To begin with, a confession: I am a little suspicious of poetic projects that aim to discuss an aspect of life that poets rarely engage in themselves. Maybe this comes from too many conversations with graduate student poets who aspire to, say, go into a factory or a fast food restaurant for a few days—and then write about the experience in the kind of elevated verse that only a fellow poetry PhD could parse. How much trouble can I get myself in here? Am I saying that there aren’t poets in factories, in fast food restaurants, in the “margins” of society? Is it wrong to suggest that the average contemporary poet is more at home hunched over a desk in an English department cubicle than out in the world?
All of this is to say that Tess Taylor’s Work and Days seemed, at first, like a bit of a head-scratcher to me. Taylor, a woman of the city, received a fellowship and lived in a place far from conventional urbanism: a cottage in Massachusetts’ Berkshires. There, she became aware of what she calls “the intensity of space. I had been working many jobs: freelancing, waitressing, teaching classes, juggling the world of New York City.” Now, she was alone in a landscape she knew nothing about. Like many poets, her mind turned to thoughts of nature, mortality, the passage of time; like fewer poets, though, she actually went out and got involved in the local farming community, working the land. “I wanted to connect to community and connect to my own body,” she tells me. “Then I got very suspicious about what it means to try to write about connecting to land and food in an age where that seems a little belated or improbable.”
As a result of this, Work and Days (whose title echoes Hesiod’s ancient poem) is a book not of dilettantism but of great immersion, in both landscape and thought, that follows her time as a farmer. In her city milieu, Taylor was certainly aware of the term “food activism,” but her work on the farm got her thinking in new ways: “I think it’s interesting we live in a world where few of us work the land. When I talk about this book with people, they tell me about the tomatoes they’re growing on their apartment’s fire escape ledge, or the blueberry bush they planted, and how much pleasure that brings them.” Of course, as her book traces her work on the farm, it also traces the work of the seasons, the work of time itself, and how strange it is to take pleasure in nature when, elsewhere, bombs are falling on third-world countries. She felt connected to the landscape, yes, but as she tells me, “Connectedness starts as pleasure, but my book is suspicious of pleasure. It seems pleasure isn’t saving the world.”
The poems in Work and Days reflect this conflicted nature, as the speaker’s train of thought wanders from the fields to thoughts of drone strikes and questions about how much poetry can actually help change the world. The experience of working the land made her “feel more tenderly aware of my relationship to the earth….But at the same time, I was thinking of things that the field couldn’t possibly encompass.” On the phone with me, she teases the foodie movement a bit, commenting on its attitude that “we’ll save the world through consuming expensive cheese.” But she also loves the foodie movement, and loves the farmers that make it possible. It’s an amazing thing, she says, “to take your livelihood, put it in the ground, and trust that ground will deliver food and money by the end of the year. This is the basis of civilization.”
During the period of time she farmed and wrote Work and Days, she was making her own big life choices, on the verge of having a child. “There’s nothing like having a kid,” she tells me, “to acknowledge that your time will end, that you’re in the bounded space of your life, while also trying to cultivate new and future life.” She laughs about this a bit, acknowledging that it’s kind of a cliché. And as she tells me about this, I think of a close friend who recently had a son—who, in a recent email, told me that now, when he drifts in thought through life’s mysteries, he often arrives at conclusions banal enough to embroider on pillows. “After parents have their first baby,” Taylor says, “[they realize] we’re all people, we’re born, everyone was born—it sounds almost stoned to say it! But that was the experience of the book, and it’s stranger and more radically important than I’d ever imagined.”
But here’s what I meant at the beginning: how many of Taylor’s fellow farmers can now pick up this allusive and lyrical book and see themselves in it? Has she written about this experience at a level over their heads? Of course, earlier, I said I’d get in trouble pursuing this line of thought, and here trouble comes to pass: “The woman I worked for thought [the book] was super cool,” Taylor tells me. And another woman, working next to her? “She was a composer writing a libretto.” In other words, what are the clichés: don’t judge a book by its cover? People contain multitudes? Work and Days reminded me of these simple facts of life. Turns out I need clichés too.
Benjamin Rybeck is marketing director at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. His debut novel, The Sadness, is forthcoming in June from Unnamed Press. He has never worked a day on a farm, but eats a lot (too much?) of expensive cheese.