Taking Down Barns
By Kathleen Angier
We took down the barn at Homer Nobel’s farm.
It was a large post ’n‘ beam, falling in
with stuff from another life strewn like garbage.
Mack’s old pick-up pulled out the center beam,
cracking the hand-made pegs, tumbling swallows’
nests. In the settling dust we worked,
snaking out rough-sawed beams like trees from a forest.
There were horse harnesses of rotted leather
and great rounded collars. I found a tin basin.
It wore the name Blueberry, after a horse
I imagined as a roan or dapple grey, working
his life out on the slanted fields in the 1940’s light.
We saved the tin from the roof and made our stairway of beams
and our flatlander friends referred to it as the Robert Frost Memorial stairway.
They filled the hole and from the foundation, made
a stone wall straight across to park the visitors.
There’s a plowshare at the edge of my garden
and a wind chime made of farm implements.
It clangs like ghosts singing, rusty.
I remember how we stood in the dim stalls
as though to say a grace before gleaning.
Then it was gone.
I felt pulled into this poem right away — to the place of it, the dust of it, the old beams, cracking leather harness and rusting tin basin. But I also felt transported beyond the poem and its immediate setting, to the surrounding property and greater milieu of early- and mid-20th century Vermont. I could see the dapple gray grazing in the meadow, the forest from which the beams likely came, and the swallows darting out of the rafters, taking nightly swoops for insects. I know the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton from walking and skiing its fields and woods, and occasionally wandering with groups of writers, but I never knew the barn. I feel I do now.
Even though the poem opens with the first pull from the truck that will take the barn down, we are able to experience its prior existence. We see and sense the workhorses, plowshare and tin roof. We can picture the animals working in the “slanted fields of the 1940’s light,” a beautiful phrase, perfectly placed. We learn the name of one of the horses: Blueberry. We breathe in the barn dust, maybe even Blueberry’s own warm snorts of breath.
The poem is full of such specific and concrete images, yet, from the beginning, also carries a sense of the intangible, an energy and spirit that seems to infuse it all. Some of it could be Robert Frost’s, who owned the property for over 20 years, but also that of the people who worked the farm, and of those who owned it before him. Some of this energy might be from the land itself.
The narrator’s words take the reader on a meandering, nonlinear journey through time. We move back and forth between various temporal points, to a more recent one. But this winding movement does not feel disorienting. It feels like the way life is and how the mind works, especially when recalling an era that held a kind of meaning and pace we might wish to bring into the present for a while.
One senses from the first few lines that the barn’s tearing down is a thoughtful enterprise, and not all will be lost. Indeed, not all is lost, as we see in the poem’s last stanza. The plowshare now graces the poet’s garden. Friends collected stones from the farm and built a useful wall. Beams were saved to make a stairway. And we have the art and poetry that this farm — before, during and since Frost’s era — has inspired.
Susan Jefts is a poet and educator living near Middlebury, Vermont, whose work has been published in various regional and national literary journals. She facilitates workshops around the Middlebury area and elsewhere on exploring our relationship with nature through poetry. She also uses poetry with individuals and groups for exploring themes of growth and change. For more info, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.manyriverslifeguidance.com