A rich stew of story

Issue 2020, vol. 74

Review of The Farm Wife’s Almanac: Poems by Shari Wagner (DreamSeeker Poetry Series, Cascadia Publishing, 2019)

The persona conjured by the words “farm wife” is a woman of legendary proportions, a “lady Goliath” (47). If not this, she is one who “feels the pinch of her inheritance” (37). She is either revered and idolized for her fortitude or pitied for her lack of agency.

Shari Wagner’s farm wife steps in to clarify our distorted vision. Wagner’s farm wife (lowercase) reflects a life rich in historical context and regional vegetation. She argues with God in the garden, carries a buckeye in her purse and ruminates on cows (26, 69, 76). In The Farm Wife’s Almanac, Wagner’s fictional character rises out of a rich stew of story – familial, regional and personal.

Shari Wagner was Indiana’s Poet Laureate in 2016-17 and is the author of two other books of poems The Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana and Evening Chore. Her poems have appeared in North American Review, Shenandoah, The Christian Century, The Writer’s Almanac and American Life in Poetry, among other places. She teaches for the Indiana Writers Center, Indiana University-Purdue University’s Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Seminar, and Bethany Theological Seminary’s graduate program in theopoetics and writing. Wagner has also authored two nonfiction books with her father, Gerald Miller. She and her husband, Chuck, live in Westfield, Indiana and are parents of two grown daughters.

In Wagner’s newest book, readers meet the nameless farm wife. We find her “In the Garden,” peruse her “Recipes & Remedies,” study her “Proverbs & Parables” and shake our heads at “Oddities” (all these serving as titles of the Almanac’s sections). Midway through the book, her compass needle shifts to divulge a “Tidal Chart,” “Pastimes” and “Travel.” Despite these varied topics, Wagner maintains unity in the collection with the help of her multi-tasking farm wife, who reveals a soul that is both lucid and reverent.

Many of Wagner’s poems contain mystical moments, where strong images juxtapose and linger like “the shadows of great ships” (75). This woman was once a girl who held funerals for cows headed to market; she mourns a razed fencerow and incants her recipe for rivel soup (77, 81, 39).  The poems are both accessible and artistic. Couplets and quatrains of free verse create cadences that are subtle, never obtrusive. Line breaks and enjambment provide momentum and expand meaning in these contemporary poems – many whose subject matter reveal old-fashioned (and Mennonite) ways.

The farm wife keeps her eye on the weather, watchful for another Indiana tornado that years ago somehow preserved a glass jug with a carving stuck inside. She muses that some would take this as the “Almighty’s power” but the farm wife believes “whirling wind spins the bottle/and God is in the dark with us, /not writing down what happens next” (108). A watchful presence, she’s the one who “Whenever a gale came from the North, /she stood against the kitchen screen/and heard the leaves/like rising water (55). She takes us along on her mystery trips where she “… travel[s] the way of starlings/clustered/like a cloud that cracks the whip and then lengthens/into a river, leaving and returning, never asking why” (103).

Just when we thought we knew her, the farm wife falls asleep in her garden and, when she awakens, looks up at the cosmos and then surprises us with a confused denotative meaning. The cosmos she surveys is the underside of the flower of the same name (97). The farm wife is masterful with figurative language, each poem a vessel as thick and dark as a cloud of extinct passenger pigeons who find their way to another one of her family reunions (101). Her Mennonite roots are eyes that cannot see, finally revealed after 23 lines as a common vegetable “pockmarked or sliced by the/shovel, that shrivel as they age” (20).

Wagner’s poems slake our thirst for beauty amongst the commonplace of life. Here, we can return to things we may have forgotten, or even lost – the Almanac can bring us back to basics where we reconnect with the earth and our roots.

Apart from the endeavors of her fictional alter-ego, the farm wife, Wagner has also led an interesting life, having lived in Africa for a time as she was growing up, and working after college for the Clifton-Choctaw of Louisiana as a Mennonite volunteer, where she researched the tribe’s history for federal recognition and tutored school children. At Goshen (Ind.) College, Wagner studied with Nick Lindsay, a poet and carpenter, the son of Vachel Lindsay. In her MFA program at IU-Bloomington, Wagner studied poetry writing with Philip Appleman, Yusef Komunyakaa, Roger Mitchell, Maura Stanton and David Wojahn. Wagner’s websites, www.shariwagnerpoet.com and www.throughthesycamores.com, tell her story as a poet and writer in more detail.