The Dirt Riddles
I watch cows, like small, sleepy dinosaurs, swish their tails as they masticate grass in the field across from my house. Every day the same. Swish, chew, swish, chew. I confess: I have been charmed by a vision of rural life that requires no spit, sweat, no blood or shoveling shit. I look happily on, from my kitchen window, at a safe and seductive one hundred yards. A flock of geese fly over a hill staggered with bales of hay, and I’ll admit, I feel sentimental. It’s a register of emotion that the city version of me would have sardonically mocked, but I’d be a liar if I said that I didn’t find it all rather lovely, in a genuine if largely aesthetic kind of way.
I am offering myself up as a classic example of the problematic idealization of the bucolic. Much critique of the pastoral is rooted in the feeling that our pastoral poets, in their idealization, fail to see what is. Worse, what is is eschewed for an aesthetic of what we would prefer (pretty lambs on a hillside; wolves kept at bay). In preparation for this review, I reread Virgil’s Ecologues, a few poems by Thomas Gray and Wordsworth’s more famous pastoral poems, and in all of them I honestly failed to find a representation of the bucolic that was unmitigatedly idealized (though surely they exist, just not by very good poets). I found, rather, poems haunted by death, apocalyptic in tone (Virgil), or at least acknowledging the roughness of the natural world:
Alas, the mountain-tops that look so green and fair!
I’ve heard of fearful winds and darkness that come there;
The little brooks that seem all pastime and all play,
When they are angry, roar like lions for their prey.
—Wordsworth, “The Pet Lamb”
I wonder if, in many cases, we have been persuaded by our idea of what the pastoral is, rather than specific, complex readings of pastoral poetry. In other words, what the pastoral is may be much richer than what we imagine it to be, and much more fraught.
Michael Walsh’s first book, The Dirt Riddles (winner of the 2010 Arkansas Poetry Prize) offers a corrective to the hyper-romanticized vision of rural life that has long dominated the American imagination. He does this through short, delicate lyrics that observe life on and around a dairy farm, crafting an anti-pastoral pastoral marked by an attitude of tenderness towards their land, even as our speaker(s) eye does not flinch from the ugly, gross, aggressive or uncomfortable. It’s possible that many poems we consider classically pastoral contain these anti-pastoral threads. In this light, Walsh does not eschew a tradition as much as he simply updates its expression. Furthermore, while the pastoral is indeed aesthetic, “farm life” is experiential, and these poems write through the latter even more than it adopts the conventions of the former.
In these poems, bales of hay smell, not of “sweet, green field” but “mold” (“Haying the Fields”). Walsh’s unsettling next and final line, “I feed the herd this bread,” invokes the classical symbol of bread as nourishment even as it subverts it. Earlier in the poem, the speaker watches his father:
…high on the John Deere,
the baler chewing row after row
to cut alfalfa, mustard, thistle.
I can’t tell, as I lift and stack,
how many small lives
die here, mangled under twine.
Here, the speaker recognizes the disruption of the human in the natural world, the casual violence of machines. Sympathy is one of the book’s most pervasive emotional motors, and here we see the speaker’s tendency to see the unseen, and to feel with them. It is, in part, this sympathy that drives the speaker to treat the pastoral with a guarded skepticism.
In a poem unambiguously called “Against Pastorals,” for example, the speaker tends to newborn calves:
plastic tags popped through their ears
and black scabs in between
where I burned off their horns,
white nubs soft as roots.
That scorched fur stank like human hair.
I turned and knew what I had to celebrate.
As in “Haying the Fields,” the speaker’s role on the farm feels somewhat discomfiting. That the fur “stank like human hair” suggests an unsettling empathy (would we feel comfortable doing this to a human?) and makes the language of celebration that follows feel ironic, hollow, inexplicably sad. It is one of the conventions of the pastoral that the animal/human relationship is symbiotic and uncomplicated (the lamb may eventually get eaten, but we don’t have to see the mess of killing). But Walsh suggests that the relationship is complicated at least in part because humans intervene—not for the animals’ own interest—but for the humans’. Unlike the happy lambs of the 19th century (at least, so we imagine), Walsh’s cows seem to lament something:
Now here’s sorrow
pushed from young ribs.
One part bassoon
two parts howl…
And again, the speaker feels something of himself in the animal’s bellow:
to rest in solar plexus
long enough for you
to bellor likewise.
This is not the pastoral rendered through the eye of an idealizing observer, but someone who knows this world too well to idealize it; this is particularly potent in Walsh’s poems that foreground the queer, poems that see this world through the sometimes anxious eye of a man whose sexuality targets him for potential violence in a homophobic world:
It’s a dirty peck
quick as a feather.
