This last poem I loved was the poem-film “Your Limbs Will Be Torn Off In a Farm Accident” based on a work from the collection Scary, No Scary by Zachary Schomburg.
When I saw this poem, I took it personally. I cried. I sent it to friends and family. “Look at this, look at this!” My emails were demanding. “This is what happened to me.”
I didn’t really go so far as to say that this happened to me, but it did happen to me.
The personalization and taking to heart of poetry is like the personalization of the political: unavoidable if at all provoking. Therefore, both poetry and politics are ignored by many, deplored by some, and loved by a scattered few. The motives of those few are often questioned, as is their sanity.
I didn’t really read the poem. The poem is a movie, too. I heard and saw and loved the poem.
It was like me. I was the poem already; my own limbs had been torn off when I moved to a farm in the Oregon woods, where I became a sort of tree. That reads as little bit new age, but I can explain the metaphor no better than Schomburg does in his poem-film. It is his own. It could be a redneck metaphor, or a hippie one, an academic one, or a Freudian one. Sometimes a metaphor is just a cigar.
I mean only to say, I met this poem at a time when it might have saved my life and I have returned to it many times since for CPR.
“Farm Accident,” as I first was introduced to it, is a moving poem. It’s a video poem, a synthesis of art and verse for which I hold great admiration. Poetry lends itself to film sometimes, and the results can change a mind; change it about poetry and what it means, or what film means, or what the world means. It might tickle the back of your throat like a cold, or satisfy your eyes like a lake on a hot day, or punch you in the face like Muhammad Ali. “Farm Accident” did all of these things to me.
Schomburg’s poem moves like a wildcat in the woods. You don’t know it’s there until it’s done, until it’s too late. It creeps up on the viewer like a farm accident, and what comes after the poem ends or the cat attacks or the accident happens? Resolution, of course: if your limbs are gone, you learn how to use the things that are left, or grow in their places, to operate the machinery of your life. Other kinds of limbs might do, too.
It’s a simple piece. The film is of a landscape. Low bushes, some trees, some sky. It’s the part of the trip where the desert meets the forest, or the forest is for some reason at a distance. Maybe it’s a short forest, or maybe it is a normal sized forest, with a few giant trees, filmed from a very tall car, or a low flying aircraft. It’s hard to tell. My fingers want to report that the landscape rolls by the viewer, but the truth is not that easy. It’s clear: the viewer is rolling by the landscape on his or her way to somewhere important. The eye sees a pathway to a place where things will be different. Perhaps the very tall car or low flying aircraft is rushing someone to a hospital, or it could be a truck full of fruit driven by a farm worker with trees for arms. The film’s sun is going down or coming up before you, obscuring your vision somewhat, and the driver or pilot is going quickly now. The changing light and shifts in color are a blur.
Only Schomburg’s subtle use of music and text give the scenery context, bringing the poem itself into focus, allowing the poem to sidle up to its witness and get familiar.
It is not a tale of explicit gore or even suddenness. It is matter of fact in tone. It is sad, but there is a happy ending. The subject of the poem adapts to change, which is all any of us can hope for in our lives.
You’ll cry a little at night
as your limbs curl around your still soft face.
This is where it gets personal; this is why “Farm Accident” is the last poem I loved, and likely, the poem I will most love for a very long time. This is where I lost my own limbs, and how tree limbs grew in those places.
I moved to the woods suddenly; nearly violently. My family lived in Las Vegas, Nevada during the 2000s. We did well there. The three of us were a blue collar pipe fitters union family. We decided to go into business for ourselves, purchased a union plumbing shop, worked our way to modest material comfort during the construction and real estate boom. Las Vegas went from being an oddly and arguably socially sustainable tiny desert city to a behemoth of growth and profit of unimaginable proportions. It was the fastest growing city in North America at that time, and it was the place to own a small construction business.
I worked in special education law, serving the poor and the wards of the state as an advocate. The job was for a nonprofit civil law center, and our services were free to the qualifying (poor) public, so the pay was low, but the work was worth it. I got to help make school a better place for some of the most vulnerable children in Las Vegas. My own son went to the best public school in town, just up the street from our pretty little house with a tiny greenbelt for a backyard. Late at night, I wrote my poems and notes and little stories. Little pink houses for you and me. Eventually, I quit my job to homeschool my son. I wanted to be there for him in a more meaningful way. I didn’t need the income.
I had plenty of money to get by.
Until I didn’t.
The Las Vegas economy collapsed. We fell with it. Not one to realize how good something is until it’s torn from my chest, I was paralyzed by what was happening around me. It happened overnight: home prices crashed, construction projects shut down, half built casinos and hotels stopped their projects, and suddenly, corporate casino giants were no longer paying their bills. If daddy ain’t paying, ain’t nobody paying. From the start of the collapse in late 2008 to summer 2010, we remained in Las Vegas, swimming against the current and trying to survive and save what we had. If a mistake could have been made in trying to keep on our feet, it was made. We were unable to work our mojo well enough to keep our home. We realized we were going to lose it.
Our parents tried to help us but there was nothing anyone could do. We prepared for the worst by no longer paying our mortgage payment, as the foreclosure expert (read: Las Vegas real estate agent) advised us to do.
