Taylor Brorby is outspoken when it comes to the devastation of land in the Great Plains. To voice the issues he is most concerned about, he wrote a book of poetry called Crude. Brorby is a fellow at the Black Earth Institute, which defines itself as a “progressive think-tank dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society." He also educates people around the country by speaking about fracking.
Drilling for oil is key in these selections. For example, Brorby refers to pump jacks in half a dozen poems, and he pens a poetic description of the mechanism in the appropriately titled “Pump Jack”:
You plant your feet firm into soil
cock your head back in wild delight
as you plunge and pull crude
from deep within earth’s sacred core.
Brorby’s convictions are obvious when he writes this appeal in “Prairie”:
[ . . . ] Do not drill,
rip, scrape where water ebbs along
muddy river banks where
prairie wheat tosses the sun
like a copper coin.”
But that’s not the only subject in these poems. Two of his best convey other issues that concern him. “Killdeer Mountain” leads off with:
A tattered American flag flaps in afternoon
sun, faded, as dry corn stalks crackle beyond
the Killdeer Battlefield. Here, General Sully
ambushed the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota.
Children screamed, mothers fell like cut
“Joy” evokes a different emotion: “Pick juneberries on ridges of earthen valleys pickle / tomatoes into jars where the smell of sage stings / nostrils, where oceans of clover shock senses [ . . . ].” He continues:
Good does outweigh bad, refashioning
of tamaracks in golden splendor turn greed green
with envy to dream in the bleak black darkness
of a shifting planet.
One image that returns again and again in his pieces is the geological feature buttes. Brorby doesn’t mince words in “Question for a Butte”:
What is it like
to be slashed, to have
your throat slit, to bleed
rock from your veins of coal?
Among other instances, there’s “Camel Hump Butte,” “Climbing Buttes,” and “Pretty Butte,” which reads:
I don’t want to climb you.
You look like a bitch—
steep and intimidating,
like a woman who paints
her lips red just to titillate
the boys in the bar.
His frequent use of the word skin appears throughout the book, including these lines from “Pretty Butte,” which personify the geography:
me in with thorny charm.
So I climb, rip at your skin.
Like a lover, I pull at sage
and sweet clover, a beau
ripping your head back
In “White Earth Valley,” I read, “Does your surface / crack like dry skin, break when pulled too / taut [ . . . ],” further humanizing the land.
I found some of Brorby’s strongest work in the final section of Crude. In “River” he personifies the river, a trend in his work:
Do you quiver
when I touch your skin?
Gush as I wet your hair?
Everything you have built
I will break.
Then, taking a more personal viewpoint in one of his longer poems, he addresses “the Captains of Industry”:
For selling out for the quick profit,
convenience, and short-term gain,
[ . . . ] May you be
skinned alive and set upon
rough-barked scaffold so the hawks
and brown-toned mice may nibble
at your greenback carcasses.”
He has equally tough sentiments for government officials, then offers words of apology to Native Americans: “Learned that my ancestors settled— / or so we thought—the prairie [ . . . ] the way / of life forever changed, altered, broken.” And finally, these words of warning for future generations:
I knew better, and so did everyone else. We ate greasy
potato chips, watched reality television, while
extinction, desecration, slipped in.
Brorby is a man with a purpose and a message. Perhaps, with this book, his poems will reach those who haven’t been exposed to his words in other mediums. Crude is definitely a different kind of poetry book, and Brorby comes at his subjects from several angles. In fact, two of his poems, “Little Missouri” and “White Earth Valley” have sequels.
The result of his efforts is a book worth reading for a poetic education into the history and current status of the Great Plains region and a glimpse of Taylor Brorby’s passion.