Everything is relative. The suburbs of Long Island, New York, are hardly rural, but they were a huge change for my parents, since both of them grew up in Brooklyn. Our family was no longer squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment. Instead we had a brand new, three-bedroom house, with a full basement, and a front and backyard — enough grass to roll around in.

This was 1954 and there were still plenty of undeveloped house lots, trees to climb, and woods to explore. One of our neighbors, an older couple, had retained their land amid the new sprawl of houses. They owned several acres, had a large garden, and raised chickens. Our family enjoyed those fresh vegetables and eggs.

Maybe that’s where I got my interest in growing things. One summer, I planted radishes and carrots — the perfect crops for that sandy soil — and sold them to neighbors so I could save money for our yearly trip to Coney Island.

There were no nearby streams or waterfalls for me to explore, but I did find an abandoned log cabin in the woods. My friends and I played war in the cellar holes of houses yet to be built and climbed in the rafters of unfinished buildings. We walked along nearby train tracks and trespassed at a small airport.

These bits of wildness are what gave me a taste for country. It’s no wonder I moved to Maine, looking to dig my fingers into the earth, to heat with wood, to experience the wonder of growing my own food.

Traditionally a pastoral is a poem that portrays or evokes the beautiful and tranquil quality of country life. You expect sweeping lines and lush description, but Adrian Blevins sends you rushing along into new territory.

She explains, “One of the weird feelings I’ve always felt in both the rural South, where I’m from, and in Maine, where I live now, is a disconnect between the colleges and universities where I’ve worked and the world itself where chickens lay eggs and farmers milk cows. ‘Pastoral’ plays with that idea by trying to evoke the differences between the idea of ‘Whole Foods,’ for example, and the true whole food of molasses, which was one of the main sweeteners in the Appalachian mountains where I’m from. People actually made molasses with help from mules.”

She worries about the divisions between people, the distances, and the misconceptions. “When I have to tell someone I work at Colby, they seem to see me as a person who loves the opera and smokes a cigarette in a cigarette holder, when truly here I am in my overalls feeding my birds,” Adrian says. This poem, which comes from her book, “Appalachians Run Amok” (Two Sylvia Press, 2018), is an attempt to defend a more rural way of life. She notes: “‘Pastoral’ was one of the first poems I wrote for the book. In it, I am trying to say something about how living in the world of ‘grass’ isolates us, but also makes us at least imaginatively brave.”

Not incidentally, in this poem the speaker is friends with George Washington Carver, who she loves and constantly “analyzes” because he’s so “neurologically elastic.” What the speaker and George share is the feeling of being perpetually misunderstood. To cope with that feeling, they make friends with “the mocking birds” and escape to the wilderness where they can be free of judgment (and extractionist attitudes toward the earth and all her sweeteners). “Pastoral” tries to make a case for this more natural mode of being in a world still struggling to understand difference.

Besides “Appalachians Run Amok,” Adrian Blevins is the author of “Status Pending,” forthcoming from Four Way Books this coming February. Her other full-length collections of poetry are “Live from the Homesick Jamboree” and “The Brass Girl Brouhaha.” She is also the author of two chapbooks and a co-edited collection of essays. She lives in Waterville, where she directs Colby College’s Creative Writing Program.

 

Pastoral

My bravery is a daydream that comes from grass I guess

and from the first biography I ever wrote on George Washington Carver

who I chose to forever-love in the third grade

and also to persistently analyze because George was gutsy and brawny

and neurologically elastic and good at knowing about crop rotation

and at mixing things together into a nutritious mash. As a matter of fact

I did write about George longhand in a little diary with a silver key

and though I couldn’t spell any of the words like “Tuskegee”

I didn’t care and neither did he because we had the mocking birds

to keep us company and not too far away a waterfall we could climb

if we were brave enough, which of course we were. Yes that was

a slippery slope but I loved going to the falls with George

even more than I loved the slick moss and the snakes and cheese sandwiches

my mom would make with Wonder bread since this was forever ago

and Whole Foods hadn’t been incorporated yet

and was as it happens nothing but a series of woebegotten brothers

making molasses on a mountain with a mule and a Granny

who was their mother as well as a stereotype. Yes I have gone

to great lengths to explain myself by way of George to you

and still I feel provoked to continue or maybe just start all over

with my book report on Susan B. Anthony but since that would require

feats of memory and feistiness far beyond me

I’ll just assume you’ve had enough and wander off to the periphery

where all my people live amongst themselves

in an invisible little sachet of thirst-quenching derring-do.

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s poet laureate.