Poems by Matthew Brown

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by Matthew Brown

From Canary Winter 2012-13

Matthew grew up on the Ozark bluffs that outline the central edge of the American Bottoms, a glacially carved valley split by the Mississippi river between its confluences with the Missouri and the Ohio.

Queen Anne’s Lace along the road side,
           becoming asphalt.

Poison ivy swallowing split trunks of second growth elm.

Boys in denim pulling weeds in parking lots painted
           with straight lines.

Standing by the Mississippi in winter on the island left by a three hundred year flood, fits of light come through the seasonally dead branches of living trees pouring out evenly across riveted tracks left by the few farmers who have stayed to plant, exactly as they should. The smoke tilled channels of barges churn out shallow eddied depressions mainly down river with loads of split grain and crushed limestone, pushing segmented waves of mud bottomed water across the short sand bars over the wheel tracks where the old city used to be.

Yard dogs carving out the chain-length half-moons
           of runs.

Colored folk humming on porches.

Small water rubbing over stripped and smoothing creek stones.

Box turtles turned over in the sun.

The people who came here with the first of us, down from the north, who called themselves the perfect people, as opposed to the Iroquois who, armed with guns and steel traded with the Dutch and then the English for furs and land already for a hundred years at least, had stolen their land in the prairies. The perfect people, the Illini confederation, who the French called Les Illinois, had, in their Algonquin tongue, over twenty names for the river that they settled and the land around it. Most of them began with a term of endearment, father– Father of waters, Father of a thousand cities.

Lines between poles for hanging laundry.

Split rails from our land to theirs.

Gravestones moved above the bluffs.

Boxes filled with empty bones.

It could be any of these, apple holes at Christmas, the stone foundation for a dry well below the springlot, barn swallows in the henhouse. When my grandfather came back from the service, like everyone else here, he raised livestock, and planted crops to feed them. During the last war, American chemical companies had come up with herbicides to clear out the dense tropic growth of the Pacific islands so that enemy troops could be observed and bombed by planes. They also developed pesticides to eradicate disease carrying insects that were killing GI’s; malaria ridden mosquitos. Agricultural companies, such as Monsanto, based out of St. Louis, led the way in such innovations, and after the war they altered and marketed these sprays, Dichloro-Diphenyl- Trichlorethane, or DDT, to farmers as the way to lose less and earn more per acre.

Twilight quiet in the north pond.

Names notched in sows’ ears.

No more than forty lashes,
           laid well on.

The sneed of a scythe, sickle blades, a rusted bundle of bale ties, hot-long days
           in the hayfield.

Fifth-legged frogs awake in the crick.

DDT was outlawed in the United States in 1972 after it was leaked that side effects often included highly lethal forms of kidney and liver cancers. During the Vietnam Conflict, Monsanto became the leading producer of Agent Orange. In 2002 Vietnam requested international assistance in order to address scores of thousands of birth defects connected to American attempts at deforestation. Monsanto maintains claims that the herbicide cannot be linked to any specific illnesses and has evaded any serious legal call for reparations. As of 2008, the company holds contracts worth over one billion dollars to provide the US government with defoliating herbicides set to be sprayed indiscriminately over tracts of Colombian agricultural sectors in order to fight narcotics producers. Regional agricultural organizations have claimed widespread contaminations of water sources and crops in rural villages where families can no longer grow staple food supplies or access clean water sources.

Bales of bolls about the gin.

Tree stands in summer.

Salt licks by the stairwell.

There are mouths that say things we can’t say
or don’t.

There are mouths that take them back.

At sixty four, my grandfather died, his body riddled with tumors, spread from the kidneys. The farm, granted to his ancestors for service in conquering the West during the revolution, has become little more than a hobby for his daughters and their families. Led by the marketing of GMO’s by major agribusiness, along with global stranglehold on world food commodity prices held by the World Bank and the WTO, less than one percent of food stuffs in the United States are grown on small scale family farms.
Hay rakes in the field at dawn.

A man smoking long cigarettes in an open door.

It could be any of these things, opened up. In the summer, nitrogen levels from herb and pesticides used by farmers flowing from the Mississippi delta, which releases forty percent of America’s fresh water into the ocean, create a dead zone larger than the state of New Jersey, devoid of enough oxygen to sustain any form of life. In the Indian Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh, local small scale independent cotton farmers, cultivating sometimes half to one whole acre of land apiece, have been convinced by outside money lenders to buy Monsanto’s genetically enhanced Bollgard cotton, promised to double yields and resist pests. The farmers go into debt to buy the seeds, then more debt to buy the fertilizers needed to produce the desired results, then still more debt to irrigate the extra water needed by the hybrid plants.

Hollyhocks on the table in a bowl.

Broken light bulbs on the doorstep.

Sweat beads on a glass of ice.

Small women eating clean fruit from the cupboard.

To date, hundreds of Indian farmers in Andhra Pradesh have taken their own lives by drinking pesticides to escape the guilt of losing family land holdings and to deliver their families from debt. The Indian government has a policy of paying the families of farmers who have committed suicide about two thousand dollars to help settle accounts. Farmers choose this method, which takes a minimum of several excruciating hours to slowly shut down the central nervous system, so that their deaths cannot possibly be written off as an accident.

Fat snakes split by tires on the roadsides.

Honeysuckle blossoms in March.

Fresh water run too rich to grow air.

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