The Academy of Hay
by Julia Shipley
Bona Fide Books, 2015
Julia Shipley is an independent journalist and author of The Academy of Hay, winner of the 2014 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize and Adam's Mark, named a Best Book of 2014 by the The Boston Globe. Winner of the 2006 Ralph Nading Hill Award and two-time recipient of Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Community Fund grants, she was also awarded The Frost Place's Grace Paley Poetry Fellowship, as well as fellowships to The Center for Book Arts and The Studios at Key West. Her poems and essays have appeared in CutBank, Colorado Review, December, FIELD, Fourth Genre, Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, North American Review, Orion Magazine, Poetry, Poet Lore, The Rumpus, Taproot, The Toast, Verse Daily and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from The Bennington College Writing Seminars and lives in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.
A native of southeastern Pennsylvania, she earned her undergraduate degree in Environmental Education traveling throughout the western regions of United States with the Audubon Expedition Institute. Throughout her twenties she worked on organic farms in the Northeast operating as CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), and for the last decade she's tended the soil on her homestead in Vermont. Hence her work is often obsessively concerned with place, the fate of landscapes, agrarian ideals, and stories that track things from germination through their harvest and beyond. The former Director of Writing Studies at Sterling College, she's a contributing editor to Yankee Magazine and contributing writer for Seven Days: Vermont's Independent Weekly. She has also written for BELT, American Forests, Burlington Free Press, Northern Woodlands, Stowe Guide, The Magazine, and Vermont Life among others. A portfolio of her journalism is here. Interviews with Julia and episodes exploring her thoughts on craft are included in: Whole Terrain and this joy + ride and North American Review.
I've never met Julia Shipley. On what she described as "one of those browsing benders," she happened on The Kentucky Review, where she read one of my poems, and in my bio found my writer's website through which she found more of my poetry, and eventually contacted me. In her email she talked about the whole point of writing being "to connect," and that since my poem spoke to her, hers might speak to me. And indeed, her poems I found online did speak to me, so I agreed to her sending me a copy of her upcoming poetry collection, The Academy of Hay, for a possible review.
—Karen L. George
Review of Julia Shipley's The Academy of Hay
The poems in Julia Shipley's The Academy of Hay speak of cycles, transitions, connection, and duality with repeated imagery of light and dark, tenderness and violence, growth and destruction/disintegration, life and death experienced in daily life on a farm amid crops and farm animals. Her poems are infused with a passion for paying attention and an emotional core of wonder, reverence, and longing.
The first poem, "Narcissus Cleaning the Bulk Tank," in the first section titled "The Herd," introduces the reader to the idea of duality through the image of seeing herself mirrored in a steel surface she is polishing by hand:
under my industrious hand:
worried out of occlusion,
beneath my agitated rag,
she grins back from the polished steel.
These lines also create a sense of wonder and playfulness that echoes in other poems, and the image of creation—of bringing forth this other self—through the work of her hands, another repeated image. The poem ends with a push and pull motion that appears again and again in this book, along with the central idea of connection and disconnection:
When I reach for her,
she welcomes me;
if I recoil
An additional layer of meaning I saw in this poem was the idea of the poet creating—assembling poems and polishing them into being—the push and pull of the writing process.
Another poem that contains imagery of mirroring, duality, and shadows is "Heron, Gnomon," but its mood is anything but playful. The last section reads:
Once I suddenly noticed
I had no shadow except
directly beneath me. I
straddled a black so opaque,
it was the hole and the earth
was an urn
into which I will fit
The shift from the past tense to the future tense of "I will fit" effectively creates a tension in the poem, along with the haunting image of the earth as "urn" suggesting a death and a funeral urn.
Which leads perfectly into the next poem, a prose poem titled "Ballistics" where the speaker discovers a bullet on her driveway, which leads to musing (seemingly playful, but dead serious) about
The underlying theme of "danger" in "Ballistic" echoes the poem, "Horn," which tells of a ram's horn that grew towards its eye:
The morning the horn grazed eyeshine, at the brink of his blindness,
the farmer showed up, hacksaw in hand.
She keeps this stub to remind her.
This poem's ending image of keeping the stub is a haunting one, suggesting not only the vulnerability of this ram, but the precariousness of all life, and the responsibilities involved in caring for "The Herd," as this first section of poems is titled. The phrase "brink of blindness" also implies how quickly things can change—another major idea expressed in the poems.
