The Field and Poetry

My life, up until graduate school, has always been adjacent to fields. Corn fields by the house I was born in, in rural Virginia. Soy and sorghum fields by the house I grew up in. Even in college, I drove home by passing the John Deere tractors for sale on the hill outside of Fredericksburg, through battlefields. Before transferring to a state school, I attended a community college located beside the county landfill and more fields, developed now with a Walmart and apartments.

The fields I was closest to surrounded our home when I was 9-15. I remember the first morning I walked them, newly moved into the home. There was a fog that morning, a cotton sea. I did not go as far as the field, but I knew it was there. The field was part of our five acres, and our lot ran up to the woods beyond them. But there were fields on either side of our home, and it did not feel like land parcels, but of a piece, of a wholeness. Spaciousness. On the left, our fallow field (gold-brown with sedge-grass, chicken house and garden on the left) met the field the Mennonite dairy farmers—the Nissleys and the Martins— planted with sorghum (for molasses), and soy during their fallow years. On the left, a cedar woodline. My parents built us a playhouse of pallets next to the woodline, and my mother would send us out with hot soup in pint glass canning jars for lunch. To the woodline, we dragged our dried Christmas trees in the cold days of the New Year. There was a place my mother had us dump used cat litter. There was the oak tree where my father hung the deer we butchered.

Elizabeth Bradfield writes about the importance of geographical edges in her place-based essay Fluid States: Ocean as Place & Poetic: “The boundaries of bodies of water are messy and turbulent and they are the most productive places in the sea. It’s where the life is.” I’m interested that it is at the edges and borders of the field, too, where the activities happened. Where we collected as child community, family community. Even the wasps wanted in (to our playhouse, where they made a paper nest).

The field was a living space. We walked through the field to get to the woods. Its edges were important to the shape of our days. Other children had parks, community centers. We had our field and a good half-hour of driving in any direction to reach a gas station.

As a living image, as personal history with land, the field to me is pure potential. It is unmarked by play structures. There would be fields in my future that my father fenced for our goats and chickens (I remember how impressed my parents were, when I was in college, and I told them my friend fenced—they thought only of farm skills, not athletics), but this field was different. This field was unfenced.

If you got down low in the field, there were field mice in grass burrows. There were wild tomatillos growing, tiny green fruit in their paper lantern wrappings. If you crouched or lay down, you could disappear from sight, the sedge grasses waving in the wind above you. There is a specific sound of wind through the grass before a storm—the sedge billowed like a copper sea.

I can trace my poetics back to this unfenced field. I spent five or six years practicing meter and formal poetry, until I could write iambic pentameter without thinking about it. Paradise Lost was like home to me. That is the fenced field. I return, as I must return, to the field of pure potential, unmarked by wire and posts. The only electricity that hums there is that of the person in the field.

Robert Frost famously said that writing without form is like playing tennis without the net. I come from an untennised background. No pools, no tennis courts, no organized athletics. There was no tennis, only the field. Our conception of what a field is is as much linked to class and geography as any of our other concepts—our knowledge always particularly inflected by our specific and contextualized upbringing. We do not use words the same way because we come to them from different histories.

The images of our childhoods are images of origin—deep images in our psyches. Butchering, gardening, raising chickens—these are activities closely linked to the image-history of the field for me. And when I come to the page, I bring the field with me—the two fields intersect, overlap, layer onto each other. It is why I am so attracted to hybridity and genre-play, to challenging language that leaves gaps for the reader to move or drift into. C.D. Wright wrote that “a genre…is a place to get away from and a place to come back to.” What is not fixed, but ever-present for me is the field—a space of undiluted potential. Both the rising and the setting sun set the sedge grass on golden-fire with their light.

The field—of the imagination, of the page—is unfenced. The only animals there are the animals I bring with me.