The necrotic underside of the history of the Farm Crisis lives on in the Heartland and in the mind of the landscape, whose pulsating synapses and rhizomes absorb nitrogen nourished by the prairie soil under the watchful eye of high harvest––a time of year of reaping that steals as much as it proffers, withholding the promise of a dream that never existed but did, at one time, grow faith. In another existence. Somewhere between the dream and the dead, blood red tinges the borders of everything. A woman and a man put their hands together like arrows pointed up toward some augury that will never come and when it doesn’t, they forgive the augur. Why? Their lives are fraught with what it means to survive history. While the official record has sequestered the last Farm Crisis to a span of time during the late-70’s and 80’s, when America’s agrarian states experienced a significant decline in crop prices, our contemporary moment calls for a more expansive view that encompasses the effects of present-day tariffs and legislation. This view seeks a documentary poetics of place that sees beyond the narrow scope of the lens and the camera’s sequential timeframes, focusing instead on that which the record fails to capture—if only for a moment—the fleeting ghost that is the ghost of the land and of those who would speak if that meant we would listen. There’s an other side to everything. This is, after all, about life, and food, and blood, and what it means to survive a deep dark journey through the valley of absence, where voices echo and call back:

This book is an exercise in historical actuality, but it has only as much to do with history as the heat and spectrum of the light that makes it visible, or the retina and optical nerve of your eye. It is as much an exercise of history as it is an experiment of alchemy. Its primary intention is to make you experience the pages now before you as a flexible mirror that if turned one way can reflect the odor of the air that surrounded me as I wrote this; if turned another, can project your anticipations of next Monday; if turned again, can transmit the sound of breathing in the deep winter air of a room of eighty years ago, and if turned once again, this time backward on itself, can fuse all three images, and so can focus who I once was, what you might yet be, and what may have happened, all upon a single point of your imagination, and transform them like light focused by a lens on paper, from a lower form of energy to a higher. ––Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip


Narrator: The rolling fog of the Corn Belt hovers above fields and small sloped hills where sparrows swoop in and out of frame. Telephone wires cross the sky. The convex lens of time dilates to capture everything the eye can and cannot see, a flat expanse so wide and wholly encompassing that soon one thinks one can no longer breathe. The fog of a breath fades into the landscape and expires in time’s compression where promises sweat just to be remembered and visions flicker under a blood red sun. The farmer who stands with a pitchfork is convinced he has seen his own ghost. He is convinced he is somewhere not-here. He is convinced in a beyond that waits for no one and remembers nothing. His name dissolves like ash across the plains. Other names follow, recorded only by the sun.

[sound of wind blowing across the prairie]

Narrator: A camera approaches just in time for the showing of the burial, conceived of as (tariffs) conceived of as (holes) conceived of as (blown askew), and the bits and pieces of rust and ash that fall to the earth are not rain, the bits and pieces that fall to the earth are not falling to slowly fill the river (O terrific sunset) (O days of sun unmet) and days of death dripping like hours from eaves suspended above a storm.

[fire crackling, sparrows calling]

Narrator: Like leaves swirling in a locus the farmers gather around the burial. The fire engulfs the crop the farmer’s throw bushel by bushel into the flames as they watch the conflagration grow higher. One man turns his face away from the flames. His cheek made of a flesh so rough and cross-hatched with scars that one can see valleys and ravines etched into it like a map of the landscape he stands in. Other men are missing eyes, thumbs and other appendages, and the man with a pitchfork is missing a leg. They are waiting for rain. The static air electrifies the scene with an energy of transformation—a bright, shining thread unites them in communion or hope in a future that is not so much lost as buried beneath dirt and loam, which at the present moment they smear across their faces in a gesture of remembrance for those who have not made it here to witness the storm that passes over. None of them speak.


Narrator: Time is a virus overgrown with mold—it is a viny divining rod or magic staff in the hands of the present moment. The farmers understand time as an intuition of seasons, watching a shadow slowly pass over backs of their hands, a hat tilted in triangulation with earth and sun. There is no fantasy that could tell you how it all happens at once. Each season triggers the next, each breath collects on glass as one approaches the window to watch a single person at work. Their work is the work of ritual, and a farmer summons dawn like the thin membrane of hallucination where one can hold out one’s hands and collect rain so pure and unadulterated one would weep just to see it, to taste it, to remember what life was like before silence settled in the bones. Or, silence as a nostalgic tremor that spasms through veins of the earth, carrying the weight of collapse.

Vince: On Sundays, sometimes it seems like an extra layer of bleakness settles in when the sun goes down.

Joe: Like teetering on the brink of disaster?

Vince: Something like that, I think.

Joe: Last Sunday the storm was so bad a piece of corrugated metal from the shed fell off the roof and flew into the window. Lightning struck a tree in front of our house, right by our living room. If it didn’t hit the tree it would’ve hit us. We were watching television. Struck the whole tree down. I can show it to you.

Vince: Almost like an omen . . . some uncontrollable force.

Joe: I had the naïve hope that maybe it was a good thing. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. I had a dream the other night that I went out to feed the cattle for the last time. I don’t know how, I just knew. But the cows had given birth, and now there were hundreds of them. It seemed like a miracle, but I ran out of food. I didn’t know what to do.


Narrator: Somewhere between here and there, the lens casts a spell. One imagines a gravel road convulsing at the hint of night, spreading in ecstasy all that is to be unfolded and undone. The road signs twitch with enduring heat and energy, but nobody throttles past them, nobody speeds down these roads with abandon and freedom so complete you know it feels like a lie. Nobody lies anymore because reality spares nothing. Here days go by faster, then slower. Slower. The gravel road stretches out long past the farmhouses past the whole town. The smell of smoke; fire in a burn barrel.

[the sound of cicadas fading away]

Vince: Who will uphold any of us. Who can say. The way things work here—everything is hidden in plain sight.

Joe: Jim shot his cousin. Now he’s gone too. You learn to believe all of it. Hank suffocated himself. That’s what they say.

Vince: It’s hard to know if any of this––

Joe: What do you say to a man who told you what he’s done to his own cousin? Told you where he’s put the gun? You call the police. You’d be surprised how long it took them to call back. You’d be surprised by a lot of things.

This work is inspired by and incorporates quotes from Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern (1995), Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, Children of the Corn (1984), Country (1984), A History of Violence (2005), and Divide by Zero’s description of their Valium font.


Julia Madsen_Photo

I am a multimedia poet and educator. I received an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University and am currently a doctoral student in English/Creative Writing at the University of Denver. My first book, The Boneyard, The Birth Manual, A Burial: Investigations into the Heartland, is forthcoming from Trembling Pillow Press in 2018. My poems, multimedia work, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilatBlack Warrior ReviewVersalCaketrainAlice Blue ReviewCutBankLa Vague JournalFlag + VoidWord for/WordEntropyFanzine, and elsewhere.