Book Review   

First Words by Joyce Sutphen, Red Dragonfly Press, 2010.  $20 hardback, $15 paperback

Reviewed by Barbara Crooker

This fifth book by Joyce Sutphen may be called First Words, but they’re certainly not going to be the last words we’ll be hearing from this fine poet.  Her collection takes a lyric look back at rural Minnesota life, a life full of horses and haystacks, tractors and threshers, Krinkletop cookies and the first glimpse of a grandchild on an ultrasound, while it celebrates family and a way of life that is slipping away.  Particularly tender are the father/daughter poems, and the poems that are snapshots everyday life: hanging wash, canning fruits and vegetables, baking a cake (you could make one yourself by following the poem), gardening.  The book goes from “just a man and a woman / in the circle that makes a farm”(“First Words”) to “The Last Things I’ll Remember” (the penultimate poem in the book), as it comes full circle home.

The longing for home and the need to preserve the past are two of the book’s great strengths.  Sutphen does this with plainspoken everyday language, precise imagery, and without the sugary drip of nostalgia:

                        Perhaps it only happened once
                        that we missed the cotton candy,

                        the bingo tent, the fishing pond,
                        and the pie room, because

                        (as everyone knows) you have
                        to make hay when the sun is shining.
                                    (“On the Fourth of July”)

Now as an adult, she wants to be back there again,
                        blue sky over the hayfield
                        and the red tractor and baler
                        swiveling along the green rows,
                        bales dropping at perfect intervals,

                        as if measuring out a happiness
                        we didn’t even know we had.
                                    (same poem)

She can lift her voice in praise:  “I want to praise / the harrow, / first for its name, / which, when I write it, // is like unto what it is.” (“Harrow”) while at the same time she gives voice to the act of writing as part of the art of re-creation:   “For when the world / is turned inside / out, the harrow / slips it back into / its skin again.” (same poem)(Notice the deft use of enjambment here.)

She knows how to employ interesting strategies.  In a long (two page) poem called “The Oat Binder,” she realizes she has to explain it all:  first, what an oat field looks like (“green, then gold”), then how they set the bundles together (“shocking the oats”), then the threshing machines, the oat straw (“like Rapunzel’s hair into a yellow heap”), the men in the threshing crew, the huge meals at noon, the women who served them, all to an audience “who couldn’t / tell a handful of alfalfa from oat straw.” (Myself included).  She patiently takes us on this journey, and brings us home in the strong final stanza:

            What I really wanted to tell you, I said,
            was how we used to play on the oat binder
            at the back of the machine shed and that
            the light fell into place, like ripened oats.
            What I really wanted to tell you was that
            the oat binder was as beautiful as
            a ship under sail, that it took its sweet
            time with the field and left all of the gold
            for us.  What I really wanted to say
            is that I know (yes) how lucky I’ve been.

Sometimes Sutphen employs an elegiac tone to fuel her poems.  Here, she recalls a time

            when old names in a churchyard reminded
            us of everyone we’d ever lost

            or left behind, even though we turned to smile
            at the camera in my daughter’s hand.
                        (“In This Photo”)

Sometimes, her strength is in her themes, such as the father/daughter bond.  Although her setting is rural, she wants us to know, “Just for the Record,” that “it wasn’t like that.  Don’t imagine / my father in a field cap, chewing / a stem of alfalfa, spitting occasionally. // No bib-overalls. . . .no handkerchief around his neck.”

            . . . 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.
                        (“Just for the Record”)

Like many of her subjects, the father is complicated, not simple; Sutphen is no latter-day Edgar Guest.  But she isn’t afraid to use celebratory language:  “My Legendary Father”  “could weld old water pipes into a swing,. . . .lay a field of hay flat, then twist it / into long green ribbons, . . .could ride a horse bareback, no / bridle.”  She isn’t afraid to wish she could resurrect the past:  “ ‘H’ [is] for the ache to see my father plowing fields again— / the silhouette of a red tractor and a man, one hand / on the wheel, the other waving free.” (“H”)  There’s a thin edge she’s riding, between sentiment and corn, but she never wavers, always stays on the right side of the line.

In “All the Colors,” she performs a neat trick, going from sepia and solemnity (great-grandparents) to black and white (her grandparents, who almost break into smiles) to her parents, in color, “laughing, happy as movie stars” in the full-spectrum modern world. It’s her ability to focus on just the right specific details that does this.  When her children were small, all she wanted

            was happiness, pure happiness, simple
            as strawberries and cream in a saucer,

            as curtains floating from a window sill,
            as small pairs of shoes arranged in a row.

She focuses in on small details again in “Things You Didn’t Put On Your Resumé,” a sheer genius of a poem.  This resumé doesn’t include “how often you got up in the middle of the night / when one of your children had a bad dream” or  “that you were an expert at putting toothpaste / on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle // the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while / you sang the words to songs from Annie.”  It leaves out the fingerings in the Suzuki violin books, the voices of Pooh and Piglet, the reading of “all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy.”  And here “is another thing you don’t put // on the resumé:  how you took them to the ocean / and the mountains and brought them safely home.”  This is a hymn to the underlying sacredness of parenting,  without glazing it in saccharine. 

Each detail is perfect, yet surprising as the zucchini “which proliferates at / an astounding rate so / that it appears / like a sly green jack-in-the-box / under every wide leaf.”  (“Zucchini Bread”)(“all of the recipes were a form / of defense.”)(Disclaimer:  I’m known for my zucchini bread; how could I not love this poem?).  O taste and see, this sweet, sweet life.

The first poem in this book begins, “You don’t need new words / or even new ways of putting // one word next to another,” (“How You Learn”) which is true throughout, unadorned mid-Western language, nothing edgy or experimental.  “The Last Things I’ll Remember” is almost a litany, almost an elegy for things that are disappearing from the landscape:  “the partly open hay barn door . . .walking in the cornfields in late July, . . . hollyhocks leaning against the stucco house . . the smell of cut hay . . .the drone of the hammer mill / milk machines at dawn.”  Sutphen ends the book with this:  “I’d help // if you asked me—I could begin / saying the words right now.”  (“Like a Diamond”).  She gives us both “First Words” and last words, and we, her readers, will have to wait and look forward to more words from this fine poet, at the top of her game, who sure knows a thing or two about tilling acreage with her pen instead of a plow.

Barbara Crooker’s books are Radiance, which won the 2005 Word Press First Book competition and was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize;  Line Dance, (Word Press 2008), which won the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence; and More (C & R Press, 2010).  She lives and writes in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, but has a fondness for Wisconsin writing, based on the excellence she found when she judged the Lorene Niedecker and the Posner awards.