The Dirt People

A Dust Bowl farmer digs out a fence post to keep it from being buried under drifting sand in Cimarron County, Okla., in 1936. © Arthur Rothstein/ Library of Congress from NPR

A Dust Bowl farmer digs out a fence post to keep it from being buried under drifting sand in Cimarron County, Okla., in 1936.
© Arthur Rothstein/ Library of Congress from NPR

They were people of the dirt
life hung on a loosened nail,
barbed-wire lay like promises broken.
all their lives — all they knew.
Their kids, offshoots
of the mandrake root,
full of it – dirt, dirt, more dirt.

They farmed it such a long time.
What came from it, not even green words,
mosquitoes, heat, and lung disease.
A bit of water carried in pails,
poured by sunburned hands
to coax the sands.

drifted by wind,
spilled on tables,
filled window sills,
stuffed the furniture.
— dirt
In the sugar bowls and salt shakers;
on the playing cards;
on the paper dolls, gritty when cutting out;
caked on marbles in the circle;
creasing the cigar treasure box
— dirt
where the children played hollow eyed
living rusted lives in crusted disappointment.

Later the peanuts pushed out of the cracks;
melons grew, then split by heat
they ate their hearts.
Wind roared, sand pelted, snakes rattled
and all the spirit did was blow.

They were the people of the dirt.
They moved from one place to another.
The dirtiest was the dug-out–
living there, not clean
but at last cool; they eked out a living
from a little rain or making repairs in town.
Yet ever they moved on — until typhoid
caught them up and burials weighed them down.

Only dreaming of clean
cut from pages of a magazine:
running water, indoor plumbing
china, silver, a crystalline vision,
instead of dirt
between those pages, they’d find
a place to stop,
a place to learn,
and time to read.

Posted for my article on Beat Poetry @dVersePoets
The after-effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl as well as having come through WWII greatly influenced and affected the Beat Poets. Many blues songs which spoke about pain, loneliness, poverty, and loss filled their poems. I chose to present this period of my maternal family. This isn’t quite a protest poem but in a way it is. This was a government caused catastrophe. The poor farmers had been paid to plant the same crops without rotating year after year with government subsidies. Ignorance and greed again caused this horror of the 1930s.

© Gay Reiser Cannon * 10/13/113

23 thoughts on “The Dirt People

  1. oh heck gay…this is excellently written.. what a hard life they lived… the constant heat…dirt…being on the move…diseases… it’s humbling… looking forward to the prompt tonite…this will bring forth some excellent poetry… see you later.. (i’ll be an hour or so late due to an appointment..)

  2. ah yes i know this period…we spent a bit of time there in US history last year…as the economy is not the best now but nothing like that you know….def you brought to life the reality in the dirt, esp when that is all you have and it is everywhere….well played out gay…

  3. Gay, you have really brought that time in history to life. Your words make me feel the dust in the air & the hardship of the many who lost their livelihoods to dust those years. Abject poverty and nowhere to turn. Nice prompt today…thank you!

  4. Brilliant. I want to go and look at Dorothea Lange photos, revisit my studies on the Farm Security Administration and spit the grit from out of my mouth. Thank you for unearthing these thoughts for me.

  5. You graphically captured the deprivation and desolation of the Dust Bowl –such a sad time. Also, your post on Beat Poetry was interesting, informative and well-written. Thanks.

  6. Thank you for this educational and informative post Gay – I did not know of it. (Have googled and read more.)

    Your poem well illustrates the harsh realities of that time. Thank you again.

    Anna :o]

  7. Great writing here, but incredibly sad theme. The utter hopelessness these poor people must have felt . . . And yes, ignorance and greed–those were two of my own inspirations tonight! Much of the Beat reaction was to just this feature of American life. Excellent!

  8. Potent and deeply affecting, it brings to mind the melodic outcry of some of Emmylou Harris’ best songs (Red Dirt Girl). It carries weight and suffering. Thank you again for the incredible MTB article. You are always an inspiration to me.

    • Oh luv me some Emmylou – my cousin (not the Buddy Holly one, my cousin Kay Holley) sounded and looked just like her. I have a slew of ELH records on LP and a couple or five cds as well. What a pure sound.

      So happy you’re here. Looking forward to reding your poem, and thanks for coming by!

  9. So many wonderful lines in this. “where the children played hollow eyed
    living rusted lives in crusted disappointment.” being just one of many that caught my attention. Apparently you write beat poetry every bit as well as you write *about* beat poetry. Thanks for sharing this!

  10. In spite of the bleak life and black and white and sepia tones ..there is a colorful aspect…and you brought that out in the details of what it was really like…not unlike Steinbeck did with Grapes of Wrath ….great writing.

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