Monday, March 1, 2010

What I'm Reading: Prairie Fever

43º ~ sun with high wafting bits of cloud, rain to the south

I've been a fan of Mary Biddinger's blog, The Word Cage, for quite a while now and have enjoyed her poems when I've come across them in the journals. However, none of this previous knowledge prepared me for Prairie Fever, Biddinger's first book, published in 2007 (I know, I know...I'm always late to the party).

While my focus went immediately to the prairie part of the title, it would have been better placed in the fever, for that is what this collection is...feverish. I read the poems in one long torrent of words and was nearly exhausted when I finished. These poems are tightly wound in both language and meaning. One gets the feeling that the speaker of each poem has been waiting a long time to say whatever has been kept still and silent for too long.

Woven of both first- and second-person points of view, I never felt as if I completely knew the speakers or the "you" they addressed. This instability took some getting used to, but the concision of the lines and the surprising twists of language kept me reading long enough to gain my bearings.

Another of Biddinger's strengths is her ability to weave lyric and narrative, drawing on the most powerful elements of each. Over the course of the book a story develops of the often hard life lived at the edges of a down-on-its-luck, Midwestern town. Throughout the story, the image of the train tracks recurs, almost always with the sense of our being on the wrong side of said tracks or under the trestles where dark and dangerous events occur.

A few examples:

In "Man in Blue," the speaker describes her skin as "freckled from weeding, bee / chasing, falling down hills // and off cliffs." Later she speaks of spending the winter "foot-shackled / in a sugar beet farmer's shed, / forgetting the mending, milk, // other things with soft names." The poem ends with a blood image (blood and bleeding play a large part in the entire collection): "Ruby / handprints around my neck." Chilling. Disturbing. Wonderfully wrought.

Here's an excerpt from "The Twins":

...There was
nothing left of the night,

only train cars and breath.
They could dust me for prints
and find just fingertip salt and rust.
You were a halo of consonants

in the dull ebb of my pulse.

In one of the last poems in the book, "Coyote," the speaker states, "I chose you over / all other disturbances." As a reader who tends to run from disturbances in my own life, I admire Biddinger for giving us poems that rush headlong into the vortex of a not always pastoral and beautiful prairie/world.

Support a Poet/Poetry Today: Buy or Borrow a Copy of This Book
Prairie Fever
Mary Biddinger
Steel Toe Books, 2007

The reference librarian who secretly lives in me Googled "prairie fever" and found this on Wikipedia (not the most reputable of sources, but quick): Prairie madness is a term that describes an affliction that was common in the United States among white settlers of the Great Plains during the mid to late 1800s. Another common (though, technically incorrect) name for the affliction is "Prairie fever." The madness was a result of the extreme isolation experienced by former city dwellers and farmers more used to hilly and forested country. The affected individual would fixate on the fact that they were surrounded by hundreds of miles of prairie land, with no neighbors or anyone to talk to. When the perceived isolation became too much to bear, mental breakdown would occur. Breakdowns induced by prairie madness often led to starvation and suicide.


marybid said...

Thank you so much for your thoughts here, Sandy! I am honored by your kind words. Thanks so much for reading the book. :)

Sandy Longhorn said...

You're so welcome, Mary. It's a great book.