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White Earth

Erika Meitner

This place is all orange sky,
drilling rigs, and bunchgrass.

A boy chucks a Chinese star
at a flattened cardboard box

near a pickup window’s decal:
Drillin’ Deep | Pumpin’ Hard.

Outside his camper the ground
around him is entirely white.

He watches the yellow bus pass.
The man in the classroom says,

At the top of your paper I want
you to write this: I think oil is…

His ellipses look like snow and
the children speak to the ellipses:

(When he sits in the chair, he leaves
a greasy mark) (His back is always

hurting) (He doesn’t come home
any more like he used to). Their

fathers are oil rigs and pumpjacks.
Their fathers are nodding donkeys,

dinosaurs, thirsty birds constellating
the night sky, then burnished sky,

and they are peering through slatted
blinds in a camper’s window

at so many headlights—pickups and
faces of black cargo trains, bullet containers

scraping through every intersection
in town hourly, and town is one neon sign:

Heartbreakers with its unk unk unk
pulsing and thrusting into the street.

The up stroke. The down stroke.
We had never seen the pumps so close.

What amazed us the most? The flames
coming straight from the ground.

We’re all here for the work,
she says while scrubbing a sink

like a horsehead pump, like
an automatic hammer or an arm

folding up and down at a blood-draw,
trying to get things flowing—

pressing gauze to the place needle
entered skin. Birds chirp everywhere

at dawn, no matter how frozen.
A girl makes angels on a makeshift

ice rink in her black winter coat.
Her arms and legs move in arcs,

threads drawing something
from the earth.

As part of my graduate workshop in poetry, I often have my students engage with other modes of art either as participants or spectators: dance, drawing, visual art exhibits, experimental composition, bookmaking, hip hop, theater, opera, and film. A few years ago, we all watched the short documentary White Earth, which is an academy-award-nominated 20-minute film about the oil boom in a town called White Earth, North Dakota, told via the perspective of three different kids, and an immigrant mother. We all took notes and wrote while the film was playing; I do the engagements, along with my students. My poem came from that class session, and it's a narration of the images, and even some of the dialogue in the film. In editing the poem though, I had to do a lot of research on the nomenclature of the machinery used to raise crude oil from wells, as I didn't know what to call anything I saw on screen—and the names are amazing, and they all made it into the poem. I think the poem is a metaphor for something larger—for the ways we're tied to the earth, and how we often abuse these ties. As someone who's lived in Appalachian coal country for the last twelve years, much of this landscape and the ways the residents encountered it felt very familiar. 

Erika Meitner is the author of five books of poems, including Holy Moly Carry Me (BOA Editions); Copia (BOA Editions); and Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial), which was a 2009 National Poetry series winner. She is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she directs the MFA and undergraduate programs in creative writing.