At first, the blankness of the page matched the blankness of the snow. But as baby lettuce grew under electric blankets, as cucumbers suddenly ripened, the year took shape in a poet’s computer.
It was a strange moment. I’d been married six months and was living in Brooklyn with my husband when I got the news: I’d been awarded a yearlong writing fellowship, which asked only that I move to the Berkshires and take up residence in a cottage, rent-free. The cottage was the last home of Amy Clampitt, a poet who’d achieved great fame in her late 60s and had briefly taught at Amherst. Clampitt had purchased the cottage in Lenox, Mass., with her MacArthur genius award, just before she died.
Clampitt, or Amy, as her fans call her, is a poet-hero of mine. I’d encountered her work as an undergraduate, at a critical juncture, when I was at Amherst reading poetry seriously for the first time. I liked that she was a woman. I liked that she had taught at Amherst. And I liked her sonically rich poems. I had taken a course, taught by Professors Michele Barale and Chick Chickering, on the syntax of English. Clampitt’s work is all about syntax: Her twisted, aleatory sentences might, if they were diagrammed, rival those of Henry James. Some people find her writing baroque, but to me, sinking into Clampitt’s poetry is like watching a bird. It requires that one hold a string of sharply present-tense observations aloft while also watching the whole marvelous creation fly away. Clampitt’s flights of syntax dazzle, like a coloratura soprano showering her audience with sheer vowel.
For years I had longed for this kind of time. Since graduating, I’d worked in a funeral-parlor-turned-Italian restaurant, temped in an ad agency, adjuncted in a freshman writing program on Long Island. I’d read slush-pile submissions for a literary agent and served as the personal assistant of a wealthy Upper East Side theater maven. I had tutored the SAT to college-bound New Yorkers. I had done these jobs to sandwich in a bit more time for writing. But I had never had wild days free, just to write.
However, this was precisely what was terrifying about my fellowship—the solitude of it, the freedom, day after day. The blankness of the page matched the blankness of the snow. There was so much of each: We arrived in a snowstorm in January. Our boxes were covered in snow, and we spent the evening mopping up mud. We had been so used to cramped apartments that we had to remember that it is rude to yell across the house.
MY husband stayed a few days and then left. Outside, the cold was elaborate. The frost on the window was like the syntax in Amy’s poems—endlessly filigreed. This was J-term with no beer-making classes. Even venturing out for a walk felt treacherous. I was alone with cookbooks, my own books, Amy’s books. I was only one hour west of Amherst, but the air was sharper blue, the back roads icier. Crossing a mountain in a snowstorm that first week, I was infinitely glad we had bought the Subaru, and not the other used car that was cheaper.
But what was I going to do with the time? The book I was working on was mostly finished, though it needed a discerning edit. I tried to be disciplined, as I could tell Amy had been: As I opened a book of James Merrill’s poetry, Helen Vendler’s reviews fell out, complete with Amy’s marginalia. Amy had taught herself Greek. Amy had read all of Keats, all of Virgil, all of John Clare. I would do well to study as hard. But this was just January. The whole year was ahead of me. The gift was enormous. It felt, perhaps, too big.
I knew I needed to be outdoors, to connect with the place, to get outside myself. I had no ready-made community. Hiking alone in the snow up the town’s mountain wasn’t going to cut it. I called the local community foundation and asked for a way to volunteer.
Maeve O’Dea, at the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, seemed bemused when I asked, in the dead of winter, to find a community garden. But I am from Berkeley by way of Brooklyn and have always—except in college—gardened. Working together with others to grow things seemed to speak to many needs. I hoped that perhaps Lenox or Stockbridge had such a place. No, no, Maeve O’Dea told me. This was not community garden country. Perhaps, instead, I would like to work on a farm? Yes, I thought. A farm. That would do the trick.
And this is how I found myself, every week for one and usually two days, tending to the mud, compost and greenhouses of Farm Girl Farm, a three-acre patch at the edge of Stockbridge. Three acres sounds small, but it’s actually not: We grew food for 80 families and two restaurants. Laura Meister, the head farmer, had been there five years, cultivating land she borrows from a generous weekender. Not owning her land has meant she’s been able to clear much of the immense overhead that small-scale farmers face.
