[C&R Press; 2020]
Winner of C&R Press’s award for nonfiction, Debra Di Blasi’s Selling the Farm: Descants from a Recollected Past is both a probing examination of a place and an experiment with form. Distrustful of nostalgia while yearning to retrieve the past, Di Blasi jettisons many of the conventions of memoir and constructs an artful composite narrative in which the author slips in and out of the foreground. The book is not an autobiography, she says, “but rather a biography of a place I happened to intersect, a place I happened to.”
Though the author now resides in Portugal, the place in question is an 880 acre farm in northern Missouri, where she grew up with few amenities amid a rich cast of characters, some of which included people. Parents with a rocky marriage and five children — no shortage of drama there — but also coyotes and bobcats and hogs and horses and cattle and turkey vultures and maggots. Other players include milkweed and buckthorn, and stones, pink granite and black porphyry, lovingly described, as well as stars, and water, in its many iterations. The result is an interesting paradox: by stepping back, and not relying on the usual self-dramatizing, coming-of-age riffs which animate many memoirs, the author makes her story bigger. The narrative remains committed to revealing a place. In the end, modesty about the relative importance of the human self is not limiting but adds depth and breadth.
Styled as “descants,” the book is organized around themes. Most prominent are the four seasons, with an interlude devoted to “Night” where Di Blasi explores states of consciousness. Nature, she affirms, is not just the cyclic activity of a farm, which is “a system furious with incident.” Nature also refers to the forces at work within the human mind and to much larger and sometimes inaccessible histories, of our species and of geological time. Alongside meditations on the Osage and Iowany peoples, who were the land’s earlier inhabitants, or on the effects of encroaching glaciers, the reader finds precisely rendered anecdotes about a doomed pony or a paralyzed boy. The book concludes with a highly personal “Epilogue” evoking her father, a driven and uncompromising man, and an “Elegy” devoted to a recently deceased sister, who was sometimes a bitter rival on the farm. Her sister was “two years older and believed in God in a way I could not endorse: Hers the god of fire and brimstone; mine the god of wind through trees.” Searing but also tender, Di Blasi reminds the reader that “sometimes a star shines on the dirtiest thing.”
Most of the descants are brief and imbued with the sense of passing time. “The present,” she says, is “already past as I type the ‘t’.” Page layout also figures importantly in Di Blasi’s style. Though written in prose, Selling the Farm relies on line breaks, parenthetical asides and rhythmic effects of white space and enjambment, formal choices more commonly associated with poetry. Consider:
We piled into the pickup and plowed through mud roads to The Rock Crossing to watch its water’s muddy haste and roar. It terrified me.
[I feared drowning. (Still do.) Feared floods and rising waters. The fearsome violence of wet storms ripping branches from trees, eating rock and muck. Bridges gone. Rivers cresting.]
But my mother stripped down to underwear and waded into the murky rush. She grabbed hold of creekbed stones and let the torrent pull at her. And as she screamed with a girlish giggle I wondered at her buoyant happiness, how it pleased me so — even as I feared she might simply let go and float away out of our lives.
This passage is representative. Note how the page layout facilitates the representation of consciousness and constructed memory. A scene from the past, ripe with menace, is evoked, only to be interrupted by a play of margins obliging the eye’s movement across the page, for a parenthetical statement, which itself is further qualified by another parenthetical statement, involving shifts in space and time. Here the sense of menace is generalized beyond the recollected moment. Then the margin moves back, and the narrative returns to the scene from the past, with a surprisingly buoyant twist.
Di Blasi’s language is often highly concentrated, wary of waste. It’s a stylistic choice, to be sure, but perhaps also an expression of a farm ethos. (You never waste wire.) At the same time, agricultural practices are questioned, especially those which have dramatically altered the ecosystem within the space of her lifetime. She observes “men felling acres of dark timber damming headwaters until the creek that swerved through our farm dried to less than a rivulet, a spitter, a skip.” The creek figures largely in this book, depicted in various seasons and shared by various kinds of life. But now it is “shat full of pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers by the farm’s new owners who cannot care less, really, about minnows tagging clear waters, who spray to kill weeds that won’t be killed, only made exuberant, though the insects ail or die and thus the birds die or flee.” The land has a history deeper than humans can apprehend but which they can nonetheless devastate.
Selling the Farm does not offer an easy, glib greenness. A post-anthropocentric perspective — i.e., we need to get over ourselves — is a quixotic adventure, perhaps doomed, but a necessary leap of the imagination. I don’t believe that I would be caricaturing to say that many intellectuals lack a lived experience to help them make the leap, while many people with the lived experience are not yet persuaded of its necessity. Usually they’re too busy working.
What gives this book substantial weight is that the author possesses both the intellectual and artistic urgency combined with the lived experience. It breaks through the compartmentalization which paralyzes our moment. Most of us have gentrified minds which struggle to imagine problems so far from our ken. (Jefferson’s “nation of farmers” has never seen so few farms — now approximately 2 million, a number exceeded by the number of prisoners in our penal system). Our lack of imagination will not, however, relieve us of the problems. Di Blasi is a powerful witness of this fact while totally eschewing a misplaced nostalgia. Selling the Farm is a work of rare sophistication, a source of beauty amid calamity.
Charles Holdefer is an American writer currently based in Brussels. His work has appeared in the New England Review, North American Review, Chicago Quarterly Review and in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He is the author of nine books, most recently AGITPROP FOR BEDTIME. Visit him at www.charlesholdefer.com.