|Excerpts > Summer 2002|
review of Susan Roney-O'Brien's Farmwife
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
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
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, themselvesby 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
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 detailthe 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
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
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 emotionsin 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
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.