Poet Austin Smith has been writing about the rural Midwest since he was a child growing up there. His latest collection of poems called "Flyover Country," challenge misconceptions about the Midwest and what he calls the "carelessness" of drone warfare.
Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Smith (@Austin_R_Smith) about his new collection.
Poems From 'Flyover Country'
by Austin Smith
Some days even nature seems sinister.
Walking around the farm with a beer,
Seeking some solace after the evening news,
You meet the cat you love coming back
From the windbreak, a rare songbird
In his mouth. In the mulberry branches
The silkworms writhe in nests that, backlit
By twilight, look like X-rays of lungs.
In the pasture the cow kicks at her calf
And won’t let her nurse, while in a seam
Of gleaming honey in the oak that lightning
Cleaved the queen daintily eats her offspring.
In the rafters of the barn the starlings are
Pushing the owls’ eggs out of the nest,
While the owl herself is out hunting.
Going in, you nearly step on a swarm
Of ants ravishing a butterfly like pirates
Tearing a capsized ship down, its wings
Like torn sails, and the first thing you hear
When you enter the kitchen is the snap
Of the mousetrap you set this morning,
Tired of being kept awake all night
By their scratching in the walls. And so
You are met with your own small act
Of cruelty, your contribution to the whole.
With a pair of pliers that are themselves
Always biting something, you take
The broke-necked mouse by the tail
And throw it into the darkening yard,
Never knowing that in favor of it the cat
Let go of the bird, who was only stunned,
And whose song you woke to this morning.
Ode to Flour
I was feeling down and wanted to praise
Something harmless, something we don’t
Necessarily need, but that I’m glad
We have, and I lit just now upon flour.
I suppose flour could be harmful if
You don’t eat wheat, but let’s assume
You do. Think: where did your mother
Keep the flour when you were a child,
Or your father? Perhaps it was your father
Who did the baking. Maybe neither
Your mother nor your father baked
But they still kept some flour around,
Leftover from Christmas, or because
A neighbor had brought some over,
Though why a neighbor would bring
Flour over and then leave without it,
I don’t know. Anyway you can tell
I want there to have been flour
In your childhood kitchen, in a paper bag
That gave off a little gasp of powder
Every time it was opened, which wasn’t often.
On the side of the bag, a girl in a dress
Tiptoed amongst hens, a wicker basket
On her arm, and it was understood
She was bringing bread to the sick
And poor. Or maybe your family stored
The flour in a glass jar with a wire lid
That latched, or in a stoneware canister
With the word FLOUR painted in blue
Cursive on the side. Wherever it was,
Maybe you reached your hand inside
Every now and then to wonder
At how something so dry could feel
So cool that it felt damp. Or maybe
This is the wrong poem for you.
Maybe you loved salt.
To make a sustained deep
Murmuring, humming, or buzzing
Sound; to talk in a persistently dull
Or monotonous tone; to live
In idleness like a drone
Bee (the male of the honeybee
That develops from an unfertilized egg,
Is larger and stouter than the worker,
Lacks a sting, takes no part in honey-gathering
Or care of the hive, is of use
To the colony only if a virgin queen
Requires insemination); to pass or proceed
In a dull, drowsy, or uneventful manner;
To utter or pronounce with a drone;
To pass or spend in idleness or in dull
Or monotonous activity; an unmanned
Aircraft or ship that is guided remotely.
The Capacity of Speech
It is easy to be decent to speechless things.
To hang houses for the purple martins
To nest in. To bed down the horses under
The great white wing of the year’s first snow.
To ensure the dog and cat are comfortable.
To set out suet for the backyard birds.
To put the poorly shot, wounded deer down.
To nurse its orphaned fawn until its spots
Are gone. To sweep the spider into the glass
And tap it out into the grass. To blow out
The candle and save the moth from flame.
To trap the black bear and set it free.
To throw the thrashing brook trout back.
How easy it is to be decent
To things that lack the capacity of speech,
To feed and shelter whatever will never
Beg us or thank us or make us ashamed.
Excerpted from the book FLYOVER COUNTRY by Austin Smith. Copyright © 2018 by Austin Smith. Republished with permission of Princeton University Press.
This segment aired on November 1, 2018.
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