Monday, July 1, 2013

Maggie Schwed on “Pollen Season”

It was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma that made me feel, eight years ago, that my love of farms didn’t have to starve itself by merely driving past the silos, beautiful patterned fields, broad barns, and rusting tractors of the Midwest, the West, and the Northeast. I’m not young. I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and will never have a farm. I do have a farmer friend, though, who let me work one summer fetching his cows from pasture, milking them, mucking his barn, feeding urns of whey to his pigs, and acquiring a beginner’s knowledge of how to make cheese. The commute to his farm was long and when I heard about another farm, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, only forty minutes north of the city, I began to work there, first in the fields and greenhouse, then with livestock. 

I keep a journal of my labor. I chronicle the pleasures of working outdoors in all weather, for long hours, often in awkward positions, using my eyes and hands. At the same time, a long practice of writing nature poems was making me wonder about the direction of my work. Farming was deepening my experience of the green world. But how could the writing of yet another nature poem, a genre often scorned as obvious, rear guard, and tepid, be progressive, at least for me? I knew the nature poem could still bring news (that is to say, we’ve forgotten a lot about grasses, animals, wind, insects). But all along, the venerable pastoral tradition notwithstanding, I felt the pressure of having to justify myself. 

Pollen Season” is one of a small group of poems in Driving to the Bees (Black Lawrence Press, June, 2014), that tries another approach to nature writing. Formally, it has almost the look of prose, with paragraph-like blocks for stanzas but, working extensively out loud, I found that I did want to preserve line breaks. Direct address brought warmth, a chance to speak intimately and colloquially (I’ve always loved Whitman for this). A semi-epistolary form appeared almost immediately; my journals and letters carried some of the voice I wanted, and I mined them. The voice needed to be pushy, urgent, trying to make contact, jumping from one thing to the next.

“Pollen Season” dictated its own order. The first stanza, moving through a kind of report on family matters, undergoes a shift with the first question: “Do you share with me. . . ?” Asking questions felt like a way to swerve the poem in close—What do you think? Don’t you agree? It increased my feeling that I was talking with someone and made it easier to keep talking. The writing of the poem began to feel like the movement of my own mind, the voice holding more of my personality than I was accustomed to. And that seemed oddly redemptive.

I have felt strongly how unable I am to write a political poem and with equal strength the imperative to do so. By asking about our decade-long, largely hidden war, I had begun to find a way to extend my reach. I could perhaps be in league with another farmer’s struggle to make something grow from destroyed ground, though watering a seed or tending a hive looks very different when done in the presence of war.

The second stanza I think of as an answer to my mother’s distress about killing (“What are you doing?”).  I wanted to make evisceration palpable, and to impress in the reader’s mind the beauty and interest of what I discovered inside of the bird. It was a taking of responsibility: this is my share in death. It’s a strange thing to claim slaughter as a skill. But it is one. The purpose of cultivation is harvest. Death is as robust as life. Again, asking questions helps me here to stay close to “you,” my “dear friend.”  

The fine editorial hand of Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald helped me lift away a few bits that I thought expanded the world of the poem but that they helped me see restricted it, or moved it toward political rhetoric. The other risk of a more talked poem is a lack of economy, and again, they helped me avoid the hazard of blabbing.

So, is “Pollen Season” a nature poem? Not only, but that second stanza lets me know I’m still exploring the genre. Embracing a plurality of subjects is helping me pursue the nature poem with renewed confidence.