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Stem and Root

By (September 1, 2009) No Comment


Joshua Harmon
Black Ocean, 2009


Farrah Field
Four Way Books, 2009

Landscape is language for poets – it has to be. For Farrah Field, it’s the trailer parks and swamps of Red America; for Joshua Harmon, it’s cold, reserved, buried. Such are the landscapes – and interiors – of Scape and Rising, two first books of poetry, both books of place. Harmon quotes Alice Notley: “I see you with the / landscape that I am.” So do the landscapes inside both writers come out onto the page.

In a forest, it’s impossible to take in a lone tree, to trace its branches through the tangle of leaves, competitors, choking vines; it’s like that with the subjects and language of Harmon’s collection Scape. The language of the book is dense and strange: a tangle of branches or roots poking through snow, like the “alliance of branches and leaves” Harmon evokes on the final page. A turn in a sentence may repurpose the meaning of a word, events are discovered out of order, a phrase may refer to the sentence that precedes it or to another sentence buried in the page’s white:

An echo’s answer: repeat after me. This is only an interrogation of the bullet

The bullet fragmented in memory of a hit song and we

We collected at the bedside of our friend. Her name
was kindness, a kind of violence,
or caused kind violence—

I’d prefer a recording of silence

Is it a song about a bullet? Or has time folded our memory of the bullet into the same synapse as the song?

We are in the past as much as the present (as we are on any patch of ground). The Great Awakening gave birth to a number of babies named Innocence, Virtue, and, yes, Kindness. Are we in 1775? Or, since kindness is uncapitalized, are we keeping vigil at the death of a sentiment, or familial feeling? (Both the War of Independence and the Civil War were kind, or kindred violence).

There is a speaker in Scape and a place:

The landscape remains obedient to previous notions. It is Massachusetts outside my windows and Massachusetts in my mind: it is only the site of some larger omission. The landscape an open system of fires, a naive word’s wound, a trick made of phone wires and waiting breath.

A naive world may be the kind of rustic, unschooled world a naive artist paints or the world as seen by a “naïve realist” (literally, an epistemology which holds that the properties of a thing are exactly as they appear). Are the bullet fragments only fragments now that the war is over, or is the war still there? What’s buried under the white of snow? Nothing? And what has the landscape buried in our speaker? How can he make sense of it?

reminders in asphalt
shouldered into simply describing
twenty years ago
twenty minutes from now
which is entangled

early morning
word spreads

Scape is a book that is richer with a dictionary to hand. A scape, for example, is the stem of a bulb, commonly garlic, but any shaft between a blossom and its source might be a scape. An animal’s feather or antenna may be a scape. And so the narrator, too, is a kind of scape, rooted in a difficult and a changing land.

Time itself, is a scape. The roots and old rocks of Harmon’s language show through. Take the first poem, “Whither,” which begins:

–heelprint and halter, halfway
heard: before means back.

Already, we’re deep into history. If this were a line of 9th Century poetry, like Beowolf, that comma would be a gap in the center of the line and the H in heelprint and halfway would begin equal halves of a line: “hroden hildecumbor, helm ond byrnan.” Speaking the first line outloud, we still pause only after heard, as though it finished the first line, rather than starting the second.

“Before means back” initiates another consonant repetition, and that it also sits on an asymmetrical line. The break is geological, slow time, inspired by the way relics from the same epoch settle in separate strata. Toward the end of the book, Harmon describes such a landscape, where “unhitched / dust settles // water assumes the shapes of rocks,” so old forms are broken and cannot be pieced back. Who is to say, for example, if “heard” would have followed “halfway” in that artifact text? Generally speaking, consonants might repeat three times straight in Anglo Saxon verse, but rarely four.

Scape, then, is a book about time as well as landscape, about how “snow breaks the back // of the field it / possesses” and so as with rocks and branches, so with language and memory: time cracks, shifts, and inverts the artifacts of sound and sense: “entire stuttering routs // break halfway to before.”

This is a landscape, and this is Harmon’s feeling for it. A house is abandoned then let, driftlines whether, muskets and cannons cut the clouds. As in his novel, Quinnehtukqut, Harmon worries traces of the past. Landscape, the second and longest of Scape’s six sections, starts off:

Trepanned: in other words, my mind wanders
no farther than the map I drew from memory,

Marking the stone-circled embers memory makes smoke
–wisps to occlude whatever arrow-line I’d draw next.

