an introduction by Sarah Kirstine Lain
From a woman’s “lettuce” head to Dixie Land, from veteran to refugee, this edition of poems2go asks: what are we harvesting (and who)? What are we left with after the reaping? We gain insights into survival and desensitization; we consider displacement of the human as crop. We go back to the flood and the olive branch and observe – through various eyes – a poetic landscape, as we consider the harvest and reaping.
“What do we farm but loss, and isn’t
this also an argument for denying
everything loved? Your brothers
and sisters. Your parents. Better not
keep what you know will not escape
sorrow but will escape you, leave you
looking at a yard of white flowers:
fringed phacelia, appearing as a mist
in spring. A bell for the earth.”
– Hannah VanderHart (from “What Escaped.” First appeared in American Poetry Review)
In The happiness of sleeping walking men, Christopher Hopkins writes of yielding to dreams. To harvest a dream, one must traverse to “god-spit” stars that have been cut into a “deep han blue” fabric by a cherub’s teeth. At first reading, Christine and I wondered whether the poem intended a playful sarcasm toward the adage, “ignorance is bliss.” There is a selfishness about this speaker— a time for this moon-and-star nothingness seems gratuitous under earth’s Industrial Rule. Simultaneously, the speaker describes stars as “holes for me to breathe,” depicting a sense of desperation: “let my dreaming”— that repetition: let. It’s as if the speaker is giving self-permission to be with imagination, to reap a defiant beauty. Is dreaming here a selfish act, or an act of survival, or both?
Survival and harvest go hand-in-hand. In Genesis 8:1, a dove returns with her olive branch after the flood. The olive tree survives God’s wrath and lives on as a peace symbol. In Fred Merchant’s Olive Harvest, this tree still “has the scent of the sea” (or flood). And what is it about human suffering and war that makes poets nostalgic for trees? Is it not Darwin’s survival of the fittest, where some would argue that fittest equates to state-of-the-art weapons technology and military strategy? Why is it that after God reaps an entire world, an olive tree “comes back, here & here & here?”– unarmed, remaining.
This steadfastness is also present in Luke Hankins’ Emerald Acres, where nothing is harvested but “an idea about beauty.” Like an abandoned house’s windows, the poem is opaque, fractured; light passes through its lines. We can enter “twenty acres of greenhouse” and live for awhile in a place that neither attempts to judge nor prove. This house offers “No protection / but an appearance” which is this poem’s offering to readers willing to stay for awhile. Appearance— impression, participation, an act of becoming visible: this is one way of seeing.
In contrast, Anna M. Warrock’s Snow speaks to a relentless continuity of human reaping– it is not a nice poem. Here is a harvested language: broken, clumps, tore, and hacked. This poem haunts us with: “and the roaring,” a reference back to line four where “desert lions tore at the flesh of the boys running.” In every sense; the poem itself is a run-on sentence, run-down human: a refugee. I consider Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” when Warrock writes, “pieces of the sky’s body / come down, torn edges, someone tore them, some booligan” — but as Baraka would say, “Who and Who and WHO who who / Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!” Who is responsible for human displacement? Is it “white / cold that coats all things,” or is it unfortunate, or is it… Who?
“Isn’t the truck parked in the holler.” This opening line in Hannah VanderHart’s Dixie Land Delight nails down the harvest’s duality: dual syntax (question-period), dual meaning in holler, dual nature in growing things to kill. The same irony is present in VanderHart’s What Escaped: “Not the pigs. Not the seventeen roosters / from the spring incubators.” Irony is a master breeder of narrative horror; I think back to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, how children participate in systemic slaughter— a tradition of desensitization. Comparably, the child speaker in Dixie Land Delight “looked in the glassy / eyes of dead things, washed feathers / and blood from my hands.” This same child has “so little time / for trouble” because s/he is busy hammering fruit to death and killing chickens. Finally, the speaker “laid / down on my quilt /… when I could take no more.” Even here, irony continues, as quilts often link to things passed down, heirlooms, the comfort and shut-eye that tradition can sow.
War is another kind of human reaping that speaks to VanderHart’s poignant question, “What do we farm but loss?” In Richard Waring’s Stop the War, a veteran mentions his knees made of Teflon, and the speaker considers how he “has war in his knees!” Ironic, because the veteran asks the speaker where he can find a “Stop the War” button. As he literally embodies war as a survivor, he simultaneously seeks its cessation. How can the survivor put an (external, systemic) end to that which persists inside himself? Madison McCartha’s [read my lips] describes fruit within the fuel (of a machine, perhaps). The two do not go together, as gasoline cannot water fruit. The poem speaks to death and depression, of passing on, not as a physiological act, but as the harvest of sadness unspoken, impermissible. “Better not / keep what you know will not escape / sorrow but will escape you,” writes VanderHart.
Kathy Nilsson’s WITH EXTROVERSION takes a scientific observation of the world. Extroversion, face recognition, and laughter (usually human traits) are all used to describe rodents, sheep, and fish; meanwhile, the speaker compares a woman to a vegetable (lettuce) and describes her hair as “phenomena.” Detachment characterizes each image: poem as microscope and lab to harvest a woman “at the edge of the cosmos.” In WITH EYES WIDE CLOSED, Nilsson writes of birth. Whose birth is stirred by “ground and sky separated long ago?” Is it the harvested earth, saying:
You can finish with me now.
Read the P2G Harvest Summer Quarterly here.