Newsletter Issue #85 August, 2018

Newsletter Issue #85 August, 2018
August 3, 2018 Plume

Readers:  Welcome to PlumeIssue 85

August: and something of an ending in the air – not yet of summer, but of the freedom so many of us, as teachers of one stripe or another, feel now. Yes, the calendar does not always align with our lives, or even rhyme with it. Such is one instruction I take from many of the poems in this issue, and in particular our “secret poem” this month. Another might be found there too: that sudden sorrows are withstood, if at all, by the invisible, often unconscious work of a sort of psychic mithridatism. And so, as I bear this in mind, before the news of the day, we turn to Sandy Solomon’s subtle, astute inspection of Ellen Bryant Voight’s “The Farmer.”

On “The Farmer” by Ellen Bryant Voigt

I should say at the outset that Ellen Bryant Voigt was my teacher; she taught me, as she has taught so many poets, both students and colleagues, over the years (her fierce love of poetry and of talking and thinking about poetry have been a tonic to many of us). Moreover, in my inner ear as I read many of her poems today is the musical sound of her voice as she reads them aloud. So I am lucky to have had that head start at loving Voigt’s own writing.

A poet who favors the lyrical turn, she nonetheless has grounded many of her poems in narrative—her early poems often containing stories set in rural Virginia where she grew up, stories about her parents and her childhood there, and her later poems often turning on her own family and her place in Vermont. From my first hearing of “The Farmer” (it later appeared in The Lotus Flowers in 1987), I liked the poem, rooted as it is in that Virginia countryside (though it could be set in almost any farming landscape).

The Farmer

In the still-blistering late afternoon,
like currying a horse the rake
circled the meadow, the cut grass ridging
behind it. This summer, if the weather held,
he’d risk a second harvest after years
of reinvesting, leaving fallow.
These fields were why he farmed—
he walked the fenceline like a man in love.
The animals were merely what he needed:

cattle and pigs; chickens for awhile; a drayhorse,
saddlehorses he was paid to pasture—
an endless stupid round
of animals, one of them always hungry, sick, lost,
calving or farrowing, or waiting slaughter.

When the field began dissolving in the dusk,
he carried feed down to the knoll,
its clump of pines, gate, trough, lick, chute
and two gray hives; leaned into the Jersey’s side
as the galvanized bucket filled with milk;
released the cow and turned to the bees.
He’d taken honey before without protection.
This time, they could smell something
in his sweat—fatigue? impatience,
although he was stubborn, patient man?
Suddenly, like flame, they were swarming over him.

He rolled in the dirt, manure and stiff hoof-prints,
started back up the path, rolled in the fresh hay—
refused to run, which would have pumped
the venom through him faster—passed the oaks
at the yard’s edge, rolled in the yard, reached
the kitchen, and when he tore off his clothes
crushed bees dropped from him like scabs.

For a week he lay in the darkened bedroom.
The doctor stopped by twice a day—
the hundred stings “enough to kill an ox,
enough to kill a younger man.” What saved him
were the years of smaller doses—
like minor disappointments,
instructive poison, something he could use.

The poem begins in the field with the farm equipment as the subject, the human subsumed in his enterprise: the rake sweeps across the field to accumulate hay the way currying gathers horse hair. From that long shot, the poem then moves in to focus on the farmer, who plans and acts, who loves the fields and puts up with the rest: “an endless stupid round/ of animals.”

The poem proceeds through lists that convey the burden and complexity of the many tasks the farmer takes on each day (the farmer like the rake moving around his farm) and the detail to which he must turn his attention. Two lists in particular stress the creatures to which he must attend: “cattle and pigs; chickens for awhile; a drayhorse,/saddle horses he was paid to pasture” and the problems those animals presented: “one of them always hungry, sick, lost/calving or farrowing, or waiting slaughter.” Then the poem moves with the farmer “down to the knoll,/its clump of pines, gate, trough, lick, chute/and two gray hives.…”

If the first set of lists concern the farmer’s every day work (nouns, adjectives); the second (verbs) concerns what the farmer does on one extraordinary occasion.

