William Barnes

Issue #
January 31, 2017

Looking for Sunlight: poetry in the oil fields

It’s a white metal ranch gate. The regulator meets me there, at the edge of the highway, at a hard-scrabble turnout. Mesquite and cheat grass bind the road. He unlocks the gate, swings it open, leaves it open, drives ahead. We pass a ramshackle farmhouse, a yard full of rusted equipment. The way is crossed and re-crossed with ungraded roads. This is flatland. Southeast New Mexico. It is a broad, tangled horizon: powerlines, cattle fences, pump jacks, scrub.

I follow him to the nearest tank battery, he pulls over, doesn’t get out. I walk up to his window. “When we got here, that whole area,” he says, pointing across his dash, “was full of water. You got a sensor?” I nod.

He says he’s gotta go, and lock the gate behind me, and he pulls away, shedding gravel in his wake. It’s March, windy, very cold. I check my H2S sensor; clip it to my jacket. Hydrogen-sulfide, or “sour gas,” is heavier than air and odorless. It’s one of the secret by-products of oil and gas production. Everyone out here has a story about a close call, a crippling headache or a rescue. Last year, two kids got caught in a trench and died.

The wind is behind me. I pull my hat down and walk toward the cluster of steel tanks: five in two rows, each about 30 feet high. The first tank on my left is white, the next green. The three on my right are wide, and rusty-black. The wind is blowing water off the top of the last tank. It flies off in waves, like a sprinkler. Fat drops splat to the ground in front of me. A little rivulet gathers and flows downhill. There’s a small one-foot berm around the entire battery meant to hold spills like this. The water glistens black. The ground is stained, oily. This is “produced” water, very salty, full of hydrocarbons; it rises with the crude oil. I find pipe tools, a glove, a bucket on its side, cut wires on the ground. Pea gravel soaked with oil surrounds the white and green tanks. I pass downwind and suddenly choke from the smell of gas. No warning from the sensor, but my head hurts and my heart pounds.

I spend the next hour taking photos, walking around the site. There are two pump jacks, a compressor for flaring off carbon dioxide, black poly surface-lines snaking through the grass, asphaltine from three old leaks, a bury-pit for contaminated soil with the plastic liner breaking apart, and signs of at least one large water spill. The ground is salty, broken up in patches and side-tracks and un-reclaimed well pads. It’s weedy, industrial. Plastic bags trapped in the creosote snap in the wind.

This is a “split” estate: the government owns the minerals but the surface is private. In this case, the surface owner has filed for bankruptcy. It’s not a big spill, but it’s clearly an old operation, old equipment, and not well tended. Water is still overtopping the tanks and actively spilling, there are oil-stains everywhere. The dirt berm is not lined and it leaks. It’s a completely typical site. There are thousands of places just like this across the oil fields in New Mexico.

The Oil Conservation Division, a state agency, is supposed to stop operators when they spill or run sloppy facilities. But this is not especially bad, or unusual. There are far worse sites and there are just two regulators in this district for tens of thousands of wells. To clean this up, the tanks and feeder-lines should be shut off, the tanks removed, and at least a quarter-acre of soil, one yard deep should be hauled off to the dirt farm. The site should be capped and the topsoil replaced with clean dirt and reseeded. This could cost half a million dollars. But the wells are still producing. And the surface owner is bankrupt.

The State Land Office, owner of the mineral estate, has no jurisdiction and no complaint so long as royalties continue apace. The State Environment Department, by statute, has limited authority in oil and gas country. I come home, write my report, and all is forgotten.

This part of New Mexico is cut open with roads, well pads and pipelines—every day the ground disturbance and fragmentation increases. What feral beauty this ecosystem may have had as desert scrubland, richly diverse in grasses and forbs, is now dominated with mesquite and noxious weeds and dust. It is never quiet and never dark. And there are spills of one sort or another everywhere—toxic material soaking into the sands, into ground water, slowly flowing toward the Pecos, toward Texas and Mexico.

It will take many years to rebuild the soils and to regain historic species diversity. It will take centuries for evidence of the tanks and power-lines, for the oil and salt spills, the roads, the holes in the ground and the waters to heal themselves completely, to lose this memory of us.

We are at the edges of an unraveling.

I feel compelled to report. As if in the act of telling, I might find a certain objectivity, an analytic clarity. As if measurement might afford an amelioration.

But I am no journalist and my first impulse is a frenetic act of panic:
Who’s responsible? Can it be fixed? What can I do?
I hate this. It’s not my fault. There are limits to language.
I can’t say what I mean. I feel very small.
We should light fires, scour, run away.
I am not from here. Run away! Run away!
What have we become? What have we done?
I don’t know how to speak.

Then I think I should make a list. If I were a journalist, it seems to me, this story would require fact-finding, interviews, documentation, analysis. It would become a linear thing, an exposé. And it would lead to a certain understanding, an outrage, a call-to-action. But I feel dishonest. I can’t find my way to it. I don’t have the analytic discipline. Or the time. And, it feels like there is something else here, something else that needs to be said, something hidden or missing.

So I cast about for what is underneath. I am struck by the salt crusted against the steel tank, crystalized and accumulating in a sort of travertine-like layer where the metal meets the ground, and by the wind, and the water whipped off the top, not casual, but insistent and violent, repetitive, like a reminder, like a stuttered call, and by the bare ground, its blank empty look, disembodied, beaten.

In the end, I have a broken story and no poem. There is no conclusion, no resolve. No explanation. Building this scene feels pointless, except that I have a great desire, for some reason, to show you what I have seen. Because I want it to stop.

