A Woman Milking
Cincinnati: Word Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Charles Holdefer
This volume is Marcia Slatkin’s third collection of poems, after the chapbooks A Season’s Milking (2003) and I Kidnap My Mother (2005). Many readers and NPR listeners will have encountered Slatkin’s “The Virtue of Trusting One’s Mind” in Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. That poem, as well as work from A Season’s Milking, appear in this latest volume, A Woman Milking: Barnyard Poems. Slatkin is also a photographer and the author of short fiction, one-act plays and screen plays. She resides in New York and France.
A Woman Milking is divided into four sections, each corresponding to a season. The premise is straightforward: these poems follow the rhythms of life on a working farm, where birth and death, sex and loss, hope and sorrow are intimately linked with everyday labours. Meditations are never far from meals and mucking out. Goats and ducks and hens are not only observed but are protagonists, too. The book intrigues and succeeds because of this fluid movement between physical experience and larger abstractions, and ultimately it offers a convincing representation of “fearsome, foundering time” .
Such an approach is not without risks. One might think of Joyce Carol Oates’ oft-quoted dismissal of nature writing as being prone to reductive responses of “REVERENCE, AWE, PIETY, MYSTICAL ONENESS.” Fortunately that reproach does not apply here. Although these poems might be described as “ecologically aware, they avoid pat answers or spiritual effusions. Consider, for instance, this excerpt of “History,” about the speaker’s efforts to clip hooves which, if unchecked, will lame the animal:
These stanzas are representative in a number of respects. There is none of the all-capitals posturing that so irritates Oates. And certainly no specious claims of transcendence. Rather than reverent, the relationship between speaker and animal could be described as familiar yet respectful. Piety gives way to practicality, to getting the job done. Yet, crucially, this more localized emphasis does not result in language that is merely functional or puritanically stripped-down. Slatkin’s sensuous language (“carve ochre resin”) is not afraid to call attention to its own constructedness; the free-verse stanzas are tight (appearance on the page and the movement of the eye count for much in Slatkin’s work) yet it is not afraid of the occasional rhyme (“ground/round”), this simple pleasure of the ear that some free-verse writers avoid out of a naïve sense of their own historical position. One could also note the seeming ease of the poem’s movement from particular example—the act of clipping hooves—to generalization about “old pain” as contributing to the “next corporeal round.” Thus, the moment is both captured and contextualized, and the reader is led from the ephemeral back to the title, “History,” which is bold but earned.
Thus the poem enacts a satisfying fusion, and this goes to the heart of A Woman Milking. Much American poetry can offer an effective image or the intensity of a moment; or a sense of how language connects with broader swathes of time; but not enough of this poetry succeeds in doing both, and so succinctly, as Slatkin does here. It is not remotely “workshoppy” or interested in scoring points; it is accessible without being glib; it displays the sure touch of a mature poet.
Yet this knowingness is not complacent. A Woman Milking displays a taste for paradox: for instance, the “growth/that maims” in the poem above, or the surreal desire in “An Aging Breeder’s Dream” to mix plant and animal for “children/I will never have” . One is reminded of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with its credo “Without contraries is no progression.” A unified vision might in fact be a contradiction, an impediment to seeing. Here, varieties of experience, seasons, hots and colds, and how “emptiness/refills”  (“Milking a Goat Dry”) cannot be subsumed into one habit of thought.
Thematically, the speaker frequently returns to subjects linked with feminine experience, as the title of the volume suggests: pregnancy, birth and milk are addressed from a number of angles. “The Joys of Milking” celebrates not only the pleasures and benefits associated with the properties of milk, from freshness to curdling, but also the sly social exchanges that arise for those who join forces against contemporary squeamishness that sometimes masquerades as hygiene. Eggs also figure largely in these poems. “Playing Ball” and “Endurance,” for instance, illustrate the overall interest of the collection’s structuring the poems according to seasons. In the former, from the “Summer” section, baseball provides an extended metaphor for the cycle of production by the hens. In the latter, from the “Winter” section, severe weather transforms these players into “icy nuns” . Yet this creative production persists, whatever the circumstances.