That second list begins in the daily routine through which the extraordinary will break. In the first stanza, the poem introduces verbs attached to the farmer: “he farmed,” “he walked,” “he needed.” Then, as the poem steps out of the ordinary, the list in the second stanza begins: “he carried,” and, dispensing with the pronoun “he” and moving faster, the list becomes all verb: “released,””leaned,””turned.” The poem will seem to repeat this progression from “he rolled” to “started,” “rolled,” “refused,” “passed,” “rolled,” and “reached.” Until “he tore off his clothes/crushed bees dropped from him like scabs.” Here the past tense verbs are merging with the adjectives, “crushed” and “dropped,” which modify the bees, but for a brief minute attach themselves to the farmer’s actions. And indeed his weight has crushed the bees and he presumably will be dropping to the floor. The bees have become incorporated with the farmer through this momentary confusion.

As has the bee’s venom. The final stanza pulls away from the swarming to its aftereffects and then, almost inevitably, to its lessons. In three sentences, we have first, the farmer down, in bed, in a darkened room, for a long week (“he lay”). Here only, the length of a sentence coincides with the length of a single line, which emphasizes the sense of action curtailed. And then we have the doctor (the only other person in the poem) and his testimony about the incident. Finally, we have the lesson: in which the farmer reappears, as if rising to his work again in the final clause: “he could use.”

And the poem offers its own testimony: first, about the character of this farmer, whom we see close up, usually “a stubborn, patient man” who loves his fields (“he walked the fenceline like a man in love’) and who, the reader can conclude, values the useful; and secondly, through the final metaphor—about how many small, survivable daily insults and obligations can inoculate against greater difficulty, against life-threatening challenges.   I rather like that lesson. And who wouldn’t, facing as we all do small daily tasks that, by overwhelming who we are, take us away from our very selves?

I won’t talk here about the poem’s music, its assonance and consonance, the way it sings, but I do want to take a look also at one way the poem’s metric structure supports its meaning. The lines in this free-verse poem tend to be four to five stresses in length, except for a few places where the lines either shrink or expand in ways that serve the feeling the poem engenders. The three-beat lines mark places where the farmer comes up short: “an endless, stupid round,” and “in his sweat—fatigue, impatience,” and two lines towards the poem’s conclusion:

were the years of smaller doses—
like minor disappointments,

In other lines—list lines—the metric beat increases to six or seven beats, so that the reader may subconsciously note through the spondees a swelling sense of too much (too much coming at the farmer: too much to do, too much to think about): “of animals, one of them always hungry, sick, lost,” and “its clump of pines, gate, trough, lick, chute,” and “and two gray hives; leaned into the Jersey’s side.” This too-muchness culminates in the swarming; here, as the poem moves into its list of verbs, we get a sense of another kind of too much coming at us, that swarm of bees:

He rolled in the dirt, manure and stiff hoof-prints,
started back up the path, rolled in the fresh hay—

Finally, we learn one more thing, I think, through the poem’s action and its form: that what saves us is not only what we learn to withstand or resist, but also what we love. Those swelling lines describe the land the farmer loves, the land against which he moves, in which he literally buries his body. And the final line—though formally in iambic pentameter, ending /˘/ (“he could use”)—acquires for me more resonance: the “could” has a slightly stronger sentence stress, moving towards but not quite achieving a final spondee.  In any case, helped by the two preceding three-stressed lines, I read that last line as fuller, as signaling an immanent feeling of abundance.

We understand that the farmer will survive through this final line, with its exquisite “instructive poison” and with the notion of use. What’s more, because of the way the poem ends on the word “use” (with that long vowel sound indicating pleasure), I imagine, though the poem nowhere says so, the farmer rising to resume his life’s work. For me, this poem acquires the resonance of a folktale, seemingly fixed in a particular place and yet escaping the boundaries of time and place as it moves towards its resurrection.

Ellen Bryant Voight’s most recent collections include Headwaters (2013), Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, and Shadow of Heaven (2002). She was a founder of the Goddard College low-residency MFA program, the first MFA program of its kind, and has also taught at Iowa Wesleyan College and MIT. She served as poet laureate of Vermont for four years. She has received grants from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, and in 2015 she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship.

Sandy Solomon’s book of poems, Pears, Lake, Sun, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett award and was published in late 1996. Individual poems have appeared in various national magazines, among them, The New YorkerThe New RepublicThe Threepenny ReviewThe Gettysburg Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review. Garrison Keillor has featured a poem on his radio program, The Writer’s Almanac, and several poems have been included in anthologies.

