What is the document of August? It is the thick skin of my hands, the summer's lingering muscle— easily still I lift a bag of feed for the hens. Yes my body holds some proof of where it's been. There are a handful pictures, from when Sarah or Tess put down the harvest bin for a moment, wiped the mud off her hands and held up a dusty phone. Already the glisten on our midday faces in them is the filter of a past heat. There are 10 quarts of tomatoes put up in my kitchen; I know I picked them. But I have almost no poems to show for the warm months, and I am poet, so where did they go?
If poetry is how you see and hear and feel the world, and you're too tired write during the farming months, doesn't it feel like you aren't living half the time? Asks my friend who is an artist too. And it is my big sad thought, most summer nights, when language— so green and upright in my mind that morning in the field— has, by nightfall, withered to the imperatives eat + sleep. It was a drought summer, there were murders on the radio while I picked food. We raised three pigs for slaughter and slaughtered them, and yes I sometimes scratched their rumps and looked into their eyes. Eight young women were loosed on the farm at the peak of the heat to work and learn and giggle and eat. I had a sad love. The dahlias disrobed and flashed the whole neighborhood. Daily the raw material of another season poured in through every sense organ, filled me, and didn't leave except as sweat.
Most of the artists I know are exhausted— by labor, by motherhood, by illness, by school, by the efforts of staying alive and well in this racist country, by the efforts of love. It is one of my dear missions to encourage my friends to rest when they can; rest, the empty bed for the next crops. The word document comes from the Latin verb to teach. I believe that our art is a vital document of our time, a necessary part of our learning and teaching each other to live better and more gently. But it is impossible to document exhaustion; the fact I am writing now means that my labors have eased. Already the hard days fade to a proud nostalgia— it was a different season's girl who started picking at sunup and was still on her feet feeding the pigs at dusk. I admire her, and I don't hasten her return.
My most rigorous writing teacher from college haunts me with a warning she offered as I handed her my last assignment— that if I wanted to be a writer, really write, then I would have to be a writer first, not a farmer. The farm was already in its nascent stages; she warned that the work would steal writing from me if I wasn't careful, that a real writer needs more time than farming would allow. And she's right— six years later, I have no book. But she's also wrong— I have hundreds of poems, most of them secret but beloved to me. I filled many diaries, sent many letters, wrote several bad songs. Winter comes; I bend again to document a whole years' worth of new poetic knowledge before the next thaw.
There's one other thought, beyond the I must that Rilke encourages every poet to listen for in herself, which I have heard and keeps me at it every winter. As long as I am farming, I have to accept that many of the poems I live won't get written. But that doesn't mean the document is lost— it can be had, the whole poem, in a moment. On my twelfth hour with aching feet when the call of a hawk draws my eye up to an architecture royal in the clouds, and an entire poem germinates, is watered, grows there. I can have the whole of it, the feast, in one beat. And then bend again to do with my knife what I came to do. I might not share on paper or out loud, but I do share it. It enters my face and my voice, I think it does.
There is the longed-for bed Audre Lorde pushes us towards in our work. Sometimes I find it. To stoke at once the fire and the fire, slake at once the thirst and the thirst. To ride again the pendulum through heat to the blessed dark.