The following poem, "The Day We Woke Up With and the Day It is Now," speaks of transitions and flow, how one sheep during the night nudged a gate open and all the others followed into the garden, where they "graze on tender lettuce, bean shoots, coils of peas." This phrase is just one example of the beautiful images and sounds Shipley creates with her word choice. The poem begins in darkness and transitions into day at the end: "while the mountains settle out of the plum sky / I'll follow all day." This ending is not only pleasing in the visual image it describes of the mountains slowly coming into view, separating from the plum color of the sky, but in the soothing, dreamy sounds of the repeated l's. This poem is full of delightful repeated sounds and internal rhymes such as "turn to lure," "nightgown and muck boots," and "rubber bucket" that bring the poem alive in the reader's senses.
In "Jewelweed" and "Bird Count" Shipley considers reproduction. In "Bird Count," she tells how "The hen uses her beak to nudge-pull / the egg under her breast," and in "Jewelweed" it's the release of seeds:
All week I've watched purses of milkweed
leak a soft exhaust—
fine hairs climb successive breezes,
still you resist.
I've wanted you to open like a ribbon with a slipknot.
Again the above lines create visual beauty as well as beauty of song with the repeated sounds of "week I watched," "milkweed leak," "soft exhaust" and "fine hairs climb," creating a lush, languid mood. And by addressing a "you" in the poem, she creates a sense of intimacy that pulls the reader deeper into the poem's experience—something she repeats in other poems.
The poem "Being" is a reverie with lush imagery and repeated sounds about bees and how they are a perfect example of "being":
except to self and burrow (as body to shadow),
shuttling from mallow to mallow,
to flummox those pink-sided stadiums, a revelry,
tussling with stamen, stoking gold on their abdomens
The collection's second section called "Barn Storms" continues with examples of the kinds of duality, transitions, and cycles that occur with life on the farm. In "The Garden of Whirligigs" we see death and resurrection imagery:
I took my spackling knife and scraped
the wings of living moths out of wet paint.
In spring I'll find the road pockmarked
with little caves, their stones all rolled aside.
In the prose poem "Heartacre" the speaker describes the struggles of farm life as "our stubborn stab in this endeavor, our vulnerability to the elements, well, I'll speak for me, for whatever comes or falls or fails, I'm steeled." This spirit of tenacity is echoed in the poem "Draft" which describes a team of horses pulling weights, but also suggests the teamwork a relationship between people involves:
A Bad Hitch is when the team pulls unequally
as we have, and the mismatched lurch
keeps the boat at a halt, despite their heart.
This idea of the necessity of things working together is echoed in the poem "Persuasion":
The saw persuades the tree to forfeit an upright
position and relax its length against the earth.
The hammer persuades the washer to lie flat in the hole
the drill has persuaded the wood to open.
The couplet form emphasizes this push and pull tension we've seen in earlier poems, and also brings to mind the give and take of human relationships. In another poem employing couplets, "Elegy for Anger," the reader doesn't know the reason for the anger, but the working through is described as:
she's crouched on an upside-down milk crate, with a knife, clippers,
whittling the dirty wrappers off garlic,
snipping the stems and root fringe,
pitching each finished head in the basket
There's a sense of tenderness and yet violence in these lines, and I couldn't help but get the image of some other acts of violence the speaker might be imagining as she does the necessary work, creating a tension that vibrates through the poem. This tension continues in the poem "The Letdown," where "He keeps a herd / of words inside— / they mill around / like cows in a free-stall / barn at night, / their full udders ache." What a stunning image of the weight of that milk aching like the weight of unsaid words.
The third section, called "The Academy of Hay," opens with a poem called "Migration of Baling Twine" that describes the many ways the speaker has seen twine used, inferring the idea that on the farm, as in life, things are always in danger of coming apart. The poem ends with a powerful image of the precariousness of farm life, which I feel also echoes life in general:
I have seen it eel its way, from one lump sum
to plenty of crude-ish sutures, like twenty extra fingers
pinching—as if the farm were a wound or a bird they keep trussed,
keep from blowing crawling falling growing away.
The theme of duality emerges again in the prose poem "Winter as a Profit and Loss Statement," where the speaker muses over what changes the winter will exact, with haunting, violent images such as "The chicken's struggle written in wing marks and scarlet / beside the dog prints stabbed in the snow" and "The cow's / bloated body is hard as a brick at the back of the barn." Alongside these stark images are tender ones: "Her finger traces the valley of his back" and "Snowflakes stick singly and doubly to a cow's roan coat." At the poem's center are the intriguing lines that speak of relationships: "She's felt a man go away without moving a muscle. She's seen a man veer away from a woman and he didn't move at all."
