Richie Hofmann’s "Field in Ohio"

Thoughts on finality.

Field in Ohio

Not yet dusk and already
a smell like fermented honey as flies
slowly light up in the unmowed grass. It looks
like we're in a midwestern field, but it's really a midwestern field
for eco-friendly burials. I think I would be happy with life and death here: no one
calls me; there is one bar to drink at, where my usual
is a champagne split for one. Other people have babies. Teens grow
into their kissing skins, while mothers and fathers refuse
to clean the rooms where they sleep,
fornicate, and read. I follow you
into the field. We've been waiting all day
for the lightning to come down.
I wish we were in love
so we might experience it as lovers.

first published in The Cortland Review, 2019

I adore this poem. I think the first thought I had upon finishing this poem was how Michael Ondaatje called William Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow “a novel in perfect miniature.” That might be a misquote. But it’s how I felt when reading this. That it felt so self-contained in its perfection.

It’s hard, too, not to think of James Wright. There’s the Ohio reference, and the lyricism of each line progressing toward some ultimate, near-final conclusion. Just as Wright ended a poem with “I have wasted my life,” this poem, too, ends with something so final, so devastating, so gorgeous, that it sears the poem into a kind of completion.

This poem compresses time down to a single, distilled instant. I mean, look at how the poem begins: “Not yet…”

It’s a remarkable way to begin a poem, as it acknowledges what could be, or what will be, before the poem ever begins. In some way, then, the poem does not actually begin in a moment, but begins in the idea, or the refutation, of what the moment could become. But yes, part of the beauty of writing is that you have the power to slow down, or even stop time. This poem freezes time into the present tense, a moment where the mind of the speaker is allowed and given space to wander, make connections, and then return.

This cessation of time allows for some of my favorite lines in this poem to occur. The speaker is standing not in “a midwestern field,” but rather in “a midwestern field / for eco-friendly burials.” Here, the kind of generic trope that so often exists in the pastoral is contextualized, made both stark and almost humorous. The two people are in a field, but not just any typical, generic field. Rather, they are in graveyard, but not some typical, generic graveyard. Rather, they are in a graveyard that signals the movements and demands of this age. This awareness on the part of the speaker casts everything that follows into a kind of relief. There is the usual champagne, the babies, the demands of life, the reluctance, the frustration, the mundanity, the ordinariness. All of these details sit against the weight of the bodies in the field, each of them slowly, without fail, becoming part of the earth again.

If the poem took place in a graveyard, it would refuse the notion of continuity. A graveyard is a stubborn thing. The coffins resist the movement of the earth against them, and protect the relics of a life that exist (or don’t) inside of them. Here, though, life is part of the same process as death. As things age, they return to the earth. The field in this poem is also the bar, is also the home. I find that beautiful. The poem would not be the same if it were just a field, if it were only a graveyard. In this way, the poem resists so much, whether the trappings of society or the trappings of something typically pastoral. It wants what it both can and cannot have.

Whenever I read this, I am struck by the lines:

We've been waiting all day
for the lightning to come down.

They make me think of Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, a famed work of land art in New Mexico. There, in that field, poles are arranged in a grid, and visitors can walk among them, waiting or not waiting, experiencing or not experiencing, lightning. It’s a beautiful idea — that you can walk out into a field and beg for electricity, await the spark of something that might feel supernatural. Something that feels like love. It might come. It might not. But the field is primed for its arrival. In what way is this poem playing with that notion? Subverting it? Will the lightning come? Will it not? Does it matter at all?

I’m perpetually astounded by all the work this poem does in such a short amount of time. Already, the dichotomy is set up between expectation and reality. Already, this poem is a poem of simple desire. Already, this poem is a poem of waiting. Already, this poem is a poem of hope, of false hope, of reluctance. Sometimes I think of the choice of the words “I think” in the phrase “I think I would be happy with life and death here.” In that hesitance is a deep humanness. There is no real certainty other than “life and death.” Where will the speaker find life? Death? What does it look like anywhere? What does it look like here? That reluctance conveyed by the words “I think” gives the poem an utter honesty that pushes toward sorrow. I see the speaker realizing the bodies in the field, noticing the fact of their decomposition, and wanting (or perhaps feeling compelled) to fashion that narrative onto life above ground. The simplicity of it. The kindness of that simplicity. It feels so human. And honest. To exist and return, to return and exist.

But nothing utterly wrecks me more than the final two lines:

I wish we were in love
so we might experience it as lovers.

I count these lines of poetry among so many of my favorites. They do that completely indescribable work of transcending a series of lines, observations, and feelings into a poem. When you read these lines, everything is changed. Not just the relationship of the speaker to the other character in the poem, but also the relationship of the speaker to their feelings, to the world at large, to the field in front of them. In that I wish — more so than the I think — is desire, regret, failure, loss, want, love, hope, and all else. There is also finality. In the I wish, there is also implied the fact of what is not. There is not love. They are not lovers. The experience will not be the same. They will go to the lightning fields for lightning, and there will be no lightning. Or they will go to the lightning fields for lightning, but they will not be as moved as they are supposed to be.

So many of my favorite poems resist finality. But this one does not. Finality is a risk, just as wonder is, just as openness is. This is a poem that takes the risk of expressing what is final. When some poems say, this is what we could be, this poem says, this is what we are not. Finality is, in many ways, the most utter form of honesty. And because of this, this poem becomes utterly heartbreaking. I turn to it again and again for this example it sets. It thinks some things. It wishes for others. It waits for even more. But in the end, it still knows some things for certain.

Sometimes I wonder: when does my life feel my own? I think this poem asks some related question. It wants so much of what is not its own life. And by expressing this want, the poem expresses — even in the absence of a moment — the moments that make us hold life close. When the lightning strikes. When the love is there. Even in love’s absence, this poem is a poem about love. How beautiful is that?