Field Requiem. Carcanet Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
For twenty years, starting with Earth After Rain (2001) and continuing in Thin Moon Psalm (2007) and The Season’s Vagrant Light (2015), Sheri Benning has been composing a cosmology of the prairies. Field Requiem is her darkest, fiercest, most powerful work. To call it an elegy would be excessively gentle. It would be to disregard the phantasmagoric violence churning under the surface and sporadically rupturing it. In a repeating fever dream, one turns the corner, and there is the murderer in the gas mask, “the throat-cut animal” slung around his neck (16). The animal is one’s father, one’s mother, one’s childhood home; it is oneself. Out of imagination’s rock-sealed reservoir surge surreal visions:
Just look at those who stayed—
in my dream, the men from Grünau, found
heads down, shoulder-to-shoulder, tongues
nailed to the dining table. (16)
Benning’s book is a long poem in five movements about the extinction of the family farm and the industrial campaign to turn the earth into a waste land “possessed of nettles and salt” (71). The book’s intertexts include the Books of Psalms, Kings, and Zephaniah. The first and second movements coalesce around the characters of the father and the mother. The third movement is a matriarchal history of farming the prairies. In it, a daughter is roped to her mother and lowered into a dreamlike well; a woman is roped to her husband, who is killed in a black blizzard, or dust storm, so “she grab[s] the knife, // the serrated blade, hack[s] and / hack[s] at the fraying rope” (45). The fourth movement visits Saskatchewan’s “wrecked farmscape” (89) and draws on “Dies irae” (“Day of Wrath”), the medieval Latin poem about the Last Judgement that features in the Catholic Requiem Mass. Grief transfigures into rage.
The intertext for the first movement’s opening poem, “Winter Sleep,” is the bizarre parable of the pounds from the Book of Luke. A nobleman gives money to his slaves and tells them to multiply it in his absence. One slave, rightly afraid, hides his mina in a cloth; upon the nobleman’s return, he is punished. We are supposed to mine the parable for some spiritual message, but Benning applies its ruthless logic to agriculture:
I wake to 6000 acres, high clearance sprayers
with 140-foot booms. Sulfur, phosphorus, nitrogen,
potash. Harvest done by drone. Yields downloaded
into $750 000 air seeders come spring. We were told—
to those who have, more will be given.
Viterra’s actuaries betting on future markets,
brokering grain they don’t own. We were told
those with nothing, even that will be taken away. (16)
We must remember that, in the very same chapter of Luke, Christ drives the sellers out of the temple. (A spectre is haunting the prairies—the spectre of capitalism and agribusiness . . .) The prairies are vast but not limitless. Snow geese keep lifting from the stubble in a gesture of keening, “a terrible forgetting” (67).
The family farm of the prairies is becoming extinct. But as Benning acknowledges, clear-eyed in an endnote, grieving this form of life is complex: “The Dominion Lands Act effectively granted free land to settlers as part of a process that displaced Indigenous and Métis peoples from their traditional homes” (89). In some ways, Benning’s book shares a spirit with Zwicky’s Robinson’s Crossing: the personal history (in Borson’s sense) of settling the prairies. How strangers made a home there, putting down genuine roots. The genocide that was—and is—the engine of the settling. How to grieve what was founded on grief? “Where coyotes licked the blood / of those whose land you broke, / they’ll lick yours” (86).
The book is also a long meditation on place and the way that place is marked and remembered by the body. In “Nativity,” the speaker walks in the snow with their mother, who is recovering from surgery:
You wanted to walk outside so I found our winter coats
in the basement closet, still holding our shape.
I thought of matted pasture grass
where a deer has lain. (32)
In “Plainsong,” a wife and husband sleep “in the space their bodies have learned / to make from years of sharing / blood, spit, loam” (17). Similarly, in “NE 10 36 22 W2nd,” the father lies in a deer’s wallow, watching “catkins lift in updrafts” and listening to the “soft rattle of aspens” (68).
In the character of the father, sensitivity converges with violence in an uneasy paradox. With one hand, he touches a rose petal; with the other, he skins a snared rabbit. “Tobacco, diesel, his palms / stained, rough-cut wood, but when I was a girl / and he wiped my face, held a tissue to my nose?” (24). The convergence is most acute in two moments, associated with dogs and an owl. In the past, the family adopted two German Shepherds. When one was afflicted with porcupine quills, the father pulled them out with pliers and cared for the dog while he healed. Now father and speaker return to the sold farm to toss into a pit what they can’t take. The speaker wants to ask what happened to the dogs—old, “three-legged, diabetic, blind,” unwanted by the farm’s buyer—
but the sky’s heavy
with shifting weather. Besides,
I know the answer. Someone had to
lay them in the reliquary, swathe them
in linen and spice, horsemint, silver sage,
axle-greased polycotton, shop rags. (26)
The cliffhanging enjambment at the stanza break implies mercy-killing, but the concluding tercet is surprisingly ritualistic. The dogs are honoured as holy beings, and even the garbage is redeemed from the pit and integrated, through tensely composed assonance and consonance, into the reliquary.
