Tilling the Darkness by Susan Braley

Tilling the Darkness by Susan Braley is fierce and moving.

She aptly catches telling details in family and rural scenes. It is a sort of personal/national backstory of one thread.

in “Pro/Creation” p50 a title that is as dense as a portmanteau, and sets up nicely the social/ideological frame of the farm as birth your labour force and praise the Lord.

“My father preferred my mother not wear pants

not work off the farm

not read when he was in

My mother cleared my path to university

I loved the library’s affable hum”

I love how the poem structures suspense and pivots in the fewest possible words and explanations. Situation: patriarchy, retaliation through generations, and achievement of speaker into the new world her mother and a lineage of women dreamt. This poem encapsulates the tension within

 “a family of eleven on 150 acres of clay-loam.”

The culture is familiar, but I’ve rarely seen it out there from a woman’s perspective: the forced uselessness of being a girl on the farm while boys can work, girls can bring them lunch. Boys are shirtless and girls, picking frost thrown stones, are covered “No shorts/ in case we’re seen from the road.” (p.14).

Gender like beet dye soaked into all irrelevant undesirable places. She calls those out which is balm to me of what I need to hear.

I don’t just love the book because she’s a good storyteller and with healing messages and a knack for good phrase. I don’t just love the book because it was worth rereading or because she could bring together in one poem a car crashing into a cafe like a Star Trek ship, and being “outside the lattice of time” (p. 47) as when she grabbed an electric fence, but they all come together: subject, tone, hooks, density, and freshness.

The hired man is a subject that used to be common, well, as hired men used to be. “The Hired Man” by Braley is a title loaded with resonance with James Whitcomb Riley’s kindly hired man, friend of children, and Robert Frost’s  sympathetic broken tired man in “Death of a Hired Man”. John B. Lee’s Charlie Birdshit Birchette had a mouth on him that made him flying ballast.

Of these models her Hired Man is most like the wondrous creature to the child viewer of James Whitcomb Riley. There’s a sense of marvelling at beauty in her treatment of ( p. 13 ) “The Hired Man”

“Beside the thick steers,

his body looked wasted. […then]

He wasn’t there.

I looked the cattle in the eyes. Dark glass. Bits of yellow clung to their sides.

In the air above our heads, dust motes swirled.”

As Canadians have steadily fled the farm since the late 1800s, so has poetry. (In the 1940s about 40% were rural it was 18% in 2021. ) What is sometimes called academic poems are the result of urban lives. This isn’t the whole story of Canada. There are books in Canada that reference religious life, such as by St. Thomas press, but more commonly CanLit steers around Christianity as an obstacle or it’s not a vector. She confront it.

Any shame society or a sub-set of religion tries to pin, she hands back with a punch and beatific smile. “Her hat makes her eligible to pray in God’s presence”. (p.44) She’s calling foul on that.

Patsy Cline to the sound of the milk separator is like a worm hole to another place and time, transporting me with precise details. Would it work if you hadn’t lived an equivalent? I don’t know.

Through vignettes it gives a sense of poignant balance and effort to balance. Things are not overwrought or overstated but suggested and left implied for the reader. Impressive for a debut collection.

They were hard working times but not without idyllic moments of quiet, with undercurrent, such as “Summer Corn” where there’s a farm picnic but also corn smut, (p. 17) a fungus that could risk the crop and survival. If not that then a barn fire and (p. 32) in the still aftermath “grief trying to arrive”. She has some fabulous phrases.

In the chapter “Clay Falling Into Furrows” she claims as “us” or “mine” those who colour, or are coloured by others, as outside the lines; the Queer uncle, the extramarital daughter like a Cinderella, the suicidal Mennonite. We are bigger than the rules of the community. We are human. It is immensely heartening for reasons I can’t fully explain.

Her poems address the darkness of the land she sprang from but carry us all forward into a new light. She affirms a dignity and honour back to the “outcasts” in a gorgeous way such as in “Chosen” p. 40,  “a girl-woman holding a child// they’re suffused with light, /like those Madonnas cradling / infant gods.”

It’s a fool’s sport to predict award winners but I do hope this collects a few.

About the Author

Susan Braley grew up in a family of eleven on a farm in Southern Ontario. Her life in this rural setting profoundly shaped her as daughter, sibling, feminist, partner, reader and writer. Her poetry is included in Best Canadian Poetry 2023, and was nominated for the 2022 National Magazine Award in Poetry. For much of her adult life, Susan lived in London, Ontario, where she earned a PhD in Modern Literature, and taught literature, writing and women’s studies. She now lives in Victoria, BC.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Caitlin Press (Feb. 1 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 96 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773861069
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773861067

Pearl Pirie's WriteBulb is now available at the Apple store. A prompt app for iOS 15 and up gives writing achievement badges. Pirie’s 4th poetry collection was footlights (Radiant Press, 2020).  rain’s small gestures (Apt 9 Press, 2021), minimalist poems, won the 2022 Nelson Ball Prize. Forthcoming chapbooks from Catkin Press and Turret House. Find more at www.pearlpirie.com or at patreon.com/pearlpiriepoet