When I was five years old, my mother, my brother, and I moved from the urban Seattle area to a small, rural area in Eastern Washington called Goldendale because my mother had relatives there and because the doctors said that my brother needed to move to a drier area if he was going to overcome his asthma.
Even for a five-year old, it was a tremendous change. I remember wondering how anyone could scratch a living out of this rocky soil, and obviously few had because nearly all the farms had been abandoned by the time we moved there. I vividly remember seeing deserted one-room houses that had somehow been dug into the earth with excavated rocks stacked to form walls. As a child I had believed that dwarfs must have lived in those houses because the roofs were so low. As an adult, Im simply amazed that anyone ever attempted to live under such harsh conditions.
Im convinced that if those settlers had written poetry they would have written poetry like James Galvin does in Resurrection Update, particularly in the section entitled "Imaginary Timber." His poetry somehow manages to capture both the harshness and beauty of the rural West. Although the scene described in What I've Believed In is unique, it is also reminiscent of many rural farms I have visited:
What I've Believed In
propped on blocks, the front half of a Packard car rides the hillside like a chip of wood on the crest of a wave. It's part of the sawmill. That packard engine runs it, or did. The rest, the belt, the Belsaw carriage and blade, stands aside in disrepair. Except for the pine seeds gophers have stashed in the tailpipe, there's no sign of anything living. The gull-wing hood is rusted cinnamon, latched over chrome priming cocks, one for each cylinder. Every board in every building here was milled on power from that old car, out of timber cut here too. Even shingles. It's been here since 1925, winters piling onto its forehead like a mother's hands. It's weathered them like a son. Just because it hasn't been run since 1956 is no reason to think it won't run now: waves have traveled thousands of miles to give us small gifts; pine seeds have waited years to be asked.
I dont know if Galvins ranch every really had a Belsaw powered by a Packard, but Galvin makes me believe that it did. More importantly, the poem symbolizes the complex life that ranchers live. Because money is scarce, they must often improvise in order to succeed. However, it often seems that its faith, more than anything, that really keeps the rancher going.
Theres little surprise that a land as hard as this, in turn produces people that are tough enough to measure up to the land:
These afternoons seem to occur more
In geologic time than in one's life.
Under the blue fresh snowfall,
Sandstone outcrops generate heat.
I count fifteen kinds of tracks,
Like runes, and nothing living.
Drifted snow, an ethered gauze,
Muffles the land, creaks under my skis,
Animals sleep among the roots,
Without doors, without dreams.
Seven miles for a phone
And even the wires have gone under.
Another day knowing nothing more
Than when I last saw you,
That stainless-steel shadow
Vigilant over your bed.
It followed you down the hospital halls,
Arms hung with surgical fruit.
I slide down the last drift to the house,
Slap my skis together.
A small avalanche, shaped like a continent,
Drifts off the roof and falls into a heap,
And some chinking falls from the eaves.
We each inhabit our own
Small flesh, our tract.
Each tries to keep his own
Doors from creaking, like news,
As each night slams shut, and each dawn opens
Like a sudden flow of blood from the mouth.
Those who have personally lived on the high plains would immediately identify with the bleak, snow-covered plains that begin the poem and that are reflected in the hospital halls that follow. The clever metaphor comparing the drifted snow to the hospitals ethered gauze provides a seamless transition between the barren opening scene and the feeling of emptiness that accompanies the hospitalization of a loved one. Equally effective is the image of the many miles without a phone and with the wires gone under, even if there were a phone.
At a time like this, most of us, like the narrator, feel alone and cut off, inhabiting our own small flesh, trying to resist the pain that follows as each day begins like a smack to the mouth. And, yet, somehow we manage to go on, trying to keep our own/ Doors from creaking.