Brick Books, 2019
Reviewed by Kain Stewart
An apple tree grown from seed can take up to 10 years to bear fruit and Marlene Cookshaw’s fifth book of poetry, Mowing, has likewise germinated for over a decade. Now she is harvesting the fruits of her literary labour and it is sweet.
Farm life is challenging and rewarding, solitary and communal, populated with neighbours and animals and with moments of reward and respite. Cookshaw’s work invites readers to the table in “Small Potatoes,” and to the pasture in “Donkey Walk,” roving the fields of her idyllic farm to experience time that is cyclical.
Her book is divided into three numbered sections. The first of which begins with arriving in a new land still thinking of an older life. Her poem “Moving Houses” captures the beginning of this transition beautifully in the first two stanzas:
That’s it: mine’s lost. Every dream
occurred in that small city yard,
even tinier brick house: worlds
it contained, and histories.
But only one future, and we all
moved away from it…
Cookshaw begins her book with a poem about her transition into a new life which invites the reader to do the same. She coaxes each reader to leave their own house and join her in a new role, a new life.
The second section is about becoming comfortable in a new land and role. Her poem “The Calendar” is an invitation into nature:
Stay a while. The curtain of rain is the same
pond-green as the cottonwood. If we walk out
before songs of celebration end, we may need
to take a shovel to the world, raw
and wounded. A long time since
we have been whole.
So too does the reader begin to find comfort in the lines of Cookshaw’s poetry. Readers almost expect to hear the crowing of a rooster with the start of each new poem.
The third section is about being one with the land after living on it for many years. The beginning of Cookshaw’s poem “Late” speaks to her emotional connection and routine on her farm:
The valley thick with lethargy today: sun-hot
wind. A drowsy cricket whinge.
My husband lay an hour in the hammock
imagining potato salad into bowls.
Our Barnevelder died this week. Blue-banded
matriarch of the flock, she quieted,
her head beneath her wing.
The reader feels the loss of life from the page and empathizes with the narrator during the time of mourning after the death of her chicken.
Each section combines to create an enduring book about the transition into farming life. The sections connect thematically, stylistically, and formally. The form of her poems are often couplets full of enjambment that seemingly symbolizes the on-and-on days of farming and end in a peaceful finish. Her confident style and enjambment echo the life she created in the time between published books.
Mowing also invites the reader to read her poems over for a second and third time. Many of Cookshaw’s poems gain further depth after the first read of her book. Poems in the first and second sections connect with those that appear in the third.
The cover of Mowing is as simple as these pleasures. A lone black-and-white bee emanates from the book’s spine legs reaching for Cookshaw’s name and title grounded in the corner in peaceful coexistence. Mowing’s poems are like a lazy stroll over to the neighbour’s kitchen table; you won’t notice time slip away because time itself is transformed. As Ross Leckie’s jacket quote says, “Mowing requires that you sit and visit for a good long while.”