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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

William Notter

Heart Mountain War Relocation Center

One of ten confinement camps that held a total of
120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II,
two-thirds of them U.S. citizens.
The few remaining barracks look like long,

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.

Back in the Reagan Years

for Kristen Iversen


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.

Cattle Drive

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 He has received fellowships from the NEA and the Nevada Arts Council, and teaches writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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