Friday, April 7, 2017

Poet Rita Sims Quillen - The Foreword to Poetry Collection THE MAD FARMER'S WIFE . . .

Christal Cooper

*FOREWORD from the poetry collection THE MAD FARMER’S WIFE

       In the early 1980’s my husband and I were living on a rocky hillside farm in southwestern Virginia with some cattle, goats, chickens, and two babies while I finished my M.A. at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. That time in my life is a blur of stress and exhaustion.

One thing I remember vividly is discovering the poetry of Kentucky author Wendell Berry.  We had studied Berry’s essays on farming, the environment, and the economy in my graduate classes, but I was delighted to discover a whole new side of him revealed in his poetry.  He had created a brilliant, funny, clear-eyed critic of the modern world called “The Mad Farmer,” and the voice in those poems from that persona’s perspective was immediately familiar and beloved. 

Within days of first reading them, I found myself writing a poem from the perspective of the Mad Farmer’s Wife—a companion, partner, sounding board, a counterpoint. 

                     Painting "Granny In Heaven" by Angelyn DeBord 

       As I wrote more poems from her perspective, I realized she was now a permanent character who had taken up residence in my head.

Unsure how Mr. Berry would feel about another poet drawing so heavily from his own poetic efforts, I wrote  a letter of introduction and enclosed a couple of the poems, asking how he felt about what I was doing and would it be okay if I published some of the poems. 

He wrote back a very kind and gracious reply, assuring me that he, too, loved the Mad Farmer and was “very glad to finally meet his wife.”

Author Ed McClanahan, Berry’s long-time friend and neighbor, explains in his introduction to The Mad Farmer Poems that we would be mistaken if we misinterpret the character of The Mad Farmer as Berry himself, or even as a spokesperson for him.  He is simply one of many characters Berry has assembled over the years for his novels and short stories.

Whatever he is, it is clear that The Mad Farmer functions effectively as Everyman Farmer of his generation.

       The Mad Farmer’s Wife and I have a similar relationship.  Of course, she speaks out of my head, heart, and experiences. However, in my mind, she is about twelve to fifteen years older than I, has lived a much harder life, has done way more hard labor and farm work, and has seen more change and loss. In short, she’s been both luckier and unluckier. She is me and definitely not me.

       The Mad Farmer speaks often of his wife, his partner, his love.  She is, in fact, central to his life there on the farm, fitting in a most traditional role.

Some modern readers may find the Mad Farmer a bit out-of-touch, and he himself says as much in Berry’s poem “Some Further Words” when he tells us that he’s an “old-fashioned man.”

As The Mad Farmer goes on to explain in the same poem, modern readers may have no frame of reference for the type of marriage that two people shared on the land in those earlier times, which was both a business partnership and a deep bond of love, trust, and cooperation that is uncommon today. They both fell into very traditional roles on the farm and thought nothing of it.  Berry writes:

       And just as tenderly to be known
       are the affections that make a woman and a man
       their household and the homeland one.
       These too, though known, cannot be told
       to those who do not know them and fewer
       of us learn them, year by year
       loves that are leaving the world
       like the colors of extinct birds
       like the songs of a dead language. (34)


        The traditional roles and division of labor do not bother the Mad Farmer or his wife. They would be somewhat puzzled to be questioned about gender roles or stereotypes. They go with the flow of nature and time, having no agenda or making no political statement at all beyond a good harvest and doing right by the land, their animals, their neighbors, themselves, their work and their life, doing whatever work there is and, as Berry writes in “The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer,” seeing that it is “…done with more than enough knowledge/ and more than enough love/ by those who do not have to be told. (16)”

The Quillen Farmstead in Southwestern Virginia

       The Mad Farmer’s Wife has a story to tell, some small wisdom she wants to offer the world before she goes, as someone who has lived life at its most elemental level. In these poems she wants us to think about the price of that life, but even more about the price of not living that life.

Rita, far left, Rita's mother far right, Rita's Grandmother holding Rita's daughter Kelsey 

Young women today certainly could teach her a great deal about many things, the practical and the ideological, but they could also learn from her. If nothing else, maybe she can help everyone understand there’s only one thing that really matters when it’s all said and done and over: love, especially the love between a man and a woman raising a family and working the land together.

Rita's Husband's grandfather Warren Quillen with his 2nd Wife Alice and their 1st of 10 children. 

As the poem “The Mad Farmer Dances” tries to explain, everyone should consider: “The grandest of mysteries—love and its stubbornness---/that wide velvet ribbon holding a marriage/Made of things so tiny you could breathe them.”

                                   The Quillen's Home today 

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your in-depth post about this fine book