And now to that news —

Upcoming, we will schedule a number of readings in the fall and spring as we continue promoting the print anthology, Plume Poetry 6. Dates/times announced in the not too distant.  Many thanks to Marc Vincenz for designing the cover and to Maurice Manning for his lovely introduction.

The anthology is available now at MadHat Press and on Amazon, in bookstores soon.

And this: The new website nears completion – September 1, it seems now.  Details to follow next issue, along with some other exciting Plume news. A long time coming, and I couldn’t be happier about Plume’s future.

Our cover art this month comes from Albertus Gorman, to whose work we return occasionally.This photograph is titled “Bottomland Gorilla.” And as Al himself notes –

The amazing part is this isn’t the first gorilla I’ve discovered washed up on the riverbank.  I found another one made of plastic about two feet tall beating its chest in bared-fanged defiance despite being half buried in the sand.  You don’t meet many gorillas in the bottomlands, so you remember the ones that floods send your way.  That was two summers ago in the western section of my beloved Falls of the Ohio State Park.  This plush, primate toy, however, is special. It’s as large as an actual gorilla and must have been a costly plaything.  He made a strong impression upon first meeting. Unfortunately, he was face down in the mud after our third high water event of this year.  I picked him up and posed him for photographs. I still visit him regularly in the woods to see how he’s faring.  I am often perplexed by the material culture I find river-delivered. Who would throw this away and how did this end up in the river?  Of course, those are questions not likely to get answered, but it doesn’t keep me from saying them quietly in my mind.

I am now in the fifteenth year of a ten-year project as the “Artist at Exit 0.”  I am the self-styled “Unofficial Artist in Residence” at the Falls of the Ohio State Park located in Clarksville, Indiana.  My art materials include what one finds discarded into rivers: tons of plastic, polystyrene, coal, glass, aluminum, and driftwood which are even bigger gorillas in the grand scheme of things.  I cross the Ohio River in my car via Louisville’s Second Street Bridge passing the old Colgate Clock still one of the world’s largest time pieces and I’m transported to a unique intersection in time and space where the truly ancient meets the contemporary world.  It’s a relatively new Indiana state park featuring famous Devonian period fossil beds–almost 400 million years old–located primarily on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.  In my mind’s eye, I see the park as the Sistine Chapel of the Devonian since more creatures from this masterpiece of a moment in life’s history have been identified from this ancient coral reef than from any other discovered place. Back bones make their first appearance in life– in fish–during the Devonian and eventually that leads directly to us.

The history along the Ohio River is impressive and includes thousands of years of regular human habitation. The Falls of the Ohio is also a place that features prominently in our country’s narrative through the Lewis and Clark Expedition which in our Kentuckiana hearts both began and ended here. Most of the people who comprised the Corps of Discovery were woodsmen from Indiana and Kentucky.  It was their journals describing a country from the Falls of the Ohio to the Pacific Ocean and back that no longer exists in its former glory that catalyzed my idea to become the “Artist at Exit 0”.  Their journals describe a largely pristine world of clean rivers and forests that hardly exists two hundred years later.  I wondered if Lewis and or Clark were to stand today along the managed Ohio River now as much an artifact as the latest plastic bottle to wash by…would they recognize anything at all?  Two hundred years from now, if I could come back to my usual riverine haunts…what would I be able to recognize?

It was in this bicentennial spirit of exploration and discovery that I decided to launch my part-art, part-anecdotal history project to attempt to create a contemporary sense of place based strictly upon my park adventures. I use the park as my source of inspiration, materials, my studio, and my preferred gallery space.  I work around the year which includes all extremes of weather in every season.  My thesis has formed slowly, but the evidence from my perspective seems clear.  We have traded our birthright as creators to become consumers and I find a lot of junk washed up on this unique bend on the river. I have recorded my adventures in my “Artist at Exit 0 Riverblog” which is on WordPress and on other social media platforms as well.  I have published hundreds of various stories and thousands of photographs documenting this unique environment and my interactions with it.  Living in the digital world has allowed me to publish and interact globally while being very local with my fieldwork.

Finally, as is our habit of late – a few new books from our contributors

G.C. Waldrep        Feast Gently
Elizabeth Spires   A Memory of the Future   
Forrest Gander     Be With 
Michael Collier   My Bishop and Other Poems  
Dorianne Laux    Only as Long as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems 
Mary Jo Bang      A Doll for Throwing  

That’s it for, now, I think.
I do hope you enjoy the issue.

Daniel Lawless

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