at Length

The Begotten

—James McMichael

An excerpt from “The Begotten,” by James McMichael

Across a straggle of
waste and upland holdings,
it was the one food. Potatoes gave them

bone and sinew cheap. So

peopled did they let it be
that heritable plots kept being halved.
Marriage was to the ground.
The young were often not

seen by one another until
joined in their match.
So they could live with someone they chose,
daughters engineered their own abductions.
Landless sons were either

buried so, or they left.
Among the still unwed there were no longer

strips to share out.
Land promised that when
dug for and hale
its bulbs could be fit wards for
some few only

only for a time.
Digging was in the fall.
With the stock of them

low by late summer,
the aftermost were taken

raw nearly.
This slowed their transfer through the body.
It let them last.
Of too little

bulk, still, were the new ones, covered one by

one in their strips.
They were looked to with the more

care this time. Each plant had
fastened to it by airborne
spores at their tips
a down of long threadlike fibers.
Those would not whisk away.

That the infestation was theirs was all

one to the plants.
Their leaves turned black.
They withered.
When loosed by

hand at last from under their
inches-of-soil lid,
the potatoes were black too. Their skins

scraped at
made the tissue inside
collapse to a pulp. There was no
drying them out that they might be food.

Some foraged
inland for awhile on
cresses, herbs, wild cabbage,
young furze.

Put off their plots by bailiffs,
some cornered

cattle where they could and bled them.
Plover and
grouse were caught,

as on the ground of the estates

in thickets, bramble-covered
mantraps caught the ones who poached.
Itinerants at the shores took sand-eel,
periwinkle, dulse and limpet.
Ropes lowered them to the cliffs for

seabirds’ eggs. They tramped for fluke.
There were no

songs for these labors.
Songs in the fields were for acts that hearten,
acts that daily

lend the songs cause. Depleting

daily what fed them,
they were not tilling,
not reaping.
With nothing to grow it in,

there was nothing to grow.

“The Begotten” originally appeared in its entirety in the print version of At Length, which no longer exists. To read the whole poem, check out James McMichael’s Capacity—a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006. To make sure you don’t miss future poems from At Length, please sign up for our RSS feed or email list.