“Soil,” a Poem by Paisley Rekdal

From the Collection West: A Translation

May 19, 2023  By Paisley Rekdal

Brigham Young to General Dodge of the Union Pacific, 1869

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The locusts’ hum, at first, was like a line of flame;
then the air burst into reds, silver-edged
and filled with mouths like snapping scissors.
They ate our wheat, blacked out the skies
until the falling bodies settled like a fog
over Great Salt Lake, the carcasses brined
to a black and growing wall. We thought
the soil here was rich. But who knew how
rare rich was, how terribly fragile, and how
temperamental we’d become
trying to sustain these plots too alkaline
to keep a crop alive. Nothing natural but made
in the beauty of this place. To create a home,
we imported trees and water, we slashed
and burned to excavate a state where nothing
lived, nothing ruled us, and yet in all this nothing
we were subject to the rules nothingness demanded
and allowed, which requires every drop
of blood from our bodies, all that we might plant
and tend and love; that demands all
might still be taken from us and fed to the abyss,
not the faith on which I believe each soul
is nourished. Nothing natural here
but need. Our symbol, as you know, is the hive
of bees, and yet in our strength of will, our number,
perhaps you might picture us now
like the locust, which arrives in waves to feed
without satiety, which visits more regularly
than rain and covers the earth not out of spite,
but because they will survive. Dear General,
all this we have endured, and now you think
we should not remind you of the debt we’re owed, we
who lobbied for this railroad, who agreed to unite
this nation with you and bring the riches of the East
west to tame its wilds? Do you wonder
at our anger and our exigency? General,
we worked your grading to Monument Point, in thousands
drilled and blasted, rent the very foundations
of the earth until these hills swarmed with our fresh
encampments. We are patient, but we aren’t fools.
If we’d been a collection of mere individuals linked
by money, long ago you’d have seen us crushed
by weather, luck, and the Indian; together in faith,
we have brought this place to heel. We can do more.
Even the locusts, which once again have come
to plague us, make little dent in our labors.
Their dark trails that waver in the heat like iron bars
are merely a mirage, our kerchiefs dipped
in camphor smell not like sweat and earth
but sweet water. They do not stifle, nor blind us
to the promise of the money your company
offered, a promise which has gone, now,
too many months unanswered. We are hungry
for an answer, Sir. We wait for your reply.
Each morning, your railroad tunnel shakes
with the reports of our artillery. You can hear them,
if you listen. The mountains reverberate
from base to summit, ringing back our volleys
with thunderous echoes, as if in anger.

SOIL from Paisley Rekdal on Vimeo.

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“Soil” from West: A Translation by Paisley Rekdal. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Copper Canyon Press.

Paisley Rekdal
Paisley Rekdal
Paisley Rekdal is the author of three works of nonfiction, including The Broken Country: On Trauma, A Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam, and six collections of poetry, most recently Nightingale. She is the recipient of fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets, among others. She teaches at the University of Utah and is Utah’s poet laureate.

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