Next is the legend: asterisk for tree, speck for settlement,
double dagger for ruins, circled star for fallen star

The more time you spend with Scape, the more time you want to spend with it. It’s not the most inviting book on first approach (though Black Ocean’s design is up to its usual high standards), but it rewards re-reading. As in the New England woods, you feel lost at first, then fascinated.

Rising, Farrah Field’s first collection, is set in the Deep South and is canny about the deep-southern landscape that popular culture (and William Faulkner, and CD Wright) has made. Poems with titles like, “Self-Portrait in Toad-Suck, Arkansas,” and “Voodoo,” and “Possums and Critters Gets Back There,” set a gothic mood: mud, rot, sex (“If you fuck someone else, I’ll feel it on you”), and superstition. Whereas the first page of Harmon’s book says “Whither,” the first poem in Field’s uses “wither.” In as many poems the speaker falls into a muddy hole, thinks on the drowning of New Orleans, watches the barn where she used to have sex get torn down, and mixes “bleach to clean up the maggots.” “Porch Music” says:

A train came through once.
A wheelbarrow rusts. You drive

to Lafayette to watch drunk men
chase a chicken and this is not odd.

These poems also take place in Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Missouri: places Yankees like me offhandedly prejudice as the-devil-at-the-crossroads, falling-off-the-map, backwaters—South of Appalachia, north of Louisiana, middle of nowhere.

Field’s attitude toward the landscape where she grew up is a little nostalgic (she doesn’t mind playing the canny tour guide) but it’s dark, too, and disparaging. This is the place where her sister, Heather, was murdered, a death that’s noted on the first page and that penetrates and surrounds the book. This is not to say life doesn’t go on, though often unhappily. The poem, “Ancient Mystery” reads, in its entirety:

What did you do today
and my self said my sister died.

A fist is a fist and blood spurts out the mouth
when the face is hit. I asked myself:

why does everything have to be about this.
Sonny said he’d rub my back. Sonny said

he thought it best not to say her name.
Grave markers don’t come automatically.

There’s a placard until the ordered stone
arrives with its ridiculous border

and raised words. Then it sinks enough
for a groundskeeper to mow it over without stopping.

Field’s mother “watched the hours every year, // until seven o’clock, when the call came. After / nine years she said she didn’t do that, but she lied.” Field ends a depressing day at the beach staring at two sisters, “holding hands in the water.”

The South and Middle West of Rising are more evocatively summoned than much of Yoknapatawapha and a hundred times more convincing than Charlaine Harris’ Bon Temps. Field’s love for her people comes across as more lasting than her love of place.

And this is complicated, because Field is not just formed by the landscape, (“You’ve logged more hours in sheds than most”), Field is the landscape (“Your yelling empties into the gulf // of my toenail painting,” “Wyoming / sun is warmest when it circles me.”) She admires the guts of her people but despairs of their ideas. Mr. Robicheaux doesn’t care who you vote for, “as long as he’s Republican.” Since the carpetbaggers, “Trouble is a suitcase.”

There are plenty of poems about falling into lust and out of love. There are poems of relationships ending badly, lines full of offhanded lyricism and southernisms. Then she gets out, moves north to Brooklyn, where “Snow comes down / Like a new language.” The new place is strange, and she comes to it like a stranger:

At dinner, I watch a bus cough

people out—brown sweaters, blue mittens,
babies. This is how it slowly arrives: heat

kicks on in your office, false blossom then red
leaf. Fear of carving the pumpkin too soon.

Field’s sister is present (or, rather, achingly absent) in the New York poems, but the south itself does not intrude. She does not compare places in the same poems. She writes about the south, but it’s clear she’s not going back:

There came a time when nothing could be done.
A rusted yellow truck isn’t a scratch more than that,

isn’t one’s inherent society or something to go with
a great pair of Wranglers.

It will be interesting to see which landscape Field writes of next – the remembered wisteria or the cold brownstones, or generic America where “everyone staring at televisions on airplanes.” Or maybe most writers have the one landscape inside – one they’ll spend their careers interrogating, exorcizing, celebrating, and mourning… we’ll speak of Harmon’s North, Field’s South.

John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His first novel Under the Small Lights will be published by Miami University Press in 2010.