Representing nearly a quarter-century of published work, “Carrying Water to the Field” attests to Joyce Sutphen’s accomplishment as a lyric poet dedicated to clarity and concision. In his introduction, Ted Kooser describes the book as “a collection of moments that may feel quite familiar to you.” But the poems — rooted in physical description and the rhythms of manual labor — have more heft and materiality than a fleeting moment. Instead, the book feels like a bowl of pebbles harvested over years of country rambles. The reader can dip in, selecting one perfectly crafted poem at a time and relish the weight and feel of each in their palm.
Sutphen has been Minnesota’s poet laureate since 2011, a natural choice given that she grounds most of her work in the landscape of rural Minnesota. In a poem from her 1995 debut, “Straight Out of View,” she writes of the prairies: “That is not the country for poetry. … Yet I knew it to be passionate.” In the seven collections that follow, she proves that Minnesota clearly is the country for poetry, a place to witness clouds “rubbing their dark/knuckles over the yellow dunes” and listen for “five kinds of birdsong/threaded through the air.”
Her careful, clear observations capture the particularities of growing up on a farm outside St. Joseph and the sensual pleasures of the work there: baling sun-warmed hay, riding a well-made tractor or filling the kitchen with the smell of baking apples. These acts are plain and profound, leaving the speaker “certain that my simple belief/in the light/would be enough.” Sutphen connects the labor of the farm with her labor as a poet. Working the land with her grandmother taught her “to love a well-honed thing” such as a hoe or a crafted sonnet.
This love extends to the people contained within “the circle that makes a farm.” She writes poems celebrating and honoring her father, aunts, mother and “the grandmother who lost three of those/thirteen, who hung a million baskets of wash.” In a way, her lucid descriptions are a memorial to her sister, who urges her even after death “to love the things of this world —/the white pines, the sumac, flowers.”
“Carrying the Water to the Field” not only follows Sutphen’s poetic journey, but is also a record of a life. The vibrant and heroic father of early collections appears in later poems doing the “brutal, bruising, back-/breaking chore” of dying, the speaker returns to images of a body in the process of aging, and a couple “counted up years in children/and marriages.”
While these poems take readers through transformation and loss, they also linger on what persists in moments of grace, such as the blade of a scythe left behind by a mower “distracted/by something sweeter than fact or fire” or the silence of the dead “that I take/for love — a love that I carry/all the way to the horizon.”
Carrying Water to the Field By: Joyce Sutphen. Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 240 pages, $19.95. Event: 7 p.m. Oct. 1, Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.
Elizabeth Hoover is a Milwaukee-based poet.