There are certain things that American poets are not supposed to write about. As Carolyn Forché says, “there has been an unspoken proscription against subjects having to do with politics, political involvement, and contemporary events…” She explains, “the accusation about political poetry is that it is overburdened by its intentionality.”

I too feel this inhibition, and it takes the shape of near-revulsion and avoidance. To me the place is ugly and violent and stands against everything my body tells me is right. I do not want to go into this toxic place. I don’t want to write about it. I don’t want to make horrible ugly political poems. Is it personal? A sense of shame, an unwillingness to impose my opinion or assume that I know what is true? Is there a question of privilege that limits my capacity to address the political? —because, if I want to, I can drive away and never look back? Or, is there some other trauma here, some tight-lipped historical extremity to the English language that impacts my American frame of mind? Or, is it simply an aversion to the wasteland that I oversee? The work that pays my living often leaves me speechless. Am I afraid to lose my job? Is political silence intrinsic to poetry? Forché says, “We have to think about what has happened to us that we are wary in this way.”

I agree. If I could understand better the reasons for my avoidance, I might be more able to look it in the eye. The notion of being “overburdened by intentionality” is helpful. What Forché means, I think, is that poetic language works best when it feels given, not made, when it is unforced, even accidental. The best poems and stories tell themselves. The writer stands out of the way, allows the work, seemingly, to arrive of its own accord, rising from the deep. Apart from whatever personal drama I may bring to the avoidance of political speech, I also have an aversion for poems that feel like they try too hard.

Forché says, “when I write, I don’t imagine writing about a certain thing. I sit and I wait, and maybe an image or a sound or a line for the poem comes. I work, and I revise a great deal. But I can’t initiate a poem about a certain subject… I can’t sit down to write poetry deliberately, consciously, or intentionally.”

This is how I compose as well, by waiting and listening. As such, there is a kind of methodological difference between the intentional reporting of a chosen subject, a journalistic approach, and the more or less unconscious appearance of a poem. If the desire to write about a particular subject is strong, it may be harder to open the doorway to the unconscious and the poem may arrive “overburdened with intentionality.”

Still, this doesn’t mean that we should avoid political speech entirely. There is something here that can only be said through poetic language. Now more than ever, isn’t it time to bring all of our skills as poets to bear on subject matter that might otherwise be handled only by journalists? Isn’t there some lesson in the fact that Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Peace prize? Whatever you think of Dylan’s work, it is clear that poetic language matters to the body politic, and can make a difference in the world. Isn’t it time to look closely at our own wariness? Like everyone else, we are witness to the collective condition. Isn’t it time to bear witness?

I mean this for myself. I mean, if I can turn my attention away from the left-brain impulse to report every fact, to manipulate what I see in order to make a certain point…poems can tell us things that news articles cannot.

Paul Celan defines attention “as the natural prayer of the soul.” It is a kind of gaze that opens, an address toward the numinous. What I want is to bring the poet’s attention, not ideology or analysis, but that personal awareness, that sudden sparkling comprehension, to the political conversation. It is indeed a kind of witness at a deeper level: not necessarily logical or even visible, but arising out of the personal, the felt sense of the world.

In Economy of the Unlost, Anne Carson writes: “There is one thing a poem can do that a painting cannot…namely, render the invisible.” Italo Calvino explains it like this: “Words connect the visible track to the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a fragile makeshift bridge cast across the void.”

Carson says that the poetic act leads “right to the edge of ordinary babble, where words stop and point beyond themselves, to the place where metaphor waits and naming occurs.”

The poet’s task is to say what is un-sayable, to cast bridges across the void, and “to uncover the world of metaphor that lies inside all our ordinary speech like a mind asleep.” So we can know what we need to know. So we can name what we have forgotten and what is missing.

Come to this place with me. It is riven and undone by human work. Our work. But we need to explore the extremity, its impact on our speech, our ways of living, our land. We need to look directly at the thing itself, to witness, and to go in as we would any other kind of intimate address.

I cannot lay out all the circumstances that have caused this injury, or elucidate who is to blame, or how to remedy the hurt, but I can try to witness, and I can use my art to help us find a new way to see, a new way forward.

There is a moment in the writing of a poem, a moment of surprise, when the poem by itself discovers what it means to say. And there, it points toward the unspeakable, numinous. In this brave new world, we need these discoveries to help us find our way. We need this prayerful attention. We need poets.

Here are the pieces of a small, unremarkable story. A poetic failure overburdened now with intentionality. But also, this is a call for help. To share and to bear witness, together. I think, dear poets, we cannot shy away any longer. There are, of course, many examples of poets writing their way through this silent proscription against political speech, writing astonishing poems: Claudia Rankine, Sawnie Morris, Tyehimba Jess, Veronica Golos, Cyrus Cassells, Layli Long Soldier, to name only a few. Read them. Share them. Imitate.

I have no poem, but I am haunted by the image of water spraying, again and again, off the top of a huge, black, rusted tank. How it catches the light, glitters. Like sea foam blown back. We are standing in the shadows of a great stationary steel wave. There is poison in it. But it is also full of water. It is also sunlight, caught, reflected, brilliant. Our sunlight. Our sun. Resident in a beautiful, cold, blue sky.


Calvino, I. Six Memos for the Next Millennium, © 1988, English translation by Geoffrey Brock, First Mariner Books, 2016.

Carson, A. Economy of the Unlost, Princeton University Press, 1999.

deNiord, C. “An Inexhaustible Responsibility for the Other”: A Conversation with Carolyn Forché http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2017/january/inexhaustible-responsibility-other-conversation-carolyn-forche-part-1-3-chard-deniord

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