COULD WE KNOW any less about the things we stick in our mouths? Grocery-store food resembles nothing grown in nature (Cheetos). And the things grown in nature (squash-proof tomatoes, rapid-expanding cows) are so eerily unnatural that the very notion of food coming from a farm now seems about as realistic as a Fisher Price toy barn, with its plastic livestock and bulbous, smiling family. Unless they've just been decimated by a flood or tornado, the farmers that get noticed these days aren't the family but the feedlot entrepreneurs with new Dodge trucks and environmental-contamination complaints.
But small farmers do till on, here and in most other parts of the world. There are still people who tend crops with the hands-on intimacy we want to believe has gone into our food. That's why this new collection of poems about farming still seems relevant. Although the methods of production have changed, the output still counts for everything.
Farming in the United States isn't the bucolic affair it once was (or, perhaps, farming is not the bucolic affair it never was) and these poems document that fact vividly. Catherine Webster has gathered poems about migrant fruit pickers and machinery along with the more familiar tales of blackbirds, hoes, and harvest. Sometimes the modern world meets the pastoral in sweet juxtaposition, as in Ray A. Young Bear's "Quail and his Role in Agriculture," when a group of weary harvest workers line up at the Tastee Freez to order strawberry sundaes. Other times the encounter is ugly, as in Gerald Stern's horrifying "The Bull-Roarer," in which a group of drunk suburban businessmen torture and kill a calf in the country. Stern spins this into a tale of jealousy, of modern man grown jealous of the natural world. But humans remain part of that natural world, as Wendell Berry's "The Broken Ground" suggests; when he describes a new body breaking forth from the flowering of an old one, it's not made explicit that he's speaking about plants.
The poems from developing countries conjure afresh the lost romanticism of farming, as writers talk about planting and weeding, smelling the earth and getting it under the fingernails, keeping watch for the leopard that lives on the edge of the field. In this collection, the farmers who work closest to the land love it the most, bring it into family portraits and dreams. Though such love letters may seem an idealistic conceit, it is an attractive one nonetheless. It may be Kathleen Peirce who captures this shy love most affectingly in her poem "Farmers," describing "a farmhouse whitewashed white, because to paint a farmhouse green would be too much a valentine to the field."