For Clyde and Anna Lee

 

2017

All their lives, my great grandparents worked a small, family dairy farm in southern Ohio. In one of their barns, there was an underground room which only barely contained the object at its center: a massive, rectangular, steel tank with an exceptionally unpoetic name: bulk milk cooling tank.

Once in the morning and once in the evening of every day, my grandfather cooed out across the land and the cows came in from the fields to be milked. As the milk left each body, it flowed though clear plastic tubes to empty out into this cavernous tank. The tank had a large lid that, when lifted, would reveal hundreds of gallons of milk. The milk was always swirling, unendingly. There was a large metal apparatus in the middle of the tank called the agitator. The agitator spun in circles, working with refrigeration to keep the milk fresh while it waited to be pasteurized.

As a child, I often took breaks from playing and exploring the farm to visit the milk tank. I would lift the heavy lid and, on tip-toes, stare down into the milk. I remember it sharply: the shiny metal, cool to the touch, the earthy, sweet smell of the milk, and the way that it looked swirling, white, hypnotic. A vivid, sensorial experience. Hard to look away from. Within the tank, there was a contained "other world," the swirling milk and its waiting and ongoingness because of and in spite of the rest of the farm. Staring at it felt like witnessing another layer of time somewhere underneath the movement of my normal reality.

When my great grandparents eventually died, the farm did too, ending generations of our family’s farming tradition in southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky. 

The first taste to touch your tongue. Life rushing in. Sustenance and abundance. Freely flowing in the promised land of Canaan, but also fleeting. A material bound to time and its effects. Like with memory, an effort to eternally preserve it finds a futile task.

milk, salt, dirt, water, sand, plants / light, time, language / materiality and process  

origin and place, memory and labor, stewardship and nurture, elegy

How does one speak of gratitude? In my case, I don’t feel able. Through tactile and cerebral investigations of elemental materials, I explore my feelings of longing, alienation, and displacement

The room is dark except for two sources of cool light. One is a light bulb hanging from a makeshift pinewood rig over top a large steel tank. The other is a light box. The tank is a galvanized steel livestock tank sitting on top of cinder blocks. Resting over the rim of the tank is a makeshift metal armature holding an aluminum motor that is running at a low hum. The motor is spinning a gear attached to a steel paddle that descends into the tank. The paddle is slowly stirring the milk inside the tank.

a machine about a memory of a machine

The light box, also made of pine, displays five pieces of paper with cursive handwriting and drawings scrawled across them, all stained and yellowed with age.

You were painting the fence when I arrived / a sparkling wet layer of bright white / on top of another layer only slightly less-white white / how do you see where you have already been / a thought interrupted 

a kind smile / you lean down / balance a paint brush on top of the bucket / we leave it there / I follow you  

you disappear in an old barn / you come back / walking slow / leaning on your cane with one hand 

a tangle of rusted metal in the other hand / you lift the tools toward me / offering / I peer at them 

embarrassed / you lean your cane against your hip / steady yourself / pick at the rust on the tools

mumble some words / I don't hear / embarrassed again / I follow you down stone steps / a room under the earth

more tools / this time I help you / each of us gathering / shafts tubes hoses / ungainly overflowing in our arms alien deep ocean tentacles / light glinting off metal / thick black rubber / we drop them into a plastic tub  

you pick up a sponge / hand me a brush with tough bristles / we scrub the tools / very slow / soap and hot water

I hear you / a sigh / slow / not sadness / a sister to sadness / I awkwardly manage the silver mass in my arms follow you into another room / hoses unravel / find their place / we are back above ground  

you began to coo softly / the cows hear you / they come slow / across the field down to the loafing shed

so ordered / a ritual agreed upon among them / two at a time / they meet us underground

you scoop sweet molasses grain into buckets / heat radiating from round bodies / tubes turn white with milk

INSTRUCTIONS:

Lift your arm / Let it rest on the line of the horizon

Lie down on your stomach in the dry dirt / Breathe out from your mouth

Watch the dust float toward the sky / Feel it settle back onto your skin

Ask yourself / Where did the body that I came from, come from?

Wait for the rain to come at night / At dawn walk barefoot in the mud

 

Warm each seed between your fingers before you cover it with cool wet earth

Ask yourself / What have I inherited?

Let the milk swirl in your mind / thick and raw not stopping

Remember the first time you tasted it

Ask yourself / What have we lost?

Grow salt crystals over everything / Preserve the world

Speak your words into the ocean / Float in salt crystal sound

© Hillary Wagner 2019