a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
low barns for hogs or chickens, tarpaper
and gray boards drying in the cheatgrass
across a highway from some yellow hills.
Windowless, doorways doorless and open to wind
through every desert season, one hundred degrees
to thirty below. Walls inside are hospital green
punctuated by vandals’ holes in the drywall.
Smell of sparrow nests in the dim rooms,
mouse droppings on spongy plank floors
the relocated wives would have swept
constantly half a century before.
On one stone monument, a plaque
honors men from the camp who fought the Germans
in the 442nd Go For Broke unit,
who liberated prisoners from Dachau
with their own families still in camps at home
because they looked like the enemy.
A Russian olive tree, big enough
it might been alive when the camp was running,
blooms beside a brick smokestack,
honey fragrance filling the wind
the way it would have every June back then.
What memories that smell would call back for survivors
who found their homes and farms were gone,
who watched their loved ones live on with the loss.
Mushroom clouds would sprout against the Rockies
when one side finally pushed the button,
would vaporize the cities strung from Greeley
down to Pueblo, the state fairgrounds and mental ward,
and Cheyenne Mountain where generals dug in deep.
Outside our calf barn I would look across
the gravel road, over the neighbor’s pasture
with wild sunflower and prickly pear,
past the new steel bins a mile on,
the water tower and grain elevator in town,
imagine I could see across the state,
see how that line of fireballs would bloom.
How long would it take for fallout to reach
across the plains? Hours? A day?
Our weather came from the west.
The end could come before I ever learned
what the girls were keeping in their Levi’s,
before I could build a car to burn
the quarter-mile and get me out of there.
The Russians didn’t care about our cows,
but would have aimed their missiles closer yet
at Minuteman silos just an hour away,
clear squares of chainlinked ground in wheat fields
between nowhere and the Nebraska line.
The real danger even then was not
a Soviet strike. Doubled down to meet
demand, the warhead plant upwind of Denver
secretly burned plutonium into the night,
let drums of waste disintegrate outside
and contaminate the water supply.
All that after three states sacrificed
to fallout from desert bomb tests decades before.
What enemy could go unpunished
who did what our side did preventing war?
The end would come from our own hands
if missiles didn’t drop it from the sky.
Early September in snow
ranchers are driving their calves
and a few sickly cows
off the national forest allotment
to truck them down the mountain.
Healthy cows bawl and crowd
the downslope fences, knowing winter
is close, but they’ll stay a few more weeks
to eat that government grass.
Real work of ranching but still
the riders make a show
for tourists and the seasonal rangers,
college kids from back East.
Straight in the saddle, stone-faced,
hats tilted for the snow,
one cowhand even carries
a long-barreled pistol on his hip
in case they meet a bear.
When her spotted gelding throws
the rancher’s daughter, she and her cousin
sit in the trailhead visitor shack,
whispering together, drinking cocoa
by the heater. Dragged out of bed
to herd cows in the snow
the last Saturday of summer
when they could be watching TV
or laying out at the lake, waterskiing
with all their friends from town.
William Notter’s collection Holding Everything Down (Southern Illinois University Press) won the High Plains Book Award for Poetry and was a Colorado Book Award finalist. His poems have appeared on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and in journals including Alaska Quarterly, AGNI Online, Crab Orchard Review, High Desert Journal, The Midwest Quarterly, New Madrid and Terrain.org. He has received fellowships from the NEA and the Nevada Arts Council, and teaches writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.