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

Austin Smith


Guidance

The best guidance is given obliquely.
Today, trying to remember which screen
Belonged in which window, I noticed
Codes scrawled on the mildewed frames–
E4, N2, W3, corresponding to the sides
Of the house and numbered clockwise,
Each window a quarter hour.
Through those penciled coordinates
The man who sprayed the haze
Out of these screens in summers past
Was guiding me, but obliquely,
Like the farmer in that haiku of Issa’s
Who, asked for directions, points
The way with a radish.


The Farmer Suicide Conference

It was held somewhere in Andhra Pradesh,

 On a campus that felt abandoned, the fig trees

White with dust, the green buildings seeming

 

To tremble in the sun, as if they hadn’t decided

 Yet whether to be. But we entered them as if

They were real and went up the stairs

 

To classrooms in which papers were presented,

 The oscillating fans making the pages flutter

In the hands of professors of statistics

 

And microeconomics and political science,

 Lithe, mustachioed men who could sit on their heels

For hours. At night, we gathered on the porch

 

Of a house that might have been

 A farmhouse had it been out in the country,

Drinking big bottles of Kingfisher beer.

 

By way of explanation as to why I was there,

 I must have told them about my father who,

Right then, was waking up on the other side

 

Of the earth to milk a hundred Holsteins,

 And they must have known that, if I was there,

There was no danger of him killing himself.

 

I loved those professors who, when they agreed,

 Would rock their heads from side to side,

Ear to shoulder, as if trying to clear them of water

 

So as to better hear each other, and who’d spend

 Their whole careers toiling in the fields

Of forlorn Indian universities. I recognized them

 

As the bookish sons who’d left the farm but who

 Kept going back through math or poetry

Because even while we were drinking beer

 

A man was struggling to lift a plastic drum

 Over his head in order to pour the viscous red

Poison down his throat, committing suicide

 

By drinking pesticide, not to protest Monsanto,

 But because it was the deadliest thing

He had at hand. I think now of how when

 

His son turned him over, he must have

 Looked like those old women who smiled at me

In the street, their teeth stained red with betel leaf.


The Plane

At recess certain of us would walk by

The swing set and the slide, to the far side

Of the playground where a sort of mirror (call

It a plane) stood, reflecting whatever

Weather we were under, along with trees

That seemed to reach their leaves into its frame

Like soldiers straining to get their faces

Into the picture. The glare of it drew

Us to it too, along with the challenge

Of climbing it. See, it was pitched at such

An angle (I’d guess seventy degrees),

And made of such purchaseless stuff, that it

Was just hard enough to climb to keep us

Interested. You had to have dry hands

(but not too dry) and the right soles, and you

Had to really want to climb it, or else

It was impossible to get even

Halfway up. It helped if you ran at it,

Catching it at its slothful habit of

Gazing up at clouds, so that, by the time

It noticed you, you’d gotten high enough

To grab the bar that ran along the top,

Hanging there for a moment in triumph

Before sliding back down to earth, smearing

The fingerprints of the more tentative.

I think whoever designed it must have

Been acquainted with failure and wanted

To teach us perseverance. Instead, what

They taught us was that there are faces that

Prefer us cautious, that we must surprise.

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Austin Smith is the author of two poetry collections, Almanac and Flyover Country. He is the recipient of an NEA grant in prose and the Wallace Stegner Fellowship in fiction from Stanford University, where he teaches creative writing. He is a 2018–2021 Black Earth Institute fellow. He was awarded the 2020–2021 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship in poetry, and lives in northwestern Illinois.



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