Meg Thompson’s chapbook, Farmer (Kattywompus Press, 2014), presents twenty-two poems, twenty of which have been previously published in a variety of journals. The collection provides readers with a discomforting comfortableness. Her lines feel close, feel safe, inviting, but then we realize we are in the midst of a revelation we might have otherwise never wished to encounter. This tension, between admiring her work and worrying about its consequence, drives the book, establishes its essential energy.
The farming context frames the work; the voice of a sometimes displaced farmer’s daughter echoes throughout. The first poem, “After I read the letter that told me I had abnormal cells” jars the reader into the seriousness of the collection. The poet writes, “my room turned into a field / and the carpet needed to be baled / the way it did when I was little / or before I knew / they were on my cervix.” It seems the familiarity of a known farm offers what little comfort may be known in this situation. The poet concludes in confused resignation: “I laid down in / extended child’s pose, / the hay scratching my arms, / my normal arms.” The contrast of normal and abnormal accompanies the child/adult pairing, intensifying the feelings of harvest, chaos and death. Thompson’s control of language, here illustrated with the room as a field needing to be baled, is striking throughout the collection.
Other examples of her language usage: In “Five-Foot Farmer” the speaker tries “to remember how loam feels, bright and black, / turned over and over by dozens of blades. I wander / malls for perfume that smells like second-cutting hay.” In “Terroir” Thompson writes “in the morning, / the sugar of frost in our yard / shines like a memory of the tattoo / parlor where we once kissed.” In “The Airport”: “Midwesterners drift / through life drunk on stoicism, / patience, wool products,” and again, “Midwesterners don’t / know what to do with this / sort of attention.” “August in the Midwest” continues this sensation: “I felt like I was being washed by the sky, / the blue dark of morning in a state / next to the one I was born in, every small / town a maze, a whir, light turning inside out / like a shirt I took off as the sun appeared.” Suffice it to say that Thompson’s command of the just-right term, or fresh association with a common image at just the right place in the poem contributes to the comfortable pleasure of reading her work. It is also the very thing that undermines the confidence of the voice heard throughout. The ability to use language as a flexible and accommodating friend while, at the same time, being wary of its betrayal to the senses haunts Thompson’s poetry.
In his 1980 essay “The Impure Every Time,” Marvin Bell wrote that poetry is “something more than a bundle of techniques … there is something more to poetry than accomplishment.” When reading Farmer, one feels that the poet knows exactly what she is trying to accomplish with her technique, but also that her poems transcend (a term Bell uses) the technical pieces that make her poems, the voice heard throughout, and even the occasions that inspired (or provoked) the poetry. Bell “choose[s] the ugly as well as the beautiful … the cracked bowl over the flawless one, the voice that has a little spit and phlegm in it, the used shoes.” Similarly, Thompson’s work binds up the pure and the impure, so to speak, into a whole vision, unique and soul-stirring – a personal rendering, a public revelation. The last poem of the collection depicts a farmer “who listens to NPR.” In this final poem, the memory of childhood on the farm is lovely, though tentative, even stark. The speaker, playing in the grass coming out “pecked and stained,” grows older to remember:
your hearts, the soft one
that prays in the shade of red, open barns
when you clasp month-old lambs between your knees
to syringe worm medicine down their throats.
Or the other one, even softer, my favorite, which leaps
each time you push your sleeve up past the elbow,
pull struggling calves from the womb to the ground.
Ken Hada has authored five collections of poetry, including his two latest: Persimmon Sunday (VAC 2015), and Margaritas and Redfish (Lamar UP, 2013). His book, Spare Parts, was awarded the “Wrangler Award” from the National Western Heritage Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame. Reviews of his work and other information may be found at www.kenhada.org