Poet William Notter grew up on the plains of northeastern Colorado, and currently lives in Richmond, Virginia. In between, he lived in a variety of places, teaching writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Notter spent three summers as an interpretive guide in Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest, which inspired his poem “Morning News in the Big Horn Mountains.” Notter’s poems appear widely and he has received many honors for his work, including the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize for More Space Than Anyone Can Stand (Texas Review Press, 2002), and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Last year Notter published his poetry collection Holding Everything Down (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), which won the 2008 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Below are two of the poems from that book, both of which have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac.”
High Plains Farming
There’s never enough of the right kind of rain,
and always too much of what we get.
We’ve got no need for casinos—
keeping the farm is enough to gamble on.
If the seed doesn’t blow out of the ground in December,
the wheat gets laid down flat in the fields by hail
come summer. Spring blizzards get the calves,
and one year my corn was nothing
but rows of stalks from softball-size hail
a month before harvest. That storm ruined my roof
and beat siding right off the neighbors’ house.
A little hail and wind can’t run me off, though,
and I’ll keep dropping the well until the aquifer
dries up like they’ve said it would for years.
We may not know what it’s going to leave us with,
but we can see our weather coming.
When those fronts blow across the fields,
trailing dust and rain, we’ve got time
to get the cars in the shed, and ourselves
into the basement if the clouds are green.
Next morning I go out to see where the dice fell.
Everything’s glazed and bright with the dust knocked off
and the sun barely up. The gravel on the roads
is clean-washed pink, and water still hangs
on the fence wires and the pasture grass.
Sometimes I need to call the county
about a washed-out road, or the insurance man
about a field stripped clean. When I’m lucky
I can shut the irrigation pumps down
for a day or two and give the well a rest.
I like to drive right into it sometimes
when a storm comes up, lightning arcing
all directions over the hills, and the slate-blue
edge of the front clean as a section line.
There’s an instant in that border
where it’s not quite clear but not the storm
when everything seems to stop, like my wheels
have left the road. The light turns spooky, dust
just hangs, grass glows like it’s ready
to spark and catch on fire. Then the motor strains,
fat raindrops whack the tin and glass
like the racket from a flock of blackbirds,
hundreds of them scattering off a stubblefield.
Morning News in the Big Horn Mountains
The latest movie star is drunk just out of rehab,
two or three cities had extraordinary killings,
and expensive homes are sliding off the hills
or burning again. There’s an energy crisis on,
and peace in the Middle East is close as ever.
In Wyoming, just below timberline,
meteors and lightning storms
keep us entertained at night. Last week,
a squirrel wrecked the mountain bluebirds’ nest.
I swatted handfuls of moths in the cabin
and set them on a stump each day,
but the birds would not come back to feed.
It snowed last in June, four inches
the day before the solstice. But summer
is winding down—frost on the grass
this morning when we left the ranger station.
Yellow-bellied marmots are burrowing
under the outhouse vault, and ravens leave the ridges
to gorge on Mormon crickets in the meadows.
Flakes of obsidian and red flint
knapped from arrowheads hundreds of years ago
appear in the trails each day,
and the big fish fossil in the limestone cliff
dissolves a little more with every rain.
Holding Everything Down is available from Southern Illinois University Press.