Migrant Mother, 1936

She was drawn as if by “instinct,
not reason,” had seen the sign,
PEA PICKERS CAMP, had driven on,
the road slick, but something
called her back. She had
to turn around, to find the woman
sitting on a box, huddled
in a tarp open as if waiting
always for Dorothea Lange.
“I drove into that wet and soggy
camp and parked my car
like a homing pigeon.”She asked
no questions, moved in silence
with the lens. The woman told her
she was thirty-two, had come
from the Dust Bowl. “She and the children
had been living on frozen vegetables
from the field and wild birds
the children caught.” They had sold
all that would buy food, their tires,
did not know if they could ever leave.
She nursed the baby at her breast,
revealed the madonna, lover, mother,
pale half-moon pressed against the head.
The hungry lens looked equally upon
the lantern, tin pie-pan, hacked pole
that held the half tent up.
The dirty baby lay as if he’d drunk
the milk of death. The older two
leaned sadly on their mother,
their clothing made of gunnysacks
or else the linen of Christ’s shroud.
Dorothea took no names, and said no thanks,
nor handed bread across,
nor joked until those ancient children laughed.
But she put her ten eternal minutes in
and called it work, before the dark rain fell.
-David Ray