What We’re Reading: First Words
This week, I’m digging into a book I’ve had on my shelves since it was published, but just haven’t sat down with to investigate fully yet. And how I wish I had done this sooner. Minnesota’s second poet laureate, Joyce Sutphen, works her humble, soft-spoken way into similar shared experiences with her book of poems, First Words.
A plain-spoken poet, Sutphen wins her reader over not with adrenaline-pumped word choices or complex form; rather she does it by describing the simple wonder and beauty of certain, quiet moments that would otherwise go unnoticed. First Words chronicles her childhood growing up on a farm, and in turn, her experience of motherhood. Many of the farm poems resonated the strongest with me, but I wonder if that’s because those are the poems that I have some sort of shared experience with.
This isn’t a book of clear favorites and emotional high points; it’s an even-keeled book, making sense of the world with an always-watching eye and an ear tuned to the thrum of everyday life. Poems run into the next poem, circle back to poems in previous sections, and the whole book feels like a conversation. The only part about this book that held me at bay at times, was Sutphen’s tendency towards lengthy, run-on sentences. Many times, when reading the poems out loud to myself, I ran out of breath, and the rhythm became a bit choppy. However, I’ve had the chance to hear Sutphen read her work, including some from this book, and it never seems that way when she reads her lines in her soft, lilting voice. I always feel at ease when she reads, calm and content that I am in good hands.
One of the poems, “Just for the Record” addresses the tendency of other poets to idealize farm life. Sutphen writes about the farm life in a tender way of remembrance, but is careful not to idealize it, which she makes quite clear with the poem:
It wasn’t like that. Don’t imagine
my father in a feed cap, chewing
a stem of alfalfa, spitting occasionally.
No bib-overalls over bare shoulders,
no handkerchief around his neck.
Don’t imagine he didn’t shave every morning.
The buildings on his farm weren’t
weathered gray; the lawns were always mowed.
Don’t imagine a car in the weeds.
I tell you this because you have certain
ideas about me, about farmers
and their daughters.
You imagine him bumbling along, some
hayseed, when really, he wore his dark
suit as gracefully as Cary Grant.
The one thing you’re right about
is that he worked too hard. You can’t
imagine how early and how late.
The poem reminds me of my own father who defies stereotypes as a specialized veterinarian and sheep farmer who also happens to be an avid book-reader who loves Italian opera music and a good bottle of Cabernet. And of course, other experiences within her poems bring up similar experiences of my childhood: unloading hay into the barn, picking rocks from my uncle’s fields, watching my father work. However, while I usually write about my experiences in a more gritty fashion, Sutphen addresses them head-on with a clear-eyed voice. The whole book left me in a state of remembrance.
What books (either poetry or prose) have distinct echoes of your own childhood or past life experiences? Do you find that the writer’s voice is different to how you approach your own experience of these shared memories?