Bona Fide Press. 2015. 88 pp.
The final line of Julia Shipley’s bio in her magical book of poems, The Academy of Hay, reads, “She is married to one man and six acres in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.” In several of these poems, man and acreage seem to merge in often sexy, always surprising ways, as in the opening stanza of “Migration of Baling Twine”:
I have seen it in the truck bed, one fat spool
quiet as a salt block,
then rigged in the baler and sent
to bind each bale twice; I have grabbed it
like a man’s suspenders yanking him to me,
Look here, or sultry, Where’s my kiss, sweetheart?
Later in the poem, the man himself makes an appearance; as for baling twine, that’s just the beginning. By the end we understand that Shipley has done for baling twine what Wallace Stevens did for blackbirds. Look, these conjurers tell us, open your eyes! How could you ever have thought of these things as ordinary?
Each of the poems in The Academy of Hay takes as its subject some aspect of farming—the weather, the seasons (in winter, “the desk replaces the field, the lamp replaces the sun, one hand tills with a pencil”), the landscape, the soil, the buildings (“The barn sits in the field like an opened gift amid wrapping paper”), the heavy equipment, the crops, the animals, the produce, the farmers themselves—and quietly molds it into something transcendent. As in “Two Eggs”:
This one the color
of my shoulder in winter,
and this one my shoulder in summer.
No seam no pock no
porthole, smooth as oil.
The surface curve:
just a tip and a buttock,
silent as a horn in the trunk,
how many times can we give
what’s formed inside us—
Never? Always? Once?
Not all is calm. There is anger in some of these poems, and rage; remorse, when it appears, seems grudging and temporary. Shipley unleashes all of it with exuberant energy, bringing to mind an unholy fusion of Whitman, Ginsberg, and Heather McHugh in full fury. The lengthy poem “On the Road” begins with a howl:
When I say I’m perturbed, I mean
I’m casting slurs, hurling curses
like splats of floury lime dropped behind fat-tired trucks
leaving a trail of powdered flatulence.
Once there was a thirteen-ton dump truck that plowed into traffic,
which, on impact, sent its payload skyward—
say I’m not like that.
At worst I’d strew soot over every
rube/sob/stooge/pawn/dude who ever asked,
How are you?
Shipley is merciless when it comes to exploring her own binary nature. In the book’s opening poem, “Narcissus Cleaning the Bulk Tank,” “…she grins back from the polished steel./When I reach for her,/she welcomes me; if I recoil,/she’ll flee.” In “The Needle,” “This hand cups an asterisk of chick:/later this hand cradles the axe that lops/its matured head, an apostrophe/this hand tosses in a bucket,…”
Jesus and Judas make cameo appearances in “The Needle,” where they are given equal billing. In fact, glancing references to scripture are sprinkled like drops of spiked holy water throughout the book; whenever one appears, the effect is bracing. In one poem a monastery makes an appearance, in another, a Quaker meeting. There are references to forty days, and to three days. A mischievous spirituality lurks everywhere, at once funny and poignant. In “The Present,” “One morning after the towers fell, while we cleaned the barn, he grumbled, “”It’s not like it’s a church.”” This is followed by an indirect, gentle rebuke, a reference to the ruins of an ancient stone church in Western Ireland, “…where the altar must have been, sheep bowing their heads to eat.”
And everywhere there are wonderful surprises. Within these poems, images and ideas ricochet like pinballs. In a short, four-part poem called “Bird Count,” we encounter a loon, a toddler named Porter, a protective hen, another trace of the loon and the narrator herself, the key player in a thirteen-word variation on the central question posed in “Two Eggs.” Another poem, “The Heifer,” does begin with a heifer, eating “…like she’s painting her nose,” then rounds on itself to end with a spectacular death-and-resurrection moment told in two brief couplets. A third, “Ballistics” (which bears no resemblance to the Billy Collins poem of the same title), is a three-part prose poem veering from hunters (“They try for intentional death”) to sex (“Once upon a time I thought, well, eighteen’s long enough, and I sighted a skinny dishwasher, Bullet, who already knew how to shoot. Consensual, yes, but not much of a romance; would I if his name were Eric?”) to death again (“This just in: a bullet can fly two miles from the barrel. Here’s this man, let’s say it’s Eric, sitting in front of the TV when a stray finds his spinal column. Done.“)
The poem, however, is not done yet.
Earlier I referred to this collection of poems as magical. I have not chosen the word lightly. The book is loaded with prestidigitation, slight-of-hand, sorcery, legerdemain, call it what you will. Each is well-earned; there is not a cheap trick among them. My favorite takes place in the penultimate poem in the book, “An Exegesis,” in which, remarkably, you will believe the stunning transformation of a simple bale of hay over a period of three short days.