Back to Issue Ten.

The Common Field



The common field is the seat of barbarism; 
the separate farm, the door to civilization. 
-Congressional Debate on the American Indian, 1859
My surname means dweller in the common field,
Irish but true:  the family farm growing little
but eleven children in a single room:  who fed them
how I don’t know:  that clapboard box
still standing outside my grandfather’s house
he built himself:  cheap paneling, trowel
from the Masons:  secrets he’d never tell us:
gold plating that wasn’t even gold:
Texas inside and out:  the one state proud enough
to sing itself possessive: the Rio Grande
dividing past and here:  here where we were
lucky, could buy land and seeds, barbed wire
to hem a horse named Velvet, so shy or
nonexistent I never saw her:  who would claim
a horse they didn’t have:  a family whose name
(a man later tells me) equates with “nigger,”
“low-life” back in Ireland, though no one uses it
to mean that here:  just hard to spell,
like league, with a T:  everyone stumbling, asking
me to repeat, wanting it to end maybe agua,
something drinkable:  first-world problems:  land
that was ours in poverty and wealth,
sickness and no vows broken:  not like the Indians
(a fraction on our other side):  corn silking
half-baked sky in territories too far off the rails
for anyone to buy what someone said
they had to grow:  the labor is not, admittedly, always
valuable, and yet it redeems the Indian, who laboring
learns to labor for himself:
 who was not trusted
with money because he’d waste it like the rain
and sun will waste the snow:
 nothing anyone ever
said of us, or not in public notes or policy
(my drunken uncles drunk losing jobs but
never the word civilized):  to break down prejudices
of the untamed savage is a work of no ordinary labor:
laboring to make itself into something
more than duty, more than hammer
on two-by-four: destiny bright and shape-
shifting as the lava lamp by the TV, oil and wax
rising like some holy ascension, my grandfather
in the patched recliner watching Westerns:
true we have taken his land, or the land on which
he roamed, but he did nothing to improve it
: someone
in my family came here first—after the first someone
came from Ireland to Tennessee to Texas,
built a one-room house, turned up the dry red dirt
the dog was named for—Red because he rolled
around our God-given land:  it may be said
the very foundation of civilization commences with the plow.

Alexandra Teague is the author of Mortal Geography (Persea, 2010), winner of the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize and 2010 California Book Award, and The Wise and Foolish Builders (Persea, 2015). Her poetry has recently appeared in The Missouri Review, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. She is Assistant Professor of Poetry at University of Idaho and an editor for Broadsided Press.