Badlands

Your father worked Drumheller while you ate and slept at home.

He travelled the badlands, squatted below rocks, read books

you never knew he read. He sat until his eyes strained to know

what the prairie insisted he must see. Once he found a hoodoo,

toppled after centuries of reaching beyond the flattened earth

we all become and remembering that, once, it was a mountain.

He stripped naked and coated himself with spit and dirt,

arched his back into the rocks and let his speckled shoulders

fade under mud, until his whole body became that colour.

When he dressed himself again, jeans over earth-caked legs,

he walked back to the lease, and danced and prayed for the well to flow.

Your father worked Drumheller while you ate and slept at home,

he stalked the badlands with his shotgun and a pack of smokes.

Matthew Henderson, “Badlands,” from The Lease. Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Henderson. Reprinted by permission of Coach House Books.

Source: The Lease (Coach House Books, 2012)

Dive in: 
  1. What perspective does the poet use to write this sketch of a father and son? For example, is it in the first person, second person, or third person? What does this choice suggest about the relationship between the two characters in the poem?
  2. How does the poet achieve a sense of intimacy and understanding across distance and time? How does imagery and sensory detail help us understand the character of the father?
  3. What does the father do for a living? What are the tensions between the father’s physical body, his work, and the landscape? What else do we learn about the father?
  4. What do we know about the son?
  5. If you were reciting this poem, what tone would you use — calm? reverent? conversational? — and where would you shift that tone slightly?
  6. Write a short poem about one of your parents, imagining a scene (maybe taken from a story he or she told you) as if you are there invisibly watching him or her. Where does it take place? Try to be as objective as possible, to see your parent as a person separate from your relationship to him or her. Use the third person.

Useful Links

Mathew Henderson worked in the oil fields — listen to this interview podcast with him here: https://beta.prx.org/stories/110257

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