Her farm was bare bones—the field, a shed, a metal tent-frame covered in white plastic that served as a greenhouse. I learned that she stocked the greenhouse with electric blankets to keep plants warm on cool spring nights, and that she’d set up an irrigation pump to get water out of the river and into the fields. I worked with a rotating cast of interns, all of whom put in long hours and lived on low or no pay to learn the art of farming. Laura took me on, for whatever needed doing, for as many hours as I could give her. But when I first called her, the world was frozen. She herself was reading seed catalogs and resting up. She said she’d call me when the weather was right.
In early March there was a thaw. I got the call. My task was simply this: Come move stones and put down mulch. I showed up at 10 and began tracing last year’s rows in the field, laying down burlap sacks to serve as paths. The sky was a querulous gray. In the cold field, it seemed improbable that these muddy acres could become a summer farm. We unearthed stones and hauled them off the field. We shoveled up the thawing mulch and put it over the garlic seed that had been planted in the fall. The work was rhythmic. My head got clear. I ate a sandwich at 2. By 3 it felt already close to dark. I went back to Amy’s house calmer in my body. I turned on a lamp and began to read.
The next week it froze again, so I read books that lay around the house, including one about the odd species of plants that thrive in vacant lots. I found a running route, a couple of trails. But the year was tilting on: the days got longer. We cleared out some dead tomato vines in the field. Soon we were in the greenhouse, shoving seeds in. Soon those seeds were sprouting. In the trees above us, the leaves were doing the same. It was time to turn off the electric blankets that kept the baby lettuce warm at night.
THE ground was changing, and I was changing too. I read and wrote with more focus—essays, poems, a draft of a play. A life assembled itself: A long-lost Amherst friend materialized one day in the local café and delighted me by being a neighbor. I made friends with professors, farm people, people from the local press. While New York people are often busy or scattered, Berkshires people hung together, community against the cold.
The weeks went by. I worked. The farm was a stay against loneliness. I read through sections of Shakespeare, through Wordsworth. Because I was farming, I read Hesiod, the Greek farm poet, whom scholars believe had written earth-based, farm-based, season-based poems at just about the same time Homer was composing The Odyssey. I read other farm poems—Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues, Virgil’s own anti-epic answer to his Iliad. I read John Clare, the 19th-century poet who wrote beautiful calendrics—poems tracing the shape of the year.
I was aware, of course, that I was not living the way most poets live, and certainly not the way most farmers live. But I was enchanted by the shape of the day, the tilt of the light, my temporary perch as a watcher. I was intrigued by learning to plant so much kale, so many leeks, and by the vast and sudden ripening of the cucumbers and tomatoes. Little by little the year was taking shape in my computer.
I wasn’t yet sure if I was actually writing a book. What I was doing felt more fumbling. I was working my way through time, through a field. It felt remarkable to record the physicality of that field, its birds, its bugs, the work of haying it. So often now we live in a time when our work is representational: Emails float down and we play inbox Jenga. People trade bon mots on Facebook. A chattering party goes on, full of news cycles and outrage. But—for that year, at least—I was away from this. I pushed kale in, plant after plant, on my knees. My cell phone didn’t work in the field. Little songs would form in my head. And at lunch, at the edge of the field, I would write them down.
I was indeed in a lyric idyll. Sometimes, in front of my computer, I began to quarrel with myself. Did the world really need a poem about weeding kale or watching a toad? Some imagined literary critic over my left shoulder (someone who seemed always to have a martini, a cigarette and a smirk) kept asking skeptically if it was even possible to write a farm poem now—if Robert Frost had already done it; if, because Frost had once been a swinger of birches, the book was closed on the subject. Other days I felt belated in a different way, as if connecting to the beautiful world rhythm unfolding before me was suspect, not problematic enough, not true enough to the complicated world we live in now.
