Excerpt: Mary Armstrong

From Burn Pit

The Way We Measure

This could be a humid jungle, 
but it's Ohio, and there's oil
three thousand feet below the barns
and hog pens, beneath the row of ruffled kale,
the cattle yard with its electric fence.
In the distance, I can see the outline
of a well, its push and pull
to suck dark fluid from the earth.

I'm glad to be with men
who smell of cigarettes and sweat,
speak to me in terms of rods and casing,
downhole pumps, the grind and thud of language
I've learned to understand.

Wearing boots against wood ticks
and snakes, we walk uphill.
In the heat that fills the air
until it is the air, we meet
the mute defiance of the land,
its hidden rocks and gullies,
the scramble of wild berry vines
that loop their thorns around our legs.

I've seen the danger of the field - 
pip that slips its noose and drops
across and pumper's back,
the whip of cable against bone,
a blowout flaming uncontrolled,
red against the sky, and yes,
I want it as I want to be
with men who drill into the earth.
I try to match their pace, push myself
beyond where I am weak
until there's nothing left that's soft -
the way we measure things
against what's missing.

Burn Pit

Today we burn the sediment - a crust of oil
that lines the pit behind the Hoffman Well.
Smoke sends the stench of sulfur
through the woods, clouds windows
of the Hoffmans' house, and drops a mist of ash
into the wide eyes of a wooden
cow, staked in front yard grass.

Mrs. Hoffman watches from her porch,
one hand across her mouth, the other
at her heart. We keep our distance
from the flame, let it have its way
with what has hardened in the pit.
In the swift exchange from heat to blaze,
a burning harvest mouse runs circles in
wild grass until it is more fire than mouse.
When it falls into the last flow of flame,
one of us stamps what is left into the dirt.

Bees rise like sparks from yellow grass.
The Hoffmans' dog pulls at his chain.
Old dog, there's nothing you can do
but stand the smoke and wait, like us,
incidental now to what we've set, waiting
for the end of fire.

Oil Fields South of Bartlesville

The wind blows grit, sucks it from this land
that cracked against the drill of men
hungry for the gush of oil and flame
roaring out of earth - 
men moving ghost-like
in and out of light from fire,
until the white mask of the moon
disappears in smoke.
Men shout through wind,
calling out I'm here,
raising the lanterns
of their names: It's Jack, It's Sam;
oil blows high above the bolted skeletons
of derricks, falling black and thick
until it soaks the land, stains
the flesh of men who rest
now in the long night
of the earth, its cold
and shifting layers, pools
of oil, its ash.

Mary Armstrong is a native of Los Angeles, where she serves as the financial officer of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival. She previously served as co-director of the Valley Contemporary Poets Series. Her poems have appeared in more than 30 literary journals, including The Missouri Review, Nimrod, The Burnside Review, and The Potomac Review, and in the anthologies Grand Passion: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond and Open Windows. She has been a finalist in numerous poetry contests, including Ireland’s Strokestown International Poetry Prize. She is president of an independent oil and gas production company and lives in West Hills, California, with her husband.

Burn Pit is available through Slapering Hol Press.

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  1. […] joins Mary Armstrong and Jacqueline Tchakalian, this Thursday, March 27th, at Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse for a […]

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