Losing the Farm, Felicity Sheehy
Southword Editions, 2021 £6.00
The cumulative power of subordinate clauses
If, like me, you’re fond of digressive poems, then you’ll like Felicity Sheehy’s. Often, there are so many digressions within them that one wonders where Sheehy’s focus lies, but perhaps that’s the point: they have a cumulative power which washes over the reader.
In what is, for me, the highlight of this slim chapbook, ‘The Night Traveler’, the first fourteen lines are one virtuoso sentence consisting of thirteen clauses, the middle eleven of which are subordinate. It opens cinematically, with a general scene-setting line (‘Sometimes on long drives upstate’), before using snow as a pretext to travel back in time, into memories which provide both comfort and grief:
the night falling as surely as the snow
in the valley, the barn owl calling
to the trees, and the low hills sinking
into whiteness, like the bedtimes
of my childhood, smoothed under
my mother’s hand, gone now
like my mother, deep in the snow
These lines are flush with internal rhymes and assonance — ‘falling’ / ‘valley’ / ‘owl’ / ‘calling’ / ‘hills’ — which augment the rolling rhythm of the clauses and help to create a verbal mirroring of the car’s journey across the American landscape.
The sentence continues with an unexpected, continental shift:
I remember what it was like to walk
the streets of Stockholm as a girl,
lost and tired, how the cold cuffed
my sides, crackled my lungs
It ends with another surprise:
how I stumbled to the first warm door
I could find — a museum of antiquities.
The poem rolls on for a further nineteen hypnotic lines which explore, among other things, the ethics of museum acquisitions, more memories of the poet-persona’s mother and — beautifully — the blueness of snow.
The danger of such a style, perhaps, is that the reader might become bored by its apparently random and rambling nature, particularly within the longer sentences, but Sheehy controls the pace so well that this piece (and the other similar-format poems within Losing the Farm) never run beyond comprehension into a babbling stream of consciousness. The connections between clauses contain an emotional charge that is both engaging and delightful.