Welcome to the Hi-Line

Jory Mickelson

The land and the wheat that never cared who
Touched it, or why.

—Larry Levis “Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931”

There almost smudged is a mountain named
after some relative, branched just
past the family tree, gone pale

like pages loosening from a ledger. The hard
line of horizon draws the eye, always
forward, every direction beveled by

the lens of sky. No matter how far a man
will travel, he’ll remain centered, compass-
poised—field after field after field.

Take Pete who at fourteen was unable
to sit still on the train funneling
west, outrunning his widowed mother’s

man, weighted down with a small
inheritance the husband said he’d kill
the boy to get. The train pushed

Pete farther into prairie, into a life
breaking sod. It would take three generations
to build up the farm: locust, hail, drought,

tent worm, June snow, blight, tornado, the wind.
Not even the Caragana (the only vertical)
that hugs the road rindled east in countless

rows of railscrub will do anything but fail
against the wind, which never ceases
changing its mind about coming and going.

Trace Highway 2 on any map: the land is
paper flat. Going east you’ll stretch a line
through Chester, Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham

and Kremlin to Chinook, where the Milk
River churns or dwindles, but never turns
the color of its name. The town in February

aiming for its own warm wind to thaw
its rigid face, a compass rose, petaled
for months in white. The wind pushes

everything, will bank snow two stories
high against a house. Even generations can
be set to drift, blown to other ground

the way Pete’s granddaughter (from a distance)
divines the price of wheat each year against
the cost of taxes on the land. Finally she

sells to the neighbor who’s been leasing
it for years; the farm undone, small
denomination lifted from a hand and set to air.

Lange and O’Keeffe, 1933

You picked a theme and worked it
to exhaustion, wore it
to the bone—

the way men learned to wait
for hours                        for days
stomachs and heads gone

empty            suspended in
the floodlit
California streets.

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                        My first memory
is of the light,the brightness of light,
light                        all around.

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And you
unstitched the land      from landscapes, brushed aside all criticism
and praise.

You created a scope
a scale

argued that abstraction
is often            the most definite

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            Both of you
bookended by your men
who instructed and withheld.
Clarence and Alfred saying:

This is the shutter.
This is how to focus the lens.
Ask the men   not to move.

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You must have shared some quiet center, a secluded voice that murmured
What do you need? How much            can you handle?
against the sheets of dust and                              endless light.

For you both knew there are things in the head
that no one teaches,                           shapes and ideas waiting
to be put down.

For the men staggering                           in the Angel Bread Line,
their bunched shoulders and crumpled felt hats are composed
of the same buckled earth as Red Rust Hills.

Jory Mickelson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Superstition Review, Verse Junkies, Weave Magazine, Fjords Review, The Collagist, The Los Angeles Review, The Adirondack Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, and other journals. He received an Academy of American Poet’s Prize in 2011 and was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry. He’s also the 2014 Guest Poetry Editor for Codex Journal.