Whitened by frost and salt, narrow roads
stitch what remains of these farms to the landscape
in patterns as precise, from above, as maps.
Seen from down here, they inhabit us,
refuse the impartial view. Though we can’t
define exactly the season’s dry obsession
with stalk and branch, we see the gist
of alders advancing past lines of downed fence
and sense something in the way buildings
dispose themselves at dusk—barns leaning,
houses with windows boarded, shingles rotted,
hollow gestures against December’s threat.
Bucket in hand, the only man we’ve seen
all day, rounds the corner of a swaybacked shed,
stares hard as we drive past—
my dead grandfather
come back in his old red mackinaw
to finish the evening chores, remind me again
of something important I neglected to do.
Questions and Answers
About “What Remains”:
The poem “What Remains” confronts an issue that has troubled me for most of my days—the wasting away of the rural world and way of life it encompasses. I grew up in a country environment and at one time or other performed the usual tasks associated with such a life. I’ve worked with animals, chopped, sawed, and yarded logs, labored in sawmills, cut and raked and forked hay, planted and tended gardens, fished and hunted and trapped. I have always assumed that someday I would return to a rural existence. But I haven’t—though I have tried several times—and with each passing year the chances that I will go back to the land grow slimmer.
The poem presents an image of an all but abandoned landscape: the downed fences, pastures growing up in alders, leaning barns, a swaybacked shed, houses with windows boarded. I find such scenes heartbreaking, and have written about them in other poems and stories.
My maternal grandfather grew up on a farm in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia before WWI. Apart from his time overseas, a year or two as a lighthouse keeper on Sable Island, 100 miles out in the Atlantic, and several years of shoeing horses in a Halifax dairy, he spent most of his life working farms, sometimes for himself, mostly for wealthy men who owned farms on the side, apart from their real professions. He was always looking for the right place to buy, but he never acquired enough money to own more than a shack here and there out along backcountry roads.
I wrote the poem in the first person plural because it grew out of an occasion when a friend and I were driving through the New Brunswick countryside, both of us lamenting the signs of rural poverty and abandonment all around us. By this time, my grandfather was long dead, but when I saw the man in the mackinaw, carrying a bucket, filled probably with feed or water, I immediately thought of Granddad, perhaps because he possessed a mackinaw exactly like the one the farmer was wearing. And, of course, both men had lived their lives performing the same labor in similar environments.
I think the most interesting formal move in the poem is the interrupted syntax, the caesura, at the dash in the fourth stanza and my decision to drop what comes after the dash (“my dead grandfather”) down to the next line. I hoped this would create a brief pause and perhaps a small surprise. The “something important I haven’t done” in the final line is an acknowledgement of my sense of guilt, mentioned above, owing to my lack of success in returning to the rural world and carrying on the dying tradition my grandfather was a part of. For many people, such a feeling might be incomprehensible, but persuasive or not, it is a sentiment that has been with me for most of a lifetime. How could I not write about it?