Potatoes in Ontario

We’re in the middle of a writing week in the Eastern Sierra Mountains right now. Our camp is gorgeous, sandwiched between the highest mountains in the lower 48 and overlooking a valley of granite pillars that look like great climbing.

Our first assignment was to write a poem inspired by Richard Hugo’s Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg. We were supposed to take a town we’d driven through and write based on what we saw, inventing stories from a thirty-second glance. So, here you go:

Potatoes in Ontario

Potatoes move through here like the river
before it dried up and farmers found
themselves buying onions in the
gas station parking lot. Those tracks come from
Idaho, where thirty years ago
potatoes sold with pride at the local
farmer’s market. They board a train west
mixed into freight cars with the dreams of
migrant brown hands and a young boy dropping
coins into his piggybank to someday buy a tractor.

Haven’t you eaten these potatoes? Sliced
deep-fried packaged frozen in the plant
at the other end of the rail line. Can’t you taste
the desperation in them, the girl working
graveyard terrified of mailboxes, letters
from the Army and all she’s ever wanted
is to wear her grandmother’s white dress.
Do you remember the days before
food meant smokestacks, Hazmat vans parked outside?

The river used to know, the farms dried up
too. The only restaurant in town
serves stale toast with three kinds of jam made
from Iowa corn. Pregnant women
are advised not to drink the water.
The only chef is old and the only
dish he remembers is regret served
with a side of potatoes.

It’s inspired by Ontario, Oregon, which has a single Ore-Ida plant and not much else. I’ve driven through there three of four times, and every time I do, I start inventing people and life stories that revolve around that plant. So it was nice to get some of that on paper. More writings to come…we’re doing our first epiphanies this week as well.

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