On "Drought in the Lower Fields"
Ruth Stone’s Drought in the Lower Fields presents an inversion of the common trope of finding god in nature. The poem inserts religious terms into nature, rather than gathering religious overtones from nature. Abstract thoughts and terms are defined by the literal situation. This provides a basis with which to discuss the interplay between nature and religion.
The poem presents us with steers, crows, and buzzards. The steers are
dumb like angels,
moony-eyed, and soft-calling
like channel bells
to sound the abyss.
The wording here takes terms used to talk about the heavens (sky) and uses them to describe an animal that has been created by man, at least as far as the term is concerned, by cutting its balls off. It is their bells that are sounding the abyss, softly. Stone’s application of religious events is underpinned, though it seems easy enough to apply the angel Michael here, blowing his horn through the abyss, loudly.
But angels have been de-magnified and so have their actions and sounds. Next we have the circling crows in the fog and move right into the buzzards;
yearn down into with their small
red heads bent
looking for dead souls to pick.
Stone has placed buzzards where angels would normally be, looking down toward the souls. But the buzzards carry their earthly plight with them into this role as their heads are bent to look for dead corpses upon which to pick.
The religious wording here, dead souls, takes on actual physical meaning as ‘rotting bodies’. Stone continues to give the ethereal a concrete meaning. Then the poem returns to the dumb steers with the repetition of their action;
Steers nod their heads, yes,
Browsing the scalded grass,
they eat around the scarce
blue stars of chicory.
They are eating around the sky as signified by the blue flowers of the chicory plant. This is especially significant because cows do eat chicory. The steers eat around the chicory because they must; otherwise it poses a type of blasphemy. The “dumb angels” would be eating heaven and this would represent an action that would work contrary to Stone’s scarce and dismal scene. The scene represents less of a revolt and more of a despondent disregard for things as they are. The steers, or “dumb angels”, are ignoring heaven. On the physical level, that they are ignoring the chicory flowers during a drought further emphasizes their lack of intelligence.
Stone’s reversal of religious meaning and wording—from the ethereal or unreal, to the literal and concrete—draws attention to the distance between things that can be accepted or known to be real, and that which must be blindly accepted. Stone leaves this distinction up to the reader. By physically defining the ethereal, she has provided a scenario (a place of origin) with which to begin discussing this distance. The poem defines the figurative in terms of the literal in order to set up this basis.
And all of this put into context with the poem’s title, Drought in the Lower Fields, which suggests a time of need that hasn’t been answered. I see the poem as a cynical and honest portrait of the unanswered prayer I see on church billboards all of the time, “Pray for Rain.”
Copyright © 2001 by Russell Evatt
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