Prairie spaces: a discussion of the representation of space, place and home in Field Requiem (Carcanet, 2021) by Sheri Benning and The Weather in Normal (Station Hill Press, New York, 2018) by Carrie Etter.

Note: This post is a slightly revised version of an essay written for the course,  Place in Modern Poetry and Prose: Locality, Environment, Community and Exile,  run by Oxford Department for Continuing Education and taught by Giles Goodland.  A useful video of Sheri Benning talking about her book can be found at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBtJpcKoTLE and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5yZPj8U4K4

The promise of the New World to those arriving from the old was the possibility of space, of horizons thrillingly distant, in the prairie lands of the USA and Canada. Sheri Benning is a Canadian poet who writes about Saskatchewan while Carrie Etter, from the USA, sets her poems in Illinois.

Etter traces the etymology of ‘prairie’ in the first poem in the second section of The Weather in Normal linking it to Arcadia and eclogue, before declaring that ‘Illinoisians were never raised      for hills’

            prairie             the horizon the very               edge of the world [1]

For her, the prairie of Illinois is the location of home and of an idealised, almost prelapsarian childhood, preserved in memory and language, ‘you’re merely there   in imagination’. [2] Although one of the purposes of the book is to highlight the threat to the ecology of Illinois from climate change, its imaginative focus is on the recreation of home in language. In this second section of the book, in particular, she itemizes the details of her childhood home, giving it a figurative structure and resonance reminiscent of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.   

            upstairs                                                           the bedrooms

            downstairs                                                               including

            the crawl space                                            under the house

            a world of                                           mice & spiders & cats

            you refused                                                                to risk it

            may have been                                             the house’s core

            the absence holding up                             so much presence[3]

The poem on the page has the shape of a house, with the right and left margins justified to create the solidities of the walls, and the three-storey structure reminding us of Bachelard’s concept of ‘verticality’, ‘the polarity of cellar and attic’.[4]  The importance of the crawl space as a feared and unvisited but important place echoes Bachelard’s description of the cellar, as ‘the dark entity of the house’[5], which connects us to ‘the entire earth behind its walls’[6]; it is the site of irrationality and, following Jung, the unconscious which is a source for imagination. 

The three parts of this collection take us from a memorial to the poet’s parents in section one, to the home at the centre of memory and imagination in section two, and from there outwards to the threatened space of Illinois where the house is located. Section two has its own sense of movement towards and away from the centre as it moves from the prairie to the house where the poet conducts an imaginary inventory before finally being able to leave and yield ownership to the new residents:

            so leave as a familiar might                out the back

            open the glass door                            into twilight

            & walk toward the absent                           poplars[7]

It is as though she needs to reiterate her history in this childhood place in order to grow up. Etter has not actually lived in Illinois since she was 19, so what she describes in these poems is very much her ‘first universe’ her place of ‘being-well’.[8] When she has recreated and preserved this place in language, she is ready to confront the realities of Illinois now, in the time of climate change. In the poems in Section 3, she simultaneously recognises her kinship with the flora and fauna of the prairie, ‘I am animal  // amid’[9] while accepting human responsibility for the damage done to the eco-system,

            am animal amid animals—

            and I annihilate.

            I, the world’s curse.)[10]

In the final poem, which returns to the open spaces of the prairie, ‘common, cornstalk & flatland’, paradoxically she returns to centre, to the body, to the song in the body which she has earned, the body of the place and the body which is her own:

            a song in the body, the body in Illinois

The vision of the land and the nature of home seems darker and more oppressive in Sheri Benning’s Field Requiem, overshadowed by the destruction caused by agribusiness, by the weight of Catholic liturgy and the desperate struggle to survive of the early farmers, many of whom were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Behind this burden of history lurks another guilt-stained shadow, the displacement of indigenous peoples which although rarely explicit in the poems is mentioned in the notes: ‘The Dominion Lands Act effectively granted free land to settlers as part of a process that displaced Indigenous and Métis peoples from their traditional homes.’[11] Benning herself grew up on a small farm and the book, on one level, mourns the loss of this home which was sold, like so many others, when her parents could no longer compete with agro-industry: ‘Hailstorm, flood, drought. / Interest rates. Debt loads. Go big, or // get out.’[12] However, although the poet is personally connected to the matter of her poems, she is not engaged in an exercise of memory. She says explicitly, at the end of ‘Compline’:

            These are not my memories. Unless

            Memory is what we call the longed-for.

            What did not come to pass.