In the fourth section, "Husbandries," many of the poems speak to the sacredness of the land and the farm animals, and the speaker's connection to them. In "Her/Herd" she describes the cow as having "a womb-shaped face." In "Discovering Venus, April 1820" she says: "surely, if the earth does anything, / it divulges everything: apricots, lima beans, / marble goddess." She conveys such reverence when she details how the Milos farmer unveils the statue:
He spits in his fingers to release
her features, eases the crumbs from her eyes,
the cool orb of her shoulder fits the socket
of his palm...
The poem "Kokoro" beings with the couplets: "I know a woman who grows herbs in the cracks of her patio / so guests will crush them under loafers and swing-back flats—" and continues with this intriguing idea of connection or interaction between two things resulting in "this scent from contusion." She goes on to say:
Like an orange thumbed open, torn from its rind, citrus sticking
to everything there's an art to how we abrade beneath each other's
needs, demands; if flesh absorbs touch and touch abides,
her ruptured greens scuffed underfoot
make spice a kind of grace.
The near rhyme of "spice" and "grace" at the poem's end adds emphasis to the tenderness of the image, as the repeated sound of "ruptured" and "scuffed underfoot" in contrast adds to the violence of the visual image, again repeating the idea of life's duality.
In the sensual poem "Eating," the speaker compares tasting a honeysuckle to a priest placing a communion host on her tongue, suggesting her act of connection or communion with the natural world as just as sacred as her communion with God through the sacrament of Communion. The sounds are so musical, the images breathtaking:
She tweezes the sepal
from a honeysuckle
for its intense sweet bead
seated amid flange-like petals.
All of her attendant and
intent, all of her gathered...
each honey bead sates,
These last three lines echo the idea of duality, in that the sweetness of the honeysuckle satisfies and yet at the same time makes her crave more.
In the book's last section, "The Herd of the World," the poem "Sufficiency, September 11, 2006" continues with the idea of life's duality— life and death, violence and tenderness. On the anniversary of so many deaths, the speaker is "holding their takeover tool," (a knife) to harvest lettuce, which she describes herself "sweeping / its edge through the slender necks of lettuce, / placing each head in the box you are dragging / along as the minutes go by quietly 8:45, 9:03, 9:59, 10:28..." She ends the poem with the haunting lines, "the lettuce stalk weeps a milk sap / on both ends—the part still rooted and the part freed; / dawn cruises into noon, you have everything you need."
The poem "o" continues in this same vein, where she's planting white beans and gherkin seeds, wondering "will anything take?" The poem ends on a grim, contrasting image to the one of seed-sowing:
...I feel a twinge
near my right kidney—
little grain of me or star,
more silica than cell,
you sort of something,
you begin your
fall toward loam.
The lines "little grain of me or star, / more silica than cell, you sort of something" have a whimsical tone, but the last two lines suggest the speaker's decline and eventual death in the image created by "your / fall toward loam," reminding us that we humans are indeed all on our way to dying.
The poem "The Needle" continues this imagery, beginning with the statement "I teeter / between extremes—". She gives us the following examples:
one hand finishes the beetle /
sleeping by his leaf meal,
the other plucks you a raspberry;
this hand cups an asterisk of chick:
later this hand cradles the axe that lops
its matured head, an apostrophe
The playfulness of the chick as asterisk and head as apostrophe effectively contrasts the images of violence that she performs as part of farm work.
The prose poem "Gloves" is a type of meditation on the work hands do: "tucking" seed potatoes "in the earth," then months later twisting "the numerous doorknob tubers loose." She lovingly describes catching and freeing a bird her cat caught and let loose in the house: "I recapture it, closing my fingers around the bulb of blue feathers, absorbing its scampering pulse. Releasing it to the cherry tree in the yard, then my hands seem hollow." The poem ends with the beautiful image of her hands as "unsheathed instruments whose sowing and reaping, seemed from a distance, seemed like the act / of stooping to shake hands with the earth."
In "Nine Miners" the image of the bird caught and freed is echoed in breathtaking imagery of the trapped miners released at the poem's end:
when they fledge
a gorgeous disgorgement—
and finally, nine
come to light.
Reading Julia Shipley's poems in The Academy of Hay drew me into the partnership of a person to the land and farm animals she tends, and how these connections relate to partnerships with people and the life we share as humans. Her lyrical, evocative poems strike a perfect balance between light and darkness; they resonate with tenderness, yearning, gravity and grace.
Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, and enjoys traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of Into the Heartland (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Inner Passage (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014), The Seed of Me (Finishing Line Press, 2015), and The Fire Circle (Blue Lyra Press, 2016). You can find her work in Naugatuck River Review, Heron Tree , Louisville Review, Wind, Permafrost, and Still. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website: http://karenlgeorge.snack.ws/.