Hard Labor, by Michael Carey

In 1992, as part of a program to encourage writers to react to art on campus, the University Museums commissioned two poets, Neal Bowers and Michael Carey, to write about the Grant Wood murals. Their poems are included here with kind permission of the Museums.

Other Arts Follow

Hard labor
by Michael Carey


The purest form of hell
is threshing in Iowa
in July or stacking bales
of straw or wheat
on the wagon
or in the hay mow.

Under your cuffs,
under your collar
chaff blisters
the skin into boils,
your body drenched
in a sweat
that will not
cool or wash
away the dust
from the eaves
or the dirt
in the air
you can't breathe
anyway, because
it's been smothered
in 110 degrees
and 82 per cent


The further we get,
the prettier the picture,
the softer the line
on the rough edges
of the wagon. Even
pigs fall silent
as men measure
their medicine.

No one moves
their sullen faces,
no one smiles,
not the boy
with the head
of his father,
not the quiet wives
with their needles
and thread and china.

It is the distance
they stare into,
the soothing balm of years.
Step by step, we leave them
to their never-ending chores.

Step by step, we rise
like the painted butterflies
on the wallpaper or are they
leaves blown in on the sudden wind,
the white window left open,
caressing our brains
into different bodies
that see and touch and do,
now, different things,
softer things, strange things
in a world, we love, like them,
and cannot understand.

Michael Carey was born in New York City, raised in New Jersey, and later moved to Iowa to attend the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he received his M.F.A. degree in poetry writing. The 800 acres which he and his wife farm in Farragut, Iowa became a source of inspiration for his two books of poetry: The Noise the Earth Makes (1987) and Honest Effort (1991).