Sheri Benning’s fourth book of poems, Field Requiem, takes its title and structure from the Latin Requiem Mass that is offered as a eulogy to the dead. The collection is divided into five sections and witnesses the social and ecological impact that the agro-industry has had on rural Saskatchewan.
In the opening poem, “Winter Sleep”, the speaker wakes, in their dreams, to what can only be described as the end of days. “[T]he village is empty.” There is “chaff and dust, / a war lost, harvest thrown down.” The scene lays the groundwork for this stunning collection, with its sprawling lists and evocative imagery. “[T]he long winter sleep” is prepared:
Wheat threshed, casks of cherries, plums,
boiled melon, beef tallow, pig bladders blown
and tossed by children, mothers stirring stock,
kidneys, hearts pressed with aspic,
Affection and comfort is substituted for “electric blooms, Monsanto Roundup Ready Canola”. Community is replaced by “[h]arvest done by drone. Yields downloaded / into $750 000 air seeders come spring.” Big farming, with their motto of “[g]o big, or / get out”, is sterile, war-like, and orchestrated from a safe distance.
There is plenty to engage with in Field Requiem. Time collapses. Distance blurs. Fields burn. Place names such as new Jerusalem and Mount Carmel carry weight. There are prophets and sackcloth. The Parable of The Two Sons. Salt, dust, dreams, blood, oil, nature, industry, and smoke all rise out from the page. Ishmael and Esau are nestled next to Alex, Peter, Mikhail (“Psalm 22”). The Parable of the Talents where servants “were told to take / what the master had given us and multiple it tenfold” (“Winter Sleep”) is measured against the Dominion Land Act in which European settlers in the nineteenth century displaced the Indigenous and Métis peoples.
The harrowing “Extreme Unction” tells the deaths of seven sons. It begins with a four-year-old who “wants to help the hired man / throw rocks down the dry well to close it.” But “[t]he wagon’s steel wheel rolls // across his little-boy stomach.” As a parent, I was struck by the cold and metallic language. This scene makes it powerfully clear — nothing gets in the way of progress.
While the poems are full of brutality, there are moments of warmth. The gentle imagery sings in “Plainsong”. The musicality of the language is rich in adoration. I found the tender moments all the more devastating set against the backdrop of destruction. Benning’s ability to draw on her experiences growing up on her family farm in rural Saskatchewan enriches the poems. It lends an authenticity whether the speaker reflects on the landscape, their family home, and other farming communities.
The damage big farming has done to the environment is implicit. However, the speaker and their family are also implicated. In “Bury What’s Left” the speaker and their dad toss a “metal bedframe, / school reports, bread clips, elastic bands, / water bottle lids” into a pit. In “Slaughter”, a hunter stands “high on a pile of bones, sun-sucked skulls” with no thought that the “careless slaughter would lead to such hunger.” These lines resonate with me. Mathew 6:34 comes to mind. At times, I too try not to think about tomorrow, to live in the moment, but thinking this way allows us to ignore the greater impact of our own actions.
The fourth section, “Let Them Rest”, erects monuments to the dead and the vanished community. However, it is not sentimental. It examines the deep scars that these settlements have left on the land. I enjoyed the layered connections between the poems that are titled with map co-ordinates and their corresponding photographs by Benning’s artist sister, Heather Benning. “NW 18 44 22 W2ND” describes one of these images of an abandoned house with the “ghost of wet sheets,” and the “[k]itchen door, off the hinges.”
The final few poems circle back to the personal. In “Winter Sleep I Kings 19”, the speaker wakes while “[n]o one believes. / We were told the jar of meal / would not empty. Oil would not fail.” But the jar is empty. The oil has failed. Beliefs that the settlers on this land have held onto have only made them bystanders to their own destruction.
“To Glasgow” is the final poem in the collection. It is hopeful and answers my question of where can we go from here? The speaker stands at the Manchester Victoria station, waits for the “after supper train. Home, / to Glasgow.” Memories of “overripe peonies” and “[d]iesel, / smoke from the burn barrel at dusk” drift in with the fading light. A train shoots past. The speaker’s face mirrored in “the windows of passing cars.” After all the speaker has seen, I too realise that “[t]here is no going back”.
by Sheri Benning
Carcanet Press, September 2021, 96 p.p., £11.99
Taidgh Lynch is a poet from Killarney, Ireland who lives in Saskatoon with his partner and child. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Waxed Lemon, Tír na nÓg, untethered magazine, spring, Drawn to the Light Press, Prairie Fire, FreeFall, and elsewhere. His poetry chapbook, First Lift Here, was published with Jack Pine Press (2019). Visit his twitter: @taidghlynch