We see them mostly from a distance,
in footage of the wounded, sick, or starved,
slack-jawed and so near death
they can’t call up the strength to wave away
its first arrivals, crawling manic over lips
and stealing moisture from the eyes.
No fly on Pa’s glasses in American Gothic,
no tail switching or head tossing
from the cheese commercial Holsteins.
We see the smiling farmer in his hat,
waving from his tractor, the red barn,
rounded silo and smooth green hills.
A long zoom will show the flies,
as much a fact with livestock as manure.
And what they leave behind
even pressure washers won’t remove.
Get the car and truck in brown or black,
maybe hunter green. Paint the house brown.
We called them horseflies but jesusgod
they were bigger than bumblebees
and always bit on a cow’s backline.
Her flanks and withers would jerk,
the switch could never reach,
but I was afraid if I shooed the fly away
it would come for me.
A fly’s bite is no quick pinch
like a mosquito’s—to draw blood
they cut the skin before they feed.
Praise the co-op’s fly bait,
bright yellow grains that spark
a better show than fireworks.
Sweep the concrete barn floor clean
then shake the can to scatter bait
sparingly—a little does enough.
Irresistible as gold flakes or lemon drops,
the flies are on them, rubbing, turning
tiny granules with front legs
as they mouth the toxic sweets.
In minutes the buzzing starts
at seizure pitch, every fly that’s eaten
spinning crazy circles on its back.
Come back later to the afternoon still
of cows exhaling, the squeak of chewing cud,
and exoskeletons crunching underfoot—
victory, however brief, for chemicals
with a pull stronger than blood, a strike
against the flies that will always have their turn.
The Real West
You could imagine for a moment
that Everett Starr came to town on horseback
from a south-facing sandhill dugout.
He rolls a pickup tire in and points
like there isn’t any language left to spare.
He wears his sideburns in the long, gray style
of 19th century colonels and politicians.
The tire’s problem is clear without filling it
and checking for a leak–sagebrush
through the sidewall, the stem still there,
a puncture we can’t fix. He’ll need a tire.
Eyes narrow under his greasy hatbrim. A patch won’t hold on the sidewall.
A lot of guys get flats like this
driving pastures down in the sandhills
with dually trucks like yours especially.
He asks for Bob, the tire foreman
whose second opinion will be the same,
who’ll have me find a 16-5 on the used rack.
Here’s what’s left of the real West,
the one that never was John Wayne
saving the girl from Comanches, or Eastwood
gunning down a man who needed killing.
This is work, solitary work,
whiteface cattle, wind, and dryland corn.
He’s got no college degree in agribusiness,
no extended homesteader family
that’s always in the weekly paper.
Just hope he’s put a little something back,
what he saved by letting the house and sheds
go gray, keeping the same old boots
and a corn truck that looks at least his age.
Hope that he can someday put the crops
and cattle down, or only run a few
to pass the time and sell the calves.
Let him have enough to pay
a home care nurse who will drive those gravel roads
when he finally needs a little help.
William Notter’s collection Holding Everything Down (Southern Illinois University Press) won the High Plains Book Award for Poetry and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. His poems have appeared on The Writer’s Almanac and in journals including Alaska Quarterly, AGNI Online, Crab Orchard Review, High Desert Journal, Lake Effect, The Midwest Quarterly, and New Madrid. He teaches writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.