Violent Learning: Farrah Field's Rising

Rising by Farrah Field.
Levis Poetry Prize
Four Way Books, 2009 (65 pages)
ISBN: 978-1884800900.

The first poem of Farrah Field’s Levis Prize-winning Rising serves as preface to the collection, establishing both the revelation of personal experience at the center of the book and the importance of location to the poems. In “Self-Portrait in Toad Suck, Arkansas,” a young girl is placed successively in the strangely named town of the title, on an unmapped gravel road, and finally in the middle of a group photo that becomes a portrait of the artist: “She crosses the yard to a birthday party. / There are candles in the trees and everyone / is gathered for a picture. She steps in the middle.” This snapshot introduces the reader to the central figure of Rising, to whom the poems often refer, in a kind of self-address, as “you.” The picture especially points out her relation to the small-town societies, where she finds herself both at the center and in the way, stepping right into an already composed scene, disrupting and completing it.

Rising is haunted by the loss of an older sister; over the course of the book we learn that she died in an episode of domestic violence, which members of the community claim never to have expected. Poems about this sister, Heather, and about the radically dislocated feeling of those who survive her, form the core of the book. In “The Telling,” the speaker meditates on the act of relating the story of the murder, incorporating language from television and newspaper reports as well as her own recollected speech, all of which add up to a disjointed and insufficient account of what really happened. The elusive departed returns throughout the book, appearing in “Bare Shoulders” as “bones quoting scripture” and in “Weird Luck” as “a ghost with a broken skull” and the reader can’t help feeling the pain of these recurrences. Meanwhile, the living sister feels deeply uncertain about how to get on with life in the aftermath of the murder. “In Oupelousas” she recalls the unreal feeling of attending the funeral: “I cried so hard I forgot who I was. Someone touched my arm. What’s an arm.”

These poems of loss and disbelief proceed by dissociated sentences that occasionally give way to stark sentiment, the way strained conversation with her parents in “Louisiana Phone Call” leads the speaker to the bald assertion: “I can’t promise I won’t die before you.” As Rising progresses, it moves, if not toward healing, then at least toward release of the tormented and tormenting ghost. By the penultimate poem, the speaker has found enough distance from the event to remind herself, “Summer is not special and neither are you—as if a sister should request / if she can live or die when you’re ready.” Unprepared as she is to understand the death, she starts to see that the stolen sister cannot return.

In addition to this elegiac strain, the book also takes as its subjects rural, especially southern, communities, developing sexuality, and trust and mistrust in love. Poems about romantic entanglements offer some of the lighter moments in Rising such as “O My Boring,” a mocking ode to a very pedestrian lover. They also extend Field’s meditation on doubt by considering what the young woman can expect to gain in her relationships with men. Elaborating the relationship to community Field established in her “Self-Portrait,” the poems occasionally consider their own uneasy connection to the south. The speaker is easily conversant in the idioms of the region yet self-aware in a way that allows her to see herself as stereotype. Southern talk is sometimes played for humor as in Possums and Critters Get Back There” but it also gives the language texture. The poems revel in geographical names (Ouachita River, Lecompte Bayou, Petty Harbor)—yet still they maintain a distance from the places in which they are set, as the unsettled speaker stands apart from the romantic partners she can’t let herself rely on.

Field’s poems dart quickly among snatches of speech and among images. They have the elliptical quality of a conversation between old friends, and yet the memories Field calls up are unfamiliar and occasionally disconcerting to the reader. Field tends to avoid lyric flight, and often ends her poems on lines that resist apotheosis by their insistent flatness. This blunt speaking makes an aesthetic principle of Field’s thematic concern with the hidden brutality in relationships and communities. In “The Disturbed Mississippi” she writes what might be a motto for Rising: “We suffer / violent learning that terrible things are great things.” The poems in this moving debut collection don’t hesitate to deliver their learning with force or to teach us their terrible lessons.

Stefanie Wortman is a poet originally from Kansas City, Missouri. Her poems have appeared in the Yale Review, New Orleans Review, Smartish Pace, and the online audio archive From the Fishouse. She is currently finishing a PhD at the University of Missouri, where she teaches courses in creative writing, literature, and film.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761