And now no one else in line
can bear to look at us.
Their gazes flutter to bottles
or keys they clutch, careful
until we step to the counter.
Then their eyes lock
hard and blank on our backs.
(“On Kissing My Husband at a Gas Station”)
The homoerotic is certainly familiar to the pastoral, dating back at least as far as Virgil’s “Alexis” Ecologue. But whereas Virgil effuses unabashedly to his beloved, Walsh’s poems are anxiously infused with the barely submerged threat of violence:
He lifts me to his brother’s face
Those sweet and full lips.
I love Tim’s fist.
Queerness, in these poems, radically disrupts the cultural vision that one might expect from poetry concerned with the agricultural Midwest. In this way, the vantage point of Walsh’s speakers seem as much outside as inside, intimate as foreign (would that this were not the case; it seems a shame we identify rural America with staunch heterocentrism). By writing the queer into his poems, Walsh foregrounds the popular idea of the rural United States as excluding the queer (and, by extension, emphasizing cultural homogeneity). Perhaps this explains the intensity with which Walsh’s speakers “see the unseen,” and empathize with them (see Reinhart’s A History of Shadows for a discussion on the history of invisibility of homosexuality in the rural Midwest). Walsh thus conceives the American pastoral as a genre that witnesses complexity of many kinds (social, cultural, economic, and personal).
A blurb by Paul Zimmer on the back of the book contends that these poems are “about strong, feeling people as they sense their way of life slipping away, even as they struggle to maintain themselves and find their own identity.” This sounds pleasant, but not entirely like the book I read, which does not seem to lament the slipping away of a way of life at all, as much as simply recount the moments and days and artifacts that make a life, letting them resonate with the reader according to the reader’s sympathies. Moreover, I wasn’t sure what this “way of life” means exactly, and honestly, I’m (gratefully) not sure Walsh does either. It is, in part, what makes reading this book a rich experience.
Despite the fact that these poems explicitly and consistently treat encounters with the natural world, Walsh does not render a world entirely outside the modern, the industrial.
Rust blooms across my land:
Spots like mold on white cars,
Their spark plugs cold as insects
Poisoned in orange powder.
What is interesting is that Walsh doesn’t fall very easily into the common dualism of natural/unnatural (often manifest in rural/urban dichotomies); in fact, the rural world never quite feels as natural as our cultural imagination might have us believe. In a poem called “Surrogates,” for example, the speaker writes of the impregnation of a cow:
Mother would push her hand inside the cow
slow, up to the elbow,
make the animal arch its back
to the right curve
for her silver gun
steady and quick as a stud.
This is hardly “natural,” but it doesn’t condemn or place a value on the natural over the unnatural either. We live in a world where easy delineations between the natural and unnatural quickly blur, and we adapt to the landscape we shape as much as we are shaped by it.
Reading these poems, I was struck by the fact that aesthetically, these spare, delicate lines may act in analogy to our popular imagination of the bucolic. They speak plainly, often narratively, they employ music that is subtle (“iridescence spinning, /holding still”) rather than hard or cacophonous. It is for this reason, I suspect, that Zimmer gives them the bizarre compliment of not trying “to dazzle us with poetic footwork.” At times, they can tip a bit into the precious (“I say, River, let me breathe you.”). But much as Walsh never writes the pastoral in too easy or clean a way, he is also inclined to disrupt the prettiness of his lines with a surprising sound, syntax, or image (“Even my skinny/chest would wobble/fake with breasts/ until I got comfortable” or “Spare parts,/ I lay experimental in his place” or “In storm light, everything’s hinge”). I often think that one of the unique gifts of the poem is the ability to surprise, both to let us see a thing in a new way but also to surprise the poem itself with a word or image that recasts what came before. Walsh’s poems, at their best, deftly accomplish this.
* * *
This most recent cycle of Constant Critic reviews has undertaken, in various ways, a critique of the genre of the review. The most pragmatic function of a review, it seems, is simply to give a reader a sense of whether or not he or she would like to read a particular book. But it strikes me that the review can also be a site of guerilla literary criticism, using a single book as a lens through which to say something about literature or poetics more broadly. Of course, as Karla noted in her most recent review, our aesthetics and ethics are as much implicit as explicit, and surely sometimes masked by the endeavor of rendering the book’s concerns (which may not, actually, be our own). I have never felt especially connected to the post-confessional voice (which Walsh arguably employs), but I appreciate a book that challenges me to think about a genre in a new way (which The Dirt Riddles most certainly does).