Poem: Boustrophedon

This poem, from Julia Kasdorf's Eve's Striptease (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), was written for Warren Rohrer. In an ironic twist, the poet (Julia) learned this Greek literary term from the visual artist (Warren), who was obsessed with it.

Julia comments: I wrote the poem after learning the word from Warren’s mouth the day when Lois’s creativity group met at Locks Gallery. I wrote it FOR Warren and mailed it to him. He wrote me a letter in return in which he pointed out the sestina structure, literally mapped it out in lists of numbers. He didn’t realize I’d used a standard European form, but wanted me to see that he recognized what I’d done structurally. Now that I see his notebooks, which are in a case at the Penn State exhibition, I realize that he meticulously mapped out plans for his paintings. They might look spontaneous, but they’re highly engineered. Anyway, he also said that they didn’t really “move to the city” [for art] as the poem states because his career flourished on the Christiana farm. (Earlier, of course, he and Jane lived in the Philly suburbs.) That detail was as much about my life as his, and this biographical sketch helped me to make a map for myself, I now realize. When the Allentown Museum hosted an exhibition of Warren’s work in 2016, they asked me to offer a little talk about Jane’s poetry, and I suppose that’s what got me reading her work carefully. When I showed up at the exhibition, there was a chunk of “Boustrophedon" on the wall. It blew me away. That may be what gave me the idea to put Jane’s poems on the wall with Warren’s paintings.

An ancient mode of writing in which lines run alternately from right
to left and from left to right. Greek: as the ox turns (in plowing).

A little boy walks behind the plow
picking up stones in a field.
He drops them onto a pile
at the end of the row.
One day these stones will make
a home for his soul. He doesn't know

this yet. How can he know
the meaning of all that the plow
inscribes: that he'll grow to make
a life from this field,
that its meanings will pile
like paint, which he'll stroke in rows,

each dab a seed in a furrow?
He'll have to leave to finally know
all that's concealed in this pile
of limestones. Rocks struck open by the plow
reveal the spiral fossils of the field.
Maybe whatever anyone can make

of himself was already made
long ago, order and disorder set in the rows
of a double helix. Settlers clearing fields
often spared single oaks, though they knew
whoever followed would have to plow
around them. Saved from the woodpile,

the trees grow elegant alone and drop piles
of acorns into the troughs that furrows make.
Some sprout, but the certain plow
turns saplings under as it carves rows
for corn. In winter, stubble slants in snow
like runes scrawled across the field.

A farmer's son who takes canvas for his field
aches to become an artist, compiles
another family, moves to a city. No
one back home sees or knows what he makes:
the way light shifts on those scarred rows
of pigment, though he paints as they plow.

It only takes one person plowing a row
to make a field, then others can follow
knowing they aren't the first or alone.

"Boustrophedon" from Eve's Striptease by Julia Kasdorf, c 1998. All rights are controlled by the University of Pitts burgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press

About the Author

Julia Spicher Kasdorf

Julia Spicher Kasdorf is author of Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields, a documentary collaboration with Steven Rubin published in 2018 by Penn State Press. Her other books of poetry--Sleeping Preacher, Eve’s Striptease, and Poetry in America--have received the Agnus Lynch Starrett Prize, The Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Writing, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches poetry writing at The Pennsylvania State University. With Steven Rubin, she is currently working on Home Place, a documentary project that involves listening to the experiences of farmers who live and work within 30 miles of her home in Bellefonte, PA.