These triptych of poems form Tess Taylor’s new book, Work and Days, know well the anxiety we have about poetry as a privileged moment away from the reality of working life. But several years ago when Taylor had the chance to spend a year rent-free in a cottage on the Berkshires, her attending to farming brought forth poetry. That type of attention encompasses a Western tradition—almost exclusively male (Hesiod, Virgil, John Clare)—where working the earth might serve to crystallize or make lapidary-like our thirst for wise, reflective living. Yet Taylor has done something far less obvious, and much more moving, than merely turning the tradition on its head. She’s entered it fully, as woman, mother: an American of privilege and loss in the 21st century. And with her consciousness, evocative and redolent of the hard sensory clarity of the earth, come also intimations of apocalyptic time as much around the world as here at home. The great thinker (and laborer) Simone Weil thought fewer acts more heroic than attentiveness. Reading these crisp, gleaning poems that sing of and are stained by “human remains” I fully agree.
—Adam Fitzgerald, Poetry Editor
“Quid faciat laetes segetes, quo sidere terram vetere….”
“What must be done to bring a heavy harvest, under
which stars to turn the earth…”—Virgil, Georgics I
Mulching garlic: muck is heavy.
Everything is brown or gray.
Moving grasses, haying sprouts:
Cold knobs rise, ache in my fingers.
In this field not Pyrrah’s bones, or Deucalion’s
but human remains:
No war here
(though even here farmers do dig up old weapons—)
No ghost helmets,
though while we work, the radio
broadcasts poppy harvests and bombings:
limbs shattering in another country—
In our field today:
A lost child’s pink sunglasses.
Hot. Cold. Then a too-warm spell:
Navies of clouds come and go, come and go—
—north too soon.
In the greenhouse
we plant nightshades,
tomatoes & cucumbers:
Stage summer plenty while
the radio announces
dead seals in Labrador—
above us rose-throated grosbeak return
from Tulum & Oaxaca, o borderless migrants.
Across the hemisphere, farmers bend to the art.
Bow into broccoli, brassicae.
Push their bodies, machines.
Plant starts or seed.
Buy oil for tractors. Cross borders. Spray pesticides.
Virgil wrote by which signs shall we know?
We too are small against great constellations.
We plant when the sun shines. We augur & pray.
The radio reports how in 2050
farming Massachusetts will be like farming Georgia—
all’s flux, no one can say what will grow in Georgia,
where maples will grow then or whose fine taps
will sap sugar from the cold in spring. Will we get syrup
from the boreal forest, peaches from Massachusetts?
Drone strikes & opium poppies.
Oil spills & poisoned wells.
Drought zone. Famine. War zone.
My inner cynic says
don’t bother this is navel gazing
& my friend at Yale says my hunger
to be near zucchinis
will not save the planet from real hunger
except I remember in the film on gleaning
when the priest in his compassion says:
those who glean now out of spiritual hunger
also should be fed.
Ecosystem of yard or field or mind:
these cucumbers are more art than science,
than global action (if we separate the two).
& digging now I feel otherness—
life, that great inhuman freedom—
here I work the plot that also grounds—
Green drains from the hills and leaves
undertow & umbered rainbow.
Morning furrows fill with mist.
Warm noons we still harvest melons.
Chasing sugars on the vine
tasting sweetness after sun or rain-
we find that flavor is an artifact of light.
All this heat and mineral and juice a clue:
the mystery summer strewed in passing—
October morning: grasshoppers on kale.
Everywhere they’re clumsy, heavy-kneed.
In the field they are a fable:
Grasshoppers singing summer’s end.
Many there & real, their clumsy wobbles
Poor grasshoppers who sang all summer!
Their elaborate joints climb toughened leaves.
Dusk & moon out—we undo
potato cages. Root-hairs un-web
from their six-months’ perch.
In our novice hands they are chill comets.
Mulch and time turned those
blind sprouts potatoes.
We hoist the oblong bounty.
Later, scrub and slice a few.
Prepare the pan with oil.
From the counter, old roots eye us whitely.
Feature image: a detail from Farm Scene, 1963 by Jane Freilicher.