Similarly, sensitivity and violence converge in the father’s killing of the owl:
This is where he came in sorrow
after his father made him shoot the horned owl perched
in the spruce north of the chicken coop.
No proof the owl killed chicks. (68)
It’s true that the father’s way of life involves killing. But he intuits that there should be reasons: to feed oneself and one’s family, to protect livestock. Gratuitous destruction of beauty induces sorrow. The hunter, notwithstanding the violent telos that drives him, is intimately intertwined with the lives of non-human animals in a way that the agroindustry machine-operator and the urban grocery-shopper are not:
this is where the boy felt the animal’s wet-eyed stare,
coyote, fox, jackrabbit, badger.
This is where he followed tracks, set snares in estrus-scent
and molt, scat, shed fur.
This is where he lay, a deer’s wallow of slender wheatgrass
blue grass, brome and sedge . . . (68)
This place, shaped by the body of a deer—the biocoenosis of homo sapiens, deer, wheatgrass, aspen, saskatoon—is no longer there. Once vibrantly alive, it has become a waste, where the father, “neck in the noose of profit margins and farm credit . . . // . . . rakes roots for forty more acres” (69). Place, in Benning’s long poem, is independent of linear time. By visiting a place, one may return to the past. But how to grieve when the gravesite itself has been obliterated? The place shaped by the bodies of the deer and the father is erased, the prayer-like lists of grains transubstantiating into lists of toxins.
Canola, pulse, cereal, flax, Roundup,
anhydrous ammonia, nitrogen gas,
granular phosphorus, sulfur, potash,
120 pounds per acre of wheat seed,
broadleaf herbicide, fungicide, insecticide,
in low-spots and sloughs. (67)
Some of these elements are naturally occurring; some are needed for agriculture at any scale, from the backyard garden to the factory farm, or indeed for life itself. As Jan Zwicky has argued, the difference between non-human wilderness and human agriculture is not categorical, but a difference of degree: “I want to argue that wilderness depends, not on the absence of human interaction with the land, but rather on its quantity and style. Wilderness exists, I’ll suggest, in greater or lesser degrees wherever we allow communities of non-humans to shape us at least as much as or more than we shape them” (27). This definition allows for the possibility that there may be human forms of life that are more open to and informed by wilderness.
In Benning’s whole book, there are only four or five poems on the lee side of the violence, sheltered by discarded cinder blocks, and even these are laced with loss and melancholy. “Plainsong” witnesses three siblings interwoven in a nest of limbs and light:
Driving home from Uncle Richard’s,
in the backseat with my brother and sister—
weft of limbs, pearlescence of moonlit skin,
shift and fall of their breath.
My face against the car window to watch stars, and every mile
a farm, yard-lights,
a voice in plainsong—
But the image radiates from the infancy of an extinguished galaxy: “Our farm’s sold. Dave’s too. Uncle Richard died seventeen years ago. / Only now the light of this memory reaches me” (17).
This poem, with its astronomy charting the small cosmos of family farms, is counterpointed by the lightless poem “NW 18 36 22 W2nd.” The title is shared by sister Heather Benning’s seventh photograph in the volume, depicting a piano with its hammers exposed in a ruined room (88). The title comes from Ottawa’s grid system for designating locations on the prairie—without respecting the natural contours of the land, as Sheri Benning observes (89). From a dedication in the book’s acknowledgements (93-94), one may infer that this formula—northwest quarter of section eighteen, township thirty-six, range twenty-two, west of the second meridian—locates the speaker’s former home:
Farm subsidies smashed by Intercontinental Packers,
Big Sky Pork Farms. Our barns now their finishing
pens for 10 000 pigs from 1000 sows.
No moon. No snow. No yard-lights for miles,
like an eye put out. (75)
When they are six to eight weeks of age, pigs are sent to the pens for finishing, i.e., to complete their fattening. When they reach so-called market weight, they are sent to slaughter. Again, it’s not that there’s no slaughtering on the family farm. It belongs to the way of life of these people: “After Holy Communion they picnic / on cold chicken and jelly, rosehip, chokecherry” (86). But there is a difference between a grandmother cutting the throat of a hen and a corporation incarcerating one thousand sows in two-by-seven-foot “farrowing crates.” Olymel, which bought Big Sky in 2013 for sixty-five million dollars, brags that it is the third-largest hog producer in Canada with a herd of 42,500 sows (“Background”). According to the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, the swine industry in that province converts twenty-seven million bushels of feed grains into two million market hogs (920). Without witnesses, in the starless abyss, grass is reduced to flesh, and flesh, to cash. But “all flesh is grass” (Benning 64).
“Background – Olymel L.P.” Olymel, https://www.olymel.ca/en/company/background/.
“Swine Industry.” Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2006, esask.uregina.ca/entry/swine_industry.jsp.
Zwicky, Jan. “Wilderness and Agriculture.” In the Agora: The Public Face of Canadian Philosophy, edited by Andrew D. Irvine and John Russell, University of Toronto Press, 2006, pp. 24-29.
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