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The Missouri Review 28.1 (2005) 81-90

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Tobacco Mosaic

for Mark Willis

[Begin Page 82]
The tobacco production technology in use today was originally derived from that used by native people. Tobacco is American.
~John Van Willigen and Susan C. Eastwood, Tobacco Culture: Farming Kentucky's Burley Belt
Burley Tobacco, as I first knew it, was produced with an intensity of care and a refinement of skill that far exceeded that given to any food crop that I know about. It was a handmade crop; between plant bed and warehouse, every plant, every leaf, was looked at, touched, appraised, lifted, and carried many times. The experience of growing up in a community in which virtually everybody was passionately interested in the quality of the local product was, I now see, a rare privilege.
~Wendell Berry [End Page 82]

Stripping Room

They were working past dark at the waist-high bench
that night; they were smoking and talking in that place
of the barrel stove and of the chalk figures while outside
and all around them, a season folded its leaves
into the ground like wings. They reached their hands
into the veined, elastic plants; they touched the tips
of shadows stretching like fingers from a past
of splintered bone and ash, the dark of the Continent.
Autumn was shifting and rustling, preparing
for sleep, and the moon rose through the empty fields,
flashing its wide search-beam through the roosts.
They were standing at the end of a process, sorting
by the light of jar lamps. In that dust-paneled room,
deep in a dwindling year, they stripped the lugs
and flyings from the stalks and let the bounty
of the long days slip so easily through their hands.


Now deep in thistles and a snarl of broken implements,
the Cross Barn pops its bent nails into the twilight.
He parks the truck by the gate, swings each leg over,
and follows the tilting gravel strip between the silo
and the pond's half-lit disc. A bat is crossing
the water on the boat of its reflection; it is squeaking
like a rusted hinge. Everything he knows there
has been left ajar: the slope of the barn's battered roof,
its wedge of shadow keeping time over the fescue,
even the day around him, even the latticed gloom
of the loading chute where once he waited
for a thunderhead to pass, and felt time rumbling
like a tedder over the fields, each moment flaring up
like a match, consuming itself—all of them scattering
like grasshoppers where the tractor churned the hay. [End Page 83]


The people are talking about budworms; they are talking
about aphids and thrips. Under the bluff at Dismal Rock,
there where the spillway foams and simmers,
they are fishing and talking about pounds and allotments;
they are saying white burley, lugs and cutters.
Old men are whittling sticks with their pocketknives
and they are saying Paris Green; they speak of topping
and side-dressing; they are whistling and talking
about setters, plant beds and stripping rooms.
At Hedgepeths, under the shade of the Feed Mill awning,
in that place of burlap and seedbins, of metal scoops,
they are sitting on milk crates; they are drinking from bottles
and they are talking about pegs, float plants and tierpoles.
At the Depot Market, they say blue mold, high color;
they are nodding and saying sucker dope; they are leaning
on the counter and talking about Black Patch, high boys, flue-cured.
They are arguing about hornworms and buyouts.
They are saying come back, come back, come back.


That night he camped alone among kudzu and yucca,
pitched the flickering egg of his tent on a shelf of sandstone
above the floodplain, above sinkholes and bottomland,
there where the laurels mesh into a railing, and where
the lights of Munfordville smudge the tree line to the west.
He was drinking bourbon from a plastic cup;
he was listening to a barred owl interrogate the underbrush.
He sat on a stump by the fire while the ridge below him...


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