Poetry grows in the dirt

Monday, April 8, 2002

I was driving down a gravel road this week, where you can almost feel the bare fields itching for a crop.

Suddenly, a Michael Carey verse sprouted in the unfertile rows of my gray matter. I met Carey for the first time when he came in as a guest speaker at the BV County Historical Museum, and I've been a fan ever since.

If you think poetry and Iowa farming aren't natural bedpartners, you haven't harvested from Michael Carey's books of earthy thought.

A swarthy native of New York with a dash of Irish cockiness and a heaping helping of good humor at his own stumbling discoveries of the soil, Carey spins tales the way a good farmer plots fields - by feel.

He found himself a city boy turned trial-and-error agronomist after his marriage to a pretty Iowa girl. (In my opinion they are the state's best crop of all.)

"I remember waking up on an early March morning and wondering, 'Where the hell am I? Who is this woman? What is this farm all about? And how did I get in this old house?' I looked out and saw a sea of soil that I could easily drown in," Carey says.

At the time, Iowa was mired in a farm depression, and the transplanted poet saw "good farmers and good families losing everything all around me."

With no idea where to start, he started to drive around the countryside, looking to see what his farming neighbors were doing. When he couldn't tell, he stopped to ask.

"I'm sure I was the topic of lots of coffee shop conversation," Carey said. Soon enough, total strangers were coming by to see the New Yorker try to farm, and offering advice. "Such as telling me that I don't really have to use my turn-signal blinker every time I come to the end of a corn row."

Farming is still his source of wonder, and every season, he still finds it a miracle that what he plants actually comes out of the dirt. Meanwhile, his poetry was maturing like the gold stalks of the corn in autumn, he found.

"Part of me was always in that tractor, going back and forth over the field, when I was writing."

If farming can't inspire prose, he believes, nothing can.

"It is dangerous, lonely, at times extremely sad, but it is always beautiful." He paused, looking down at his farm-worn hands. "I grew up surrounded by cement and steel and concrete. I knew the earth was there somewhere, probably down underneath the subway. But in Iowa, I found myself part of something so much larger. The way we think is the way we talk is the way we live is the way we farm."

He reflects that writing poetry and growing crops isn't so different after all. "I'm always digging in fertile soil these days, either on the farm or in the imagination."

He finds he doesn't have to try so hard to be a poet now. The land speaks, and he writes it down, and he no longer really cares who hears him. Security comes from having his children sleep in the cribs their grandparents slumbered in.

Often, Carey drives from the 800 tidy acres near Farragut to Storm Lake or Okoboji for a family outing. He has little desire to go farther, although his reputation as a poet and educator does. Those drives across Iowa are the "most painful rides" he can imagine, he smiles. "The crops either praise or mock me. Things would be easy if God treated everyone the same, but he doesn't."

Carey gets his Irish up when he hears anyone describe his adopted home state as "flat and boring."

"They think Iowa is flat and boring? That's like saying you can't love a woman unless she's built like Sophia Loren. Iowa is neither flat nor boring. If it were boring, I would not be here, and if it were flat, I wouldn't need to be a no-till farmer."

His life has become the poem, he muses, the one that he's always wanted to write.

Here's a bit of the farmer poet for you. It is best pondered while driving slowly down the gravel between fields just awakening to spring.

The Thing About Farming

By Michael Carey


The thing about farming is there is nothing between you and the world. Everything you touch either wounds or responds.

Everything you love touches back with food or with poison.


The thing about farming is that nothing lasts for more than one season. For the rest of your life you plant and coddle and encourage - still every winter, all your children have gone.


The thing about farming is you work most of your life alone, for better or worse -

no God but the seasons, no lover but the earth,

no enemy but the weather and the wind, the wind, the wind.


The thing about farming is you are responsible for a small portion of the planet.

You keep it or lose it and it changes, no matter what, according to your efforts.

But what's important is

when you wake and pick blueberries, not only are they good - they're yours.


The thing about farming is it's so easy; half of it is learning to kill. The earth turns green each spring, regardless of your attentions.

For every seedling you nourish, the rest of creation is weeds.


The thing about farming is it's not all food and abundance.

Sometimes it's drought. Sometimes you get eaten by your own machinery. The banks don't give you that loan and you go under. Sometimes you find a deer snagged on a fence and along with an underworld of stealth you are drawn to the spot - curious about the carcass,

its death and your own.