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Job in the Panhandle

Job’s friends had his health in mind, but none of them, nor their arguments, could satisfy the emptiness in his soul. He’d lost everything, his family, his land, his enterprise, even his health in a tsunami of bad times unlike anything ever seen in this world. He numbered his days in what we would have to consider “the worst hard times,” which is also the title of Timothy Egan’s masterful portrayal of an American time and a place we’ve commonly come to remember as “the Dust Bowl.”

It’s impossible to imagine thick black winds so strong they dented fenders, dust dunes so tall they swallowed farm machinery, static electricity so severe people dared not to touch each other aboard storms so black that men, women, and children could get lost between house and barn.

You can go back there imaginatively, at least, by a shelf of vivid portrayals right there beside Egan’s The Worst Hard Times. There’s a masterful film series by Ken Burns, as well as a museum of photographic portraits by masters like Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans. There’s John Steinbeck’s refugee family and Sonora Babb’s overlooked portrayal inTheir Names are Unknown. The Atlantic published a series of notes from a woman named Caroline Henderson, who grew up just down the road but spent those awful years in the dusty Oklahoma heart of suffering.

But no imaginative writer I know has done what Benjamin Myers, who teaches at Oklahoma Baptist University, has done in with the Dust Bowl in Black Sunday, a series of sonnets (of all things) that open up the lives of six characters he chooses as a chorus out there on the high plains, all six living through “the worst hard times.”

Suffering, oddly enough, can be rendered as beautiful in the hands of someone who sees more than meets the eye, and Myers does. Black Sunday is poetry, but when you close this collection, you have to remind yourself that the world you were just in was verse–sonnets, in fact. For what Myers has done with these portrayals is bring us, heart-and-suffering soul, into the reaches our own humanness. See if you agree–

Will Lists His Assets on Another Loan Application

800 acres of itch, grit, and chirr

crawling with hoppers, burning like a match.

All mine. The foot deep drifts of dirt that were

my neighbor’s field, mine too now, since I catch

with my strip lists the dirt he don’t do much want

to keep. The tractor  with the rear wheels stuck

halfway in sand I owe your bank a bunch

on still and won’t pay off unless my luck 

turns. But it won’t. We shot the little herd. 

The truck is dead. Your bank has got the car.

The combine’s broke. I guess I’ve got my word,

and next to that my other assets are

dirt sore eyes, overalls with one knee hole,

a body dressed in rags, a ragged soul. 

It’s a poignant portrayal of Dust Bowl despair accomplished by way of the kind of assessment we all make, formally and informally. Will Burns’s list of assets is barely fourteen lines long, scribbled out in despair as real as buckets full of dust.

Is there hope here? I think yes, not because the clouds of Black Sunday hold some blessed silver lining, but because Will Burns ends his paltry list of assets not with something outside himself but something eternal within. Putting “his ragged soul” where he does gives it most attention in a final line that’s not so much a confession as it is David-like testimony. What comes before it is commodity; the last line describes his eternal self, his destiny.

But it’s there, he says. It may be as ragged as his overalls, but his soul has not blown away.

God himself does not speak in Benjamin Myers Black Sunday, certainly not the way he does to end the book of Job. Will Burns’ losses don’t tally the way Job’s did. After all, Will still has a family and those sonnets aren’t holy writ.

All of which is to say that Benjamin Myers’ Black Sunday isn’t the book of Job. But the times he describes, as well as the folks whose intimate portrayals surface in this moving book of poetry, are most definitely kin.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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