She reinforces this idea at the opening of Section III where she quotes Eavan Boland: ‘I am writing this/not to recall our lives, / but to imagine them.’[13]

She is engaged in a process of commemoration, whereby she uses imagination to help her record and create a history of the community she grew up in. The importance of accurate record is reinforced by the photographs of derelict homes, taken by her sister, Heather Benning, and by the map references used as titles for several poems.  Like an archaeologist, the poet puts together forgotten lives from these scraps of evidence. In Benning’s work, the safety of the house and the possibility of ‘well-being’ seem infinitely precarious. Babies die: in ‘Vespers’, which may be an elegy for a grandmother of great-grandmother, she addresses the protagonist: ‘Oldest daughter, you prepared your sisters/for earth, wiped vernix from fists and eyes.’  This woman is now buried off ‘Highway 5’ in a graveyard surrounded by the ugliest features of intensive agriculture. Only in imagination can the family rebury her in the same place as her sisters: We’ll gather in dusk’s blue hour, take up your bones,/walk through mist and cricket throb rising / from sloughs, the pasture’s low spots,// deliver you to the braid of your sisters.’ There are references to illness, hunger, poverty and horrific farm accidents. Yet, at the same time, there are epiphanic moments, all the more precious for their momentariness. In ‘Nativity’ an ironically titled poem she celebrates probably a parent’s recovery from surgery and a walk in the snow which seems like rebirth: ‘Snow, a cool chrism/ on last season’s wounds.  You laughed // as a child can, unburdened,/ face to sky…’[14]

The centrepiece of this volume is Section IV, ‘Let them Rest’, a long sequence with the suitably bleak epigraph ‘Dies irae, dies illa / solvet saeclum in favilla’, which reconstructs the stories of vanished farming families whilst confronting the devastation to the land caused by the chemical pesticides and fertilizers and the major agri-businesses. 

            Farm subsidies smashed by Intercontinental Packers,

               Big Sky Pork Farms.  Our barns now their finishing

                        pens for 10 000 pigs from 1000 sows.

            No moon. No snow. No yard-lights for miles,

                 like  an eye put out.[15]

 We could compare these lines about a farm, possibly the poet’s own, which has been sold to the more comforting vision of Bachelard: ‘The lamp in the window is the house’s eye and, in the kingdom of the imagination, it is never lighted out-of-doors, but is enclosed light, which can only filter to the outside…. By means of the light in that far-off house, the house sees, keeps vigil, vigilantly waits.’[16]   Benning has extinguished the lights and undermined the possibility of the house or home in this sequence which is so clearly of the last days. In ‘Zephaniah’ she lists threatened species and attributes blame:

            Ferruginous Hawk,

            Black-tailed Prairie Dog,

            Bobolink, longspurs, pipits,

            Swift Fox, Whip-por-whirl,

            Piping Plover, Whooping Crane,

            Sage Grouse.  We were warned:

            Fish, fowl, animal.

            And they who weigh silver,

            merchants and traders?[17]

In one of the final poems in the sequence where she describes a gruesome subterranean feast in the grave, ‘St Scholastica’s fall Supper, six feet deep in the earth’, she may cast the blame more widely: ‘Don’t mention the bread was salted with tears./ Don’t mention the bowlfuls and bowlfuls of tears.’[18] This could be a reference to the displacement of the indigenous peoples, which is picked up again in Section 5 of the book: ‘Where coyotes licked the blood/of those whose land you broke, they’ll lick yours[19]

It would be wrong to characterise this collection as being all gloom and doom. In its passionate depiction of the farmlands of Saskatchewan and its anguish at what is happening to them, this poetry is powerful, invigorating and challenging. Like Etter, the poet returns repeatedly to the imagined home:

            When they ask, where is your place?  The slough

                in the field west of our barns, stubble and dirt

                        loosened from frost, furred willows,

            frog chorus, the coyotes’ dusk antiphonal,

                 a bell’s tongue in bone marrow.  These things

                        I remember as I pour out my soul.[20]

However, she never forgets that she is writing about what is past and the last line in the book is:

            There is no going back.[21]

Both Etter and Benning, in their representation of prairie spaces, are attempting in their poetry to be ‘equal to the real itself’ as required by Charles Olson, himself a mapper of spaces.  However, Etter approaches her vision of Illinois through the prism of her childhood memories and her current understanding of ecological crisis, whereas Benning seeks to create a reality which will answer or be equal to the experiences of the voiceless immigrant farmers who struggled to subsist in the prairies of Saskatchewan.  Both poets express a sense of ecological loss, an awareness of the destruction of environment through human agency, although Etter seems to take some of the blame upon herself while Benning turns her guns on industrial farming practices.


[1] Etter, p.25

[2] Ibid., p.27

[3] Ibid.p.37

[4] The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, 1964; Penguin Classics, 2014, p.39

[5] Ibid. p.39

[6] Ibid. p.41

[7] Etter, p.41

[8] Bachelard, p.26, p.28.

[9] Etter, p.51

[10] Ibid., p.65

[11] Benning, p.89

[12] Ibid.,p.16 

[13] Ibid.,p.41

[14] Ibid., p.32

[15] Ibid., p.75

[16] Bachelard, p.54

[17] Benning, p.71

[18] Ibid., p.79

[19] Ibid. p.86

[20] Ibid., ‘Viaticum’, p.84

[21] Ibid., ‘To Glasgow’, p.87

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