Excerpt: Mary Armstrong
From Burn Pit
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.