One day, we got a call from family. They are West Coast restaurant owners and had recently settled into Portland to shift some of their operations to the Northwest. A huge farm had been purchased near Portland, Oregon; help was needed there. Would we like to come visit it and see if we might like to stay?
I had never been to Oregon. I had never really been on a farm.
as your skin toughens
a hummingbird will to hover near your ear.
My desert heart fell in love with the sixty acre abandoned lily plantation in the mossy forest of the Mt. Hood Wilderness in Oregon. Five separate residences, a huge administration building, barns, warehouses, 1940s glass greenhouses overgrown with weeds, a formal garden as gothic and taken back by the wilderness as anything reasonably still defined as a garden could be, a derelict lily bulb packing facility, a grass airstrip, airplane hangars, chickens, and except for those inhabiting the farm dwellings themselves, the nearest neighbor a mile away. It was April, 2010 and it was cold and partly rainy, the way an Oregon spring can be. Liquid sunshine. I fell in love with the constant Sandy and Bull Run river mist and the fire in the giant fireplace in the 5,000 square foot main 1930s farmhouse. I fell in love with the potential and the energy behind it. I fell in love with a dream. It was a farm set a half mile down the road in a river gorge. It was surrounded by a cloud forest; because of the two rivers below it, the forested gorge was continually filled with fog and mist. It was the farthest thing from a desert I could imagine.
I liked Portland, too. Old and new colliding with culture and coffee and food and beer and music. Books. Books. Books. Portland was the first city I’d ever been to that looked like a poem in and of itself.
The decision to abandon my life and what was left of my net at the age of 38, to leap off the high wire and pack up like an Okie to drive a thousand miles north of home, came down to me and a margarita.
If saying I turned into a tree sounds too new age, saying I chose to turn into a tree because I was a little drunk does not sound new age enough. It was the closest thing to a moment of spiritual clarity I have had in this agnostic lifetime.
Our family took us to eat before returning us to the airport for our flight home. They were optimistic, cheerful and they were buying the drinks. They really wanted us to come. They wanted us to say yes. We would be able to live on the farm. I’d have a house set out in one of the back fields, fifteen minutes up and down windy, narrow, pine lined roads from the nearest business. We could help build the lily plantation into a sustainable organic produce farm. Before I knew it, three margaritas in, I said, “We are doing it. We are coming.”
soon you’ll be more tree than person.
The best parts of this memory are how happy they were, and how happy my son was. He had become invested the moment we landed in Oregon. He did not want to go back.
We went home, managed to short sale the house, avoiding the dreaded foreclosure, had a massive garage sale, packed up, and left.
It was not so easy as that, but that is how it was done. We decided in April and arrived to Oregon in late July, just when the weather here is the most beautiful, and the trees the deepest green.
I cried a little at night for what I was losing. Some nights, I still cry for what was lost. The transition from a suburban desert with a Whole Foods within walking distance and a doting mother and father just up the street to a sort of rough and tumble experiment with what amounted to barn-raising and living in a tiny community in a forest where all it ever does is rain and snow was not seamless. We live in Northwestern Oregon, a land even Lewis and Clark described as ‘inhospitable’ in the winter. We are far, far more poor than ever were before in our entire lives. The economy is still collapsing. Coming here did not change that.
Somehow, though, the trees and the constant rush of two rivers colliding 150 feet straight down a gorge below us made up for those losses as well as they could. They became gains and I became those things, better for giving up, better for actually trying.
The people I met and grew to love in Oregon did the rest; the people here were salve to the deep wounds.
You’ll go camping
in the woods
and never come back.
It was here on the farm, at the kitchen table where I write this, that I first heard of Schomburg’s poem-film. I had lived here for nearly one year. I was seeking video poetry submissions for the literary journal I recently had founded when a new friend said I should look at Portland resident’s work. He had published a small volume of Schomburg’s poetry, and said it was some of the best he’d ever read.
I saw “Farm Accident” first, and it defined the change in me to myself with just a few words. I was reading Thoreau and Whitman and Abbey and Isabella Lucy Bird and Betty MacDonald like some read the Bible since the move to the woods, looking for something to help me understand. I read poem after poem, and wrote even more than I read. None settled it for me. Nothing was sealing the deal.
It was this poem and its spare words that finally did that for me. It was okay. I could be here now and love it. I could relax and let my skin toughen. I understood. I had gone camping and I was never going back.
I’ve been to Shanghai many times. If I had settled there, perhaps I’d be more skyscraper or taxi cab than person. In Las Vegas I was perhaps more convenience than person; more ease and easy celebration than person. If I’d moved to Portland proper I might be more bridge or more brewery than person, but I’m here in this little house in the big woods where I camp every night.
Schomburg’s poem-film defines that we become the place where we are. We are adaptable, adept at camouflage. We must become our environment in order to survive it. I had already done that, but was too busy missing what I had lost to embrace it.
What those things were, I barely remember today, just a year later. I miss the people very much, but none of them are lost. I know exactly where they are.
Even when I leave, I will never really go back, and my limbs are gone forever, replaced by something brown and green that rustles in the wind and splits just a little during heavy snows.