Four Favourites, With Some Notes on Farming


By Lori Cayer

How much do we urban metro types think about farming? Aside from probably not much, I think it depends on whether we were raised on one or in a small town, versus a city. It may depend on how much we think about the origins and veracity of our food, its safety and footprint and all that. Some of us may never think of it unless it’s mentioned on the news because of weather or commodity prices.

For me it is kind of like church in the sense that I know it’s there (and ever has been) and it’s good for me and I can go there for a visit if I need environmental uplifting. My mom gardened but gave it up along with sewing and baking bread as soon as she could afford to buy the same stuff at the store. For my generation gardening and the burgeoning trend toward urban farming is much more an emotionally and ecologically complicated reconnection, but that’s part of what makes it fun as well as enriching.

Gardening has never been in short supply in poetry; landscape in general is as ubiquitous on the page as it is around us. But until the last year’s poetry releases I hadn’t noticed so much reference to farming in one year’s bounty, so to speak; real, hard-core farming that leaves one mortally exhausted at the end of every day. Scattered through the books is poetry by farmers, former farmers, kids of farmers and at least one farmer/vet who is undoubtedly in her fields and barns as I type this in daylight. And one book I thought was by a kid of a farmer but who actually grew up in a log house in the bush in the far north with goats around.

In the end I did not go into depth with all the farming references, but chose to write about four books that I would have selected as nominees for major prizes, only one of which has much farming in it.

Monkey Ranch coverWith the fall announcement of the winner of the Governor General’s Award for poetry, it did not surprise me that Julie Bruck’s Monkey Ranch (Brick) made it to my final four. In fact Monkey Ranch was the first book I picked up from the leaning tower of poetry and it was entirely because of its ridiculously sublime cover image of that primate in a puffy party dress (I’m no zoologist, but I think she’s an orangutan. I’m just saying.) Where Linda Besner’s The Id Kid (Signal) is more of a fast paced art film Monkey Ranch is a gallery of carefully crafted set pieces each with a quiet depth and intensity. Human nature and humanity inform these lyrics; each poem has a feeling of lightness and singularity but gather exponential weight when taken together. Such a personal book surprised me as a major prize winner but Bruck does take the view of the mother out into the world, to school shootings and war torn countries where a man holds the shoe of a loved one recently departed from them by a bomb blast.

From Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad:

This is your shoe, he yelled at the pale blue sky.

…The men stared blankly
at the shoe. No one had the heart to speak, so they kept
digging. Don’t step so hard, the father said.
Don’t harm him.

Technically perfect, this is not experimental poetry, it is not a study in form; in fact there is little to complain about. It is tight, literal but given to surprising philosophic turns that raise it above the average confessional.

The Id KidThe opposite of a nature poet, Linda Besner’s domain in The Id Kid is the city. The landscape of concrete, construction machinery, deli meat slicers and doctor’s appointments are what inform her debut. These poems are delightful punches, anecdotes the author might tell you loudly across a table in a bar. They are raucous and funny, given to the absurd and fantastical, but they are nevertheless personal stories told from the inside. Besner neatly blends lyric and language poetry into an image driven thing of her own making. The less personal poems take on personas in pop culture especially in the section on important men, both famous and ordinary. Her visual sense and subtlety is coolly evident in the nearest thing to a love poem in the book where the narrator describes her feelings for someone by describing, in delicious and cerebral detail, their leather jacket. The Id Kid is certainly the most memorable of this year’s books.

From Leather Jacket

Boxcar and beauty mark killingly met.
Stoppered up calf’s breath burnished to size.
Blackamoor milk, liquorice banquet.
Staghound, your leather jacket.

Groundwork coverAmanda Jernigan’s Groundwork (Biblioasis) is a wholly different poetic experience. It is serious, erudite and while conversational maintains a formal and controlled tone. Of the three sections only the first is personal, and even that is based in the author’s experience on an archaeological dig in Tunisia; how it is to do the gruelling work needed to touch with one’s bare hands bones and floor tiles and scraps of sculpture last touched by people in centuries past. Sections two and three come from further inside the life of the mind, are the poet applying anthropology to historical works, like Adam and Eve in part two.


Imagine it, Adam: old woman and grey.
I found myself walking again in the garden,
the trees in full fruit as they were on that day.
Therein lies the question: again, did I eat?
Again. It was as we remembered. More sweet.

Part three reminds me that everything I know I learn from poetry—reminds me, as life will do now and again, that I still have not read the Iliad and the Odyssey. It took me half a dozen poems into the book to realize the most striking aspect of Jernigan’s work, and which caused me to begin the book again, is that it is a study in rhyme schemes. Who practices rhyme anymore? Or rather, who else is practicing it with such expert subtlety? Not only are Jernigan’s subjects scholarly, but she also applies a constraint to her work that applies an additional layer of challenge to the writing and the reading. I can only guess at how long this book must have taken to sculpt.

I belong in the category of small town kid with farming uncles on both sides. I have vivid memories of those farms where I always felt more scared than set free to frolic with the plants and animals. The one in Saskatchewan was a subsistence farm, old world and weathered where the most advanced piece of equipment was the gleaming cream separator. The other was in Manitoba and was a pig enterprise that got a high tech new barn after a terrible fire and where a runaway sow hurtled toward me down a narrow passageway. Sows are bigger than you think. She filled the aisle and the only direction I could go was up. She blasted under me and I rode her rodeo style, but backwards, for a gallop or three before she passed under me and away to be neatly stopped by my laughing cousins. I was no poet back then. If the miracles of life were speaking to me, they were being artfully stored for future use.

I See My Love coverAnd yet, as landscape moves in the writer, so does the writing, the need to tell it and talk about it, move in the farmer/vet/poet Nora Gould. In her first foray into poetry Gould has stunned me with I see my love more clearly from a distance (Brick). Deeply personal, smarting and frank, this book reads like journal entries and historical notes informed by a keen inner observance of relationship to land and to each other. Here nature is an unrelenting presence, marriage is a negotiation between love and necessity and opportunities for joy are ever present but unsentimental.

From Who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens?

…Come morning, my cheek
On goat’s flank, I taste lightning:

milk snow-blinds me. I, the goat, fuse.
Thunder cleaves an imperfect fissure.

These fierce and fragile poems are not about overcoming or rising above, but a daily working through and the ringing poetry that comes from such an unflinching focus. Gould’s poetic voice is lucid and insightful, moving gracefully back and forth between the spacious conversational and compact imagistic language, the seeming ease of her writing belying the rigor of her daily life on the farm. When she talks about animals it is their function and their health, when she talks about seasons she refers to drought and flood, when she talks about death she talks about death and its lack of delicacy. When she talks about love it is never sublime. Even the titles of her poems are little poems, for example: Escher’s spiral rotation of seasons; Poplars were the shell, we the blood on the slough and my favourite Grief submerged with her brilliant feet, tucked up in flight.

From Bluestone for algal bloom

In late summer my erratics are in clusters, chokecherries
gobbled by waxwings and coyotes. What’s left
can be stripped from the bush after the frost,
bone and astringent fruit

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The Downlow on Parnassus

Lori Cayer

Lori Cayer is the author of two volumes of poetry: Stealing Mercury (Muses’ Company, 2004), and Attenuations of Force (Frontanac House, 2010). She also reads poetry for CV2 magazine.