Excerpts > Summer 2002

Abby Millager
review of Susan Roney-O'Brien's

review of Susan Roney-O'Brien's Farmwife

For occupants of this accelerated world harnessed by technology and other modern contrivances, how easy it is to fall under the spell of a narrator who seems, herself, not fully domesticated. In her first book of poems, Farmwife, Susan Roney-O’Brien delivers a lore of intuition, a wisdom born from the rhythms, rituals and necessities of living in the land. We are her apprentices as she goes about her tasks, salvaging, as bees do in “Firestorm”:

As if there had been no apocalypse
they nurture the underground the queen has made:
nurses, gatherers, workers.

Chores form a framework for the farmwife’s reveries, which begin as matter-of-fact narratives, then wander into memory or into the nitty-gritty of her surroundings. It is this poet’s identification with and absorption into her natural world that lift these poems into that mystical realm where the literal and the figurative are not necessarily discrete.

Appropriately, Farmwife begins with “The Egg." As in many of these poems, Roney-O’Brien starts off with an account of work and weather. She uses the first person in the present tense and focuses on small-scale detail to draw the reader in. Her rhythms make us feel the work she is doing—in this poem we experience her shoveling in the regular tetrameter of the opening lines. She teaches by example: in sympathy with the natural world, the protagonist does not barge in and grab an egg, but waits respectfully until the hen has left her roost. In this straightforward language there is no lament over the cracked egg: the farmwife accepts acts of nature without question, seems to expect them. She says,

I hold the cold egg in my mittens,
its brown jigsawed shell frozen
solid over albumin rivers which fill
the shattered spaces. I bare my hands.
What is there to lose by holding it?

Roney O’Brien makes use of the farmwife’s explanations, musings and philosophy to enlighten. Common logic would suggest there is nothing to gain by holding the egg; the woman’s hands will freeze, gooey egg will melt all over. Yet she does it anyway, thus healing the egg. The importance of following nature’s lead is key throughout this book. The farmwife succeeds in her role as nurturer and savior by acting on instinct.

In the second stanza of ”The Egg”, Roney O’Brien shifts her frame of reference: suddenly the pieces of shell are continental plates. The egg has become a metaphor for the whole world, the farmwife a kind of earth goddess. Looking back we realize the poet has prepared us for this expanded view with the albumin rivers, the receding white, the jagged light falling through cracks in boards. Also, like the farmwife mending shell, she has stitched the poem together with internal rhyme: snow, below, Rhode, rows; after, last, at, path, cackle; hold, cold, frozen, over. This layering of sound creates a web of inevitability. In the second stanza, where the subject turns miraculous, the poet switches to pentameter and relies more on assonance and consonance-- the a’s of “warm cave of my palms”, the l’s of “frail calcium puzzle”, the n’s of “continental plates shifting and finally locking into place”—to convey quiet wonder. Attention to structure is crucial in these poems. It brings into focus the simple beauty of the words, allows for the transference of light.

"Line” also starts with a task and a season: hanging out laundry in November. This poem struggles with the question, in a world where everything is alive, how does cold technology make sense? Throughout the book the poet gives inanimate objects feelings, will, body parts. In “Line”, light fails, pines huddle, palm leaves have faces, washing machines have guts. We are made to feel that in the farm world everything is interconnected, part of a single, living mass. Roney-O’Brien uses the telephone to contrast this organic microcosm with another kind of place. When the phone rings the counterintuitive outside world forces its way into the farmwife’s consciousness. She wonders about long distance and time zones:

your voice comes out of my past
and, without taking a minute,
passes into your future.
How can I understand this: how time
wraps the earth, the wires going through
those lost three hours, linking us?
Where has the time between us gone?

This is the kind of wrong but right magical thinking that makes these poems so surprising. Elements behave in ways they cannot: a voice travels time; time wraps the earth, wires pierce hours. Of course, we understand the poet means she misses her husband, but the farmwife revels in the literal. Again and again, she takes ideas at face value, then extends them with an unconventional logic. In “September”, another delightful odyssey, reflections on the speed of light lead to conjectures about the speed of dark.

If Roney O’Brien leads us to uncharted spaces with this kind of playful examination, she rarely leaves us hanging. Work anchors all to the earth. In “Line”, the farmwife resolves her confusion by finding a different line she can understand, the clothesline, with its associated work she can do instinctively, by feel. The poet allows the farmwife to reach her husband through the fabrics that have touched him: towels, sheets and shirts. There is life in the clothes, themselves—by the end of the poem they are breathing. This kind of tactile, physical connection is more real to this character than a disembodied voice on a telephone.

Similarly, the poet finds more joy in solid imagery than in abstractions. “Distance” describes a nighttime landscape:

I walk to the field
where ice drums stretch
furrow to furrow between waves.
It is March, the stub end of winter,
and all the neighbors’ lights
are out. Turning
far from our house,
I see your shadow against the shade

Because of the details given we can easily imagine ourselves in this frozen sea. As elsewhere, even abstract notions like “winter” receive concrete treatment: “stub end”. The poet does not say it is late, or that the farmwife is alone, but skillfully implies these things by providing another detail—the neighbors’ lights are out. The description of the shadows in the house demonstrate again the contrast between the technological world, where the husband works inside the house under artificial lights, and the agrarian world outside in the dark with the wind and snow. With only a few strokes, Roney O’Brien says much.

This efficiency in delivery is enhanced by the synergy in this collection, with its almanac-like arrangement. Because of the continuity of themes and persona, the poems inform each other. For example, there are a number of poems here in which the narrator wants to become some other kind of living thing. In “Roosting”, she wishes she could fly, then imagines herself as a hen. In “Distance” she wants to be vegetation:

If I could be anything but human
I would be one of the grasses
now pushing white roots
through black soil, under the skin of ice.

In this poem’s final lines, the farmwife says, “if I stand here long enough, a door will open.” The obvious meaning is that she hopes the door of her house will open, that her husband will come and join her in her Eden. But the recurrence of magical thinking and wishes to be other than human found elsewhere in Farmwife suggest another interpretation: that a door to a different kind of existence might open up, one she might pass through to blend even further into this landscape. If we had not read the other poems, this alternative would not have occurred to us.

The theme of wanting to disappear into the wild also figures in “Geese”. The geese fly south and

Everything else
is moving toward some direction:
leaves shake down as sap
pulls back into roots. Milkweed
seeds expelled from withered paps
float across the meadow.

We can feel this activity in the triple-stressed cadences, seen, too, in the poems “Between” and “Roosting”: “leaves shake down”, “sap pulls back”, “milkweed seeds”. Roney-O’Brien uses natural occurrences, this autumn scene with its departing geese, for instance, to describe human emotions—in this case, a desire to go. She deftly defines the speaker as a caged bird: her “napehairs rise like pinfeathers”; she stands mute and motionless, like an animal caught in headlights; all she knows is “crowflight”, the instinct needed to go somewhere else, be something else. She presses her face against the glass of her own humanness: she cannot leave her body. Once again, the poet allows her character a mystical outlet; this time smoke signals relay her soul to the geese.

Throughout these meditations, Roney O’Brien seeks and delivers tranquility. Like one of her Rhode Island Reds, she roosts “in the corner pile of hay/away from the easy boxes/to lay a perfect universe of her own.” Farmwife teaches us to be alert, diligent, in our search for grace. The poet provides us with the salvaged bits, the “small untamed”: what

could not know if they were heard
and didn’t care, but sang to test the air.

These minute observations are the seeds of our salvation. In a laying on of hands this poet pulls us from our harried lives, through the doors to her regenerative world,

into the throats of singers.

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