Emma Simon reviews Field Requiem by Sheri Benning (Carcanet, 2021)
Sheri Benning’s Field Requiem is a startling collection that is both hauntingly lyrical and politically engaged. Benning grew up on a family farm in Saskatchewan, and the poems in this collection are firmly rooted in this landscape. They chronicle the changes to the prairies, particularly the shift in recent years towards intensive farming and big agribusiness, and the environmental, economic and social damage this has caused. But these roots also dig further back, and bear witness to the harm caused by the influx of European settlers at the start of the last century, the political acts that parcelled up and sold on the land displacing the Indigenous and Métis peoples from their homes.
As the title of the collection suggests these are poems of mourning, a requiem to the land, and to the people who have made their homes and livelihood there. The poems are framed by the latin liturgy of the requiem mass, and biblical references ripple through the book.
Benning has described the dislocation she felt when her family sold their farm saying: “Facing a paucity of ritual to mourn the shift to intensive farming, the environmental degradation, the colonial theft, and further, to account for my family’s complicity in all of this, I can see now that I was intuitively feeling my way towards engaging in a practice of mourning, something akin to the spiritual practice of meditating on death.” But grief is a complicated emotion and these poems show its various sides: anger, pain, and a relentless questioning of what it means to farm the land, for who’s profit and at what cost. We have all heard the phrase ‘the personal is political’ but of course the reverse is also true. In these poems big political and environmental issues are felt on a deeply personal level, and it is this that really engages the reader and allows them in.
These are poems of mourning, a requiem to the land, and to the people who have made their homes and livelihood there
The first section of the book seems mainly concerned with Benning’s own relationship to the prairie landscape, with poems centred around personal memories and recollections. Subsequent section broaden out into the communal and historical losses and griefs.
What struck me most on reading this book, was how these poems were crammed full of ‘things’: every line seems to burst with plants, crops, birds, particular pesticides, tractor types, tobacco brands, place names, people’s names, map co-ordinates, road numbers, a specific breed of dog, perfumes and so on. Perhaps it was the various harvest allusions (and the current time of year) but I was reminded of Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ — each poem is like one of his over-brimming honey cells. It makes for a rewarding reading experience.
These details invoke the sense of a ritual naming, perhaps itself one of the most basic ways of remembering the dead. This isn’t an abstract notion of grief, but the concrete reality of it, the listing of what has gone, and what remains. The way Benning uses this helps give the poems a steady, almost biblical, rhythm. To me this seems to also act as an incantation, helping to summon up the past and to conjure a very visceral sense of these deserted farmsteads and dispersed communities.
We see this device from the opening poem, ‘Winter Sleep’ which starts:
‘Wheat threshed, casks of cherries, plums
boiled melon, beef tallow, pig bladders blown
and tossed by children, mothers stirring stock,
kidneys, hearts pressed with aspic,’
This certainly sets the tone for the rest of the book, but you could open it an almost any page and find plants, crops and flowers weaving their way through the lines. For example: “flax, barley, oats, peas” (‘Viaticum’) or “Chokeberries, spider webs/ slough water spice with lilac/ speak grass, cattails, caragana pods” that appear at the start of ‘Feast’, but soon merge into “Farm debt. Drought. The locus drone/ of adult-talk. Girls, come in for lunch“.
Similar litanies appear of “Sulfur, phosphorus, nitrogen/ potash” (‘Winter Sleep’) and “sockets sets, air compressors/ leftover five-gallon pails of hydraulic oil” (‘Great Plains Auction’). In ‘Vespers’ the “Case IH dealership, bulk fuel, feed mill” finally disappear in “dusk’s blue hour” until this elegiac poem reaches its beautiful and lyric ending:
Hatched moon caught in blossoming poplars
A canticle of horned owls, nighthawks, grey thrush.
There’s often a real musicality to all these lists and names. I found it really echoed around inside my head, like a chant.
This naming comes into the fore in the long poem, ‘Let Them Rest’, that makes up the fourth section of the book. This poem is a reckoning, unsparing in its gaze, and an explicit inventory of the marks various generations have left on these prairie landscapes, from the abandoned homes, to the schools, churches and gravestones. Like other parts of the book, this section is accompanied by photographs of the work by Benning’s sister, the artist Heather Benning, who has made large-scale installations that explore similar themes.
Again the imagery is vivid. For example in ‘Old St Benedict Church, RM of Hoodoo’ we see the past folded into the present. It start by summoning up what was: “Where beeswax, chrism, myrrh / Where teething babies on mother-laps / pulled and suck fistfuls of faux pearls”. But after this first stanza we are brought up sharp to the bleak reality of the present — a single line standing out on the white page, like a church against a wide horizon: “Black mould climbs the walls, trapped breath of petitions.”
Benning never falls into the trap of being nostalgic about the past, and never shies away for the harshness of this life. A series of poems mourns specific women and the difficulties they faced. Throughout the collection parallels are drawn and explored between different generations of prairie farmer: the pull of abandoned homes, a sense of displacement, violence to the landscape, and the precariousness of life and livelihoods.
Benning never falls into the trap of being nostalgic about the past, and never shies away for the harshness of this life
This might sound like a tough read, but the poems are punctuated with moments of real tenderness and beauty. I was also struck by how often the desolation was shot through with warm memories of family and a powerful sense of belonging: the grown-up brothers eating dinner together, a father looking after an injured dog, kids falling asleep in the back of their parents’ car. These poems are touching, thoughtful, full of bright images.
Many of the titles of poems in the ‘Let Them Rest’ section are map co-ordinates, that relate to the parcels of land sold to European settlers. NW 18 44 22 WND opens with a particularly startling image: “Clothesline droops with the ghosts of wet sheet / translucent moth wings.” Again it is the specificity of the details that help recreate the scene for the reader. The poems goes on: “You used to come here / tried on the left-behind dresses of the dead. Butterick patterns / Tiny purple flowers. Mrs Rochinsky’s sweat-stained milk vetch.”
It is the details of the Butterick pattern that bring the remembered scene vividly back to life and contrasts it with the empty ghost-like ‘present’ of the poem, where Mrs Rochinsky’s home is abandoned, as the raven warned.
Sheri Benning’s work has been described as ‘prairie gothic’. The desolate landscape and empty farmsteads standing like mausoleums do give these poems a gothic sensibility at times, though I wonder if that term in some ways detracts from their seriousness. But the poems themselves stand like lines chipped into a headstone. Reading this book I felt I was tracing my hands over the marks made, trying to better understand what has gone before.
Sheri Benning is reading alongside Rachael Allen, Sarala Estruch and Shane McCrae at the online launch of the Autumn 2021 issue of Poetry Review on Wednesday 13 October 2021, 7pm–8pm — book your free ticket here.
Emma Simon has published two pamphlets, The Odds (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) and Dragonish (The Emma Press, 2017). The Odds was a winner in The Poetry Business International Pamphlet & Book Competition. Emma has been widely published in magazines and anthologies and has won both the Ver Poets and Prole Laureate prizes. She works in London as a part-time journalist and copywriter and has just completed an MA via the The Poetry School and Newcastle University.