I had to insist to myself that the time of poems is otherworldly. Half of 19th-century poetry takes place in a bower, a temporary resting place. Yeats’ “Innisfree” is a place he wants to go but never gets to, not a place in which he can live forever. And then I also had to think: What a privilege it is to watch the year pass over this field. I am a woman, farming, at the strange beginning of the 21st century. Observing beauty has a moral force. I thought: I will simply breathe in and record what it feels like to be in a field of tomatoes. I thought: I am not pretending to be Robert Frost, or John Clare. Instead I am working through this field, this landscape, this latter-day pastoral.
And I remembered that the pastoral—the seemingly idyllic space—has always been defined by its own conflicted edges. Hesiod wrote poems of domestic life precisely because he was not writing about the Trojan War. Virgil always put returning soldiers in his Eclogues, with empire at their margins. John Clare wrote fiercely against enclosure.
I watched the field, its fragile blend of growth and fluttering weathers. I also knew that I was writing against other apocalypses: the fragility of the climate, the uncertainty of knowing when the ground would thaw, the increasingly strange swings of cold and warmth that make planting season difficult. Indeed, what is more vulnerable to climate change than the hardscrabble work of small-scale farming? Trying to make a living from the earth, trusting that what grows from the ground can feed you: this is what we are all, at base, made of. It is the “cultus” in culture. Making enough to keep hunger at bay, war at bay, the art of civilization alive: these ancient problems are also present-tense, made even more urgent today. Ourselves, planting food on earth, now. Our lives, dependent on weather. What could be more timeless?
In Amy’s house I sank into the arc of those extraordinary days. On the best weeks, I kept my doubts at bay. I read and worked and wrote. Suddenly it was October. I’d be going home in a few short months, back to the city. But I felt different, full of clear, bright inner life. I was pregnant. The pumpkins we had planted in May were ripening. I had the shape of something in my computer, something I thought felt like most of a book, my second. And that first book, the one that had been lingering in my computer, was finished too.
What does it mean to forge a relationship with the earth now? The 28 poems in Taylor’s new book describe the work of her year on the land.
Alone in the village, in the heart of winter,
you read John Clare in an old lady’s cottage.
There are filigreed notes in your book’s margins,
doilies in odd drawers.
In the town’s main café,
students huddle by woodstoves.
Farmers read catalogs, order seed packages.
You drive icy roads between chapped farmhouses.
Valentines glitter in village windows.
You shovel snow, hike to get groceries:
Run by the horse-barn, climb the town mountain.
Your husband comes up on the weekends.
You try to dislodge faulty friendship, miscarriage:
In the distance, war drones.
Our country murders somebody’s children.
You read field guides, welcome few visitors.
Prepare to work one farm for a season.
Your economy is your life as a watcher.
You have been given time.
You hear it tick.
O says the clock:
You have. Given time.
From Wisconsin before it was Wisconsin
a glacier hauled these stones you stand on.
They traveled on its rubble.
They are the glacier’s spit, its fissured teeth,
the path it garbled on its travel.
In 1880, the Stockbridge, last of the Mohicans,
were removed to Wisconsin: White edict
impassive as a glacier.
This town and farm and gabled houses
all are built upon that absence.
Now you bend into this field to clear it.
You think of a frozen fist,
of ice-sheets melting. Glaciers lost
in too-warm early weather.
The west wind blows in from Wisconsin.
Each stone you touch is cold as bone.
As if it holds some trace of spirit.
Watching a floe
slide from a precipice
over the waterfall out of the ice-pond
is like watching obsidian.
Glass at a million degrees—
But we touch it, it dents, fluid cold.
Now in the gorges
the last ice-skulls. Cold trolls
the hills even as
frozen lakes grow cloudy
but to look at what? This thorny
as November. All melt reveals
is half-rotten souls:
husks, garbage the snow hid.
Wrappers choke marshes.
Water, you move,
but you feel black as stillness.
Tess Taylor ’00’s first book of poems was The Forage House. Her second, the forthcoming Work & Days (Red Hen Press, 2016), traces the year she spent working on Farm Girl Farm in the Berkshires.
Photographs by Jen Siska
Illustration by Maria Hergueta