It hurt, now?”
She’d said, fine.
He’d succeeded
With that slivered wood.
But there’d risen up,
Beneath his eyes,
A bright bead of her blood.

For tonight,
James settled in the window.
Dad didn’t want to send me,
And he promised
I’ll come home next day.
It was her had forced it, Matt’s
Mom, pulling at James’ arm, saying,
There are things, Tom,
Children should not see.

(Reader: You are now ready to click on #7 on the table of contents on the main page. If you like this new method of putting consecutive poems on one page as was done here with Episodes 1-6, let me know in Comments. Thank you. P.S. Did you read more than one poem on this page? I’d like to know that, too.)

18 Responses to “1. The Farm House Burns”

  1. Cathy Says:

    This poem is haunting and mesmerizing. The second to the last stanza is especially visual and poignant and sad, all at the same time. A powerful piece.

  2. Gene Says:

    I agree, Cathy. This poem evokes feeling of having “been there” although the situation is so foreign to anything I’ve ever experienced.

  3. sshaver Says:

    Thank you for that word “haunted,” Cathy. If you stand out alone on the flat West Texas horizon, it does seem like a vast empty space that evokes that feeling. Nowhere else is the sky so big. What you say also reminds me of course of Dickinson’s famous mysterious “Nature is a Haunted House–but Art–a House that tries to be haunted.”

    And I think of a Horton Foote quote from Marion Castleberry’s book. Mr. Foote says he almost feels Randall Jarrell is speaking for him in his poem “Thinking of the Lost World” in those lines about the past: “All of them are gone/ Except for me; and for me nothing is gone–” So….

    Welcome to my House.

  4. Gene Says:

    We’re teaching our students to appeal to the senses in their writing. This poem is a perfect example. Could we have your permission to use it in the classroom?

  5. anna Says:

    Again, I fixate on the contractions, “Dust’s,” “Daughter’s.” This poem scares me, and not (just) because of the fire.

  6. sshaver Says:

    Gene, sure. Your request makes me also recommend Kenneth Koch’s wonderful book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? I don’t believe in testing students on poetry–especially younger students–but like Koch I would love to see students given real poetry and both enjoying it and learning to respect its integrity (i.e., it can’t “mean” anything they want it to).

    Anna, this may seem unfeeling, but I’m glad you were scared! There is something in the endless space of West Texas that always frightens me, especially at night.

  7. loretta davis Says:

    Wow Shelley,

    So sad and powerful and a feeling of ones hands being tied. There is also a sense of the community of women. Are the wives here yet? People do show up to help as they can.

  8. sshaver Says:

    Hi Loretta, thanks so much for your comment. I just tonight put up a poem that focuses more on the wives, “Sewing Circle.” Certainly these women did as much hard labor as the men in their families did. You put your finger on something with noticing the feeling of “hands being tied.” That tension between wanting to make things better and yet not knowing what to do, or whether anything can be done, I think is a pervasive cloud in times of economic uncertainty.

  9. Frances Madeson Says:

    I think you’re channeling Euripides and I’m loving it!

  10. sshaver Says:

    Well, I know I’m no Euripides, since I’ve been trying to teach myself Homeric Greek with a laughable lack of success; but like you, I admire the Greeks: they seem to have gotten a very firm grip on the fact that sometimes life delivers a body blow, and we have to just take it.

    Glad you’re enjoying!

  11. Robin Dawson Says:

    OMG! I don’t even know how I got to your website, and I am not one for poetry, but I was glued to my computer day & night reading this story. I read it in 4 days. My family got onto me so much, but I didn’t care. These characters, the story, all of it consumed me. I finished last night & was so bummed. I think about Riah & Louise, James and Tom all the time. I even had to go & research The Dust Bowl to see what that was all about & look at pictures. Do you have any other writings, stories, or poems? I Loooooved this one so much. Is it in book form? Kudo’s to you!! I just can’t say enough how this story has touched me. Thank you Thank you!!!!!

  12. sshaver Says:

    Robin, I’m delighted that you read the work in what I think is the way to get the most out of it: one episode at a time, in order. Because it’s a story. I wish it were in book form also, but for now I’m very happy to have it available to readers on the Internet.

    Your energy level is inspiring. I would suggest a couple of things: first, any of the plays written by Horton Foote, also a Texas writer (and Pulitzer Prize winner) are well worth reading–and performing, if you know any acting groups. Second, since part of what the characters in Rain come to know is their connection with the world around them–well, you’re probably already doing this, but in such a bad economy, there are lots of situations where we can become active politically or as volunteers–working for children, for shelter animals, or for a cause.

    Timothy Egan has also written a marvelous non-fiction book on the Dust bowl called The Worst Hard Time.

    I’m going to also move your comment over to the Welcome Page, because I hope it will encourage others to read the story beginning to end. Thank you for your response, which really lifted my spirits.

    If you’re ever in a book group, I’d be happy to do a “group night” with your friends on this blog.

  13. Lisa Arechiga Danner Says:

    Shelley, I googled you tonight, looking for that poem of yours about the brothers on the train, one of my favorite poems ever. It haunts me. Instead I found this site and just finished these first six. I’m in for the long haul now. Hope you’re well.

  14. sshaver Says:

    Lisa, thank you so much.

  15. Glenda Bailey-Mershon Says:

    Really wonderful quality of reluctance and understatement to this poetry. It seems to capture the texture of that time.

  16. Gene Says:

    I know what you mean about capturing the context of that time. Reading each poem in order transported me to another time and place in history.

  17. sshaver Says:

    So happy to see you, Gene. Will respond on the Welcome Page by the weekend. Thanks.

  18. philipparees Says:

    Quite wonderful to find this work! For me a confirmation because I have also written a poetic novella – a portrait of the sixties called ‘A Shadow in Yucatan’ and I completely understand the impulse behind this immediate way of conveying both people and place. You do it beautifully and I think ‘publishing it this way on line will give you all the reader feedback possible. I wish I had done that but in 2006 I was not even aware of the options. If you want to sample a similar concept you can find it here http://authonomy.com/books/1894/a-shadow-in-yucatan/ The whole book is available to read there, but I shall read on with your. Your characters spring into life because of the economy. I quite agree that ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ reach deep into the psyche…I also live within sight of Steinbeck’s Cottage he occupied while writing in England…so many many connections!

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