The Renewal of Dirt
Derek Sheffield reviews
Nine Acres by Nathaniel Perry
Nathanial Perry’s Nine Acres, which won the APR/Honickman First Book Prize judged by Marie Howe, achieves its beauty through a clear voice and a unity of form and theme. My form antennae twitched after reading the first poem, but it wasn’t until the third or fourth poem that I realized what I was in the grips of—and it comes down to the number four. Each poem is four quatrains of regular tetrameter with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyming. What’s more, there are 52 poems that take their titles from the chapter titles of Five Acres and Independence: A Handbook for Small Farm Management by M.G. Kains, and we should note that 52 is divisible by four. What makes all this especially impressive is how naturally the poems exist in their formal attire, which is more like overalls than a tuxedo. The poems lead us comfortably to an array of rewards.
One place where the form yields surprise appears in the titles. In a poem called “Drainage,” instead of reading about ways to remove excess water from the soil, we read of Perry’s wife (the writing is so personal that it would feel strange here to say “speaker’s wife”) alone at night in their house. When a stranger comes to the door, she gets him to leave by encouraging the dogs to bark. In “Renting vs. Buying,” a couple finds an arrowhead in a neighboring field. The title, in company with the arrowhead, helps the poem to obliquely address man’s varied relationship with the land across time and culture. While the finder sees something that “glittered in the furrow,” Perry sees the “gray / of something dead.” Additionally, it’s my guess that the form, especially the rhymes, helped create some striking passages, as in
The sun sat on its porch
and smiled. I wondered if the dirt
would be enough, a kind of torch
to set inside our lives. . .
The fundamental and resonant allure of “dirt as a torch” typifies the kind of elemental richness Nine Acres has to offer.
Thematically, Perry’s book works like a sestina. Again and again, the diction and imagery of farming, weather, landscape, and family occur, and each time they do, they are imbued with added resonance. The nine acres owned by Perry and his family act as a polestar around which everything in their lives revolves.
While Nine Acres is in the Romantic tradition, it owes more to John Clare than John Keats. There are lyrical descriptions of working the land and of being in the midst of something like wilderness, “the other animals out here” and the darkness “which is not dark.” But never too far from love is fear. Among the poems that celebrate the life this family has chosen are ones that detail marital squabbles and the raw animal angers that abide in each of us. The poem called “Manures” begins
I’ll say it again, it will piss you off
again. I’ll do it again, it will make
you cry again. I know I’ll chase
the dogs again and scream and shake
them when I find them.
Tempering the sustenance and joy with the reality of day-to-day squabbles lends these poems an authenticity that echoes the sincerity of their expression. Perry is well aware that “you can be fed too much / of beauty.” Similarly, the lines, “Staring at you squatting down / among the lettuces, I can’t / help but imagine you naked there,” help ground the sweeter moments like this one: “But stay with me like peas / in the meadow, which is to say always.” We gather that Perry and his family are farming organically and more by handwork than motorwork, but the reality in farm country is that you’re likely to have a neighbor, as Perry does, who uses pesticides and herbicides and whose father did the same.
Just as you might learn a bit about whaling from reading Moby Dick, you might learn a bit about farming from Nine Acres. But even more so, you might get a glimpse of the spiritual rewards that come with care of the land. Throughout the book, the human, the wild, and the land intermingle like the roots of grass. So when you teach the yard to be soil, you, too, grow and change and are renewed. As you cultivate the land, you cultivate all the many relationships of your life—relationships with family, neighbors, pets, wildlife (the otherness of wild nature), and the relationship with yourself, both animal and human, flesh and feeling. To engage this deeply and intimately with the sensuous world is to call forth the spiritual one, our natures in tune with what we are simultaneously part of and apart from. Perry writes,
This land for work
which makes us whole, which hold for us
the days and holds away the dark.
This generous book is a testament to the complexity of living consciously in a place. It doesn’t pretend to have the answers, only maybe a hunch or two about direction, a guess that to be fully human we must embrace place in our makeup and never lose sight of the interdependence of all forms, wherever our nine acres might be.
Derek Sheffield lives with his family on 2.38 acres in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. He teaches poetry and nature writing at Wenatchee Valley College. His first book of poems, Through the Second Skin, will be published in January 2013 by Orchises Press. You can read more of his work here.