Complementary views of another type occur in “Mating” and “Mated,” this time about sexuality. Both male and female perspectives are addressed; the subject is the source of an inexhaustible “gossip of hunger” . Whether with saturation, as in “What the Stars Are,” or deprivation, in “The Terror of Locked Doors,” which describes “the closing/of the door/of desire,” sex is ineluctable, whatever its guise, or the age of its protagonist.
Parallel to these realities, however, hovers the constant presence of death. These poems avoid sentimentality and ersatz earthiness by depicting, in repeated instances, how much killing goes on at the farm. The speaker nourishes her animals (“Gourmet Eating”), presides over their births (“Mid-Wifery”), consoles in times of empty nest (“Comfort”), nurses and assures their welfare (“Goat De-Horning: What We Do”), even kisses them (“Absolution”)—but the time also comes, in the course of things, for slaughter. “The Way It Is,” one of the strongest poems in A Woman Milking, dramatizes this mixture of affection and fatality, how it is possible to sympathize with loss even as slaughter remains part of the picture. The bucks will die, the does will live; it is anything but trivial: but that is “The Way It Is.” Many other poems address the same issue in various lights. In “Letter,” there is a hands-on account of how it feels to kill, even while accepting a compliment for the end result. In “The Last Duck,” there is an unflinching description of how the killing appeared: “his beak bubbled death” . In these examples and others, the connection to eating is ever in the forefront, yet it is a world away from journalistic sensation or a foodie frisson. Thus, “the way it is” becomes not only a stoic acknowledgement of basic realities but, more broadly speaking, a plausible defence against certain types of emotionalism or special pleading.
Slatkin is also interesting in regard to the problem of anthropomorphism. Some writers succumb to its simplifications; others sedulously avoid anything that might smack of identification, fearful of making a scientific faux-pas, which is all too easy since science and ethical philosophers are still working hard on these questions. The unfortunate result is that, in order to avoid sounding naïve, many writers become timid. Slatkin avoids these pitfalls by showing a willingness to express perplexity. In “The Last Duck,” she compares the struggling animal’s wings to “fists” , but the act of killing goes on, inexorably. In “Liberation,” she does not hesitate to describe the mating practices of drakes as “rapes” , yet she dramatizes the gulf between the speaker’s perspective and the female ducks’ reaction to the absence of males. Only the speaker can appreciate the exhortation: “Sisters! Why/aren’t you dancing?/Why don’t you sing?” .
She also defuses the issue with humour. In “Digestion,” a goat is compared not just to any human, but to “Plato/sitting at the feet of Socrates” . Or plump hens, attempting to fly, are described as “Kierkegaard in the Barnyard.” A leap of faith indeed. Although this volume suggests a deep connection between humans and other animals, this connection is expressed artistically by leaving space for surprise and ambiguity. In “When the Snakes Came,” the speaker is put in a situation where she cannot assume mastery, where the animals decide: “creatures/ … had chosen us/ …our farm was blessed” . This humility is implicitly necessary to survival; it is interesting because the speaker steps aside and gives centre stage to other players, even other processes.
For these reasons, Slatkin’s sensibility is decidedly more complicated than the “MYSTICAL ONENESS” criticized by Oates. Rather, the reader finds (to coin a somewhat awkward expression), an “us-ness.” This is what Wendell Berry described in another context as “the probability that nature and human culture, wildness and domesticity, are not opposed but are interdependent. Authentic experience of either will reveal the need of one for the other.”1
The persuasive power of this idea includes few comforts of certainty. Fixity is a chimera, and value resides elsewhere. The closing poem of A Woman Milking is entitled, appropriately enough, “Change.” According to the speaker, any sense of firm ground must pass through the tests of “fearsome, foundering time” . And these tests never stop. In her best poems, Slatkin succeeds in creating poetry not of self or other, or pleasure or pain, but of self and other and pleasure and pain crystallized together in the same brief poetic form, sometimes in the same moment. This is a kind of truth not brought to the page often enough and here lies the core of Slatkin’s achievement, and the interest of this excellent collection of poems. Highly recommended for both university and general collections.