Before It Was A Farm

Nov 17, 2017

Today’s poem is Before it was a farm by Richard Miles. He lives in Washington County and works as a stone mason. He co-founded, with Peter Sears, the Aspen Writers' Conference in 1974, taught English at The University of Arizona and Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico. He’s the author of “Boat of Two Shores” and a letterpress chapbook “Child & Other Poems.”

He writes “ ‘Before it was a farm’ juxtaposes my childhood idyll with my experience of cleaning up the charred timbers and ashes of that idyll after devastation by fire when in my sixties. A dirty, suffocating, painful process, subsumed in my grief. After a few days of working there, in the mountains of Sandgate, VT, getting the site cleaned up, I could feel what remained after fifty years-- the love my grandparents and family felt for the place, what they gave to it and what it gave back to them-- a real, almost tangible, exchange. The loss of the house and barn that burned was tragic but that interfused love that enfolded the place was indestructible.”

Before it was a farm
Richard Miles

it yearned like a figure within the stone
to be centered in its ring of hills
cleared for hay halfway to their tops
woodlot and sugar bush elevated
for skids and sap
stream running through bathhouse
and a cryptic spring at the well
thronging blue iris taking one’s hand
through orchard to garden

my grandparents’ place who I am
sold at their deaths to people
who did not live in it
so the house sat forty years
occupied only by creatures who
gnawed its wires to flames

                                            and I am called

to clean up the burnt remains
of 250 years cooked char
over the bones and ashes
of Tories hiding
of slaves escaping on the underground railway
of farmers’ battle to eat

and from this archeology of self
emerges the single unburned
wooden object my grandfather’s silver-tipped
magician’s wand as if by posthumous trick
forty years’ vacancy and the missing spark
thirsting in his absence blew up the house
no other trace of their lifetimes
except a blossoming force
in this smoldering rubble

time slows my breathing my work obeys the laws
of this kingdom
I am less distinct
working deliberately
buds of the apple becoming apples

what is still here
the life in this valley
is my ancestors’ response
exchange between place and people
hangs in the air trees
I smear in on my face taste
visible actually blueprint for building
over these charred beams

Poem copyright © 2007 Richard Miles.
Reprinted from Boat of Two Shores, University of Maine Machias, 2007,
by permission of Richard Miles.