Review | Field, Folly, Snow, by Cecily Parks

Landscape as a generative impulse for poetry is not new; what is new is Cecily Parks’s imaginative take on a particular landscape, the arid and majestic American West. Throughout Field Folly Snow, Parks weaves sharply observed details of the natural world with references to and images from the human world, including the region’s history and culture. In the best poems in this collection, Parks achieves a spare—though at times elliptical—lyricism that reveals an interior world taking its measure from a harsh and beautiful wilderness. In “Folly” (one of two poems with that title in this collection), Parks writes,

Along the highway there’s a place
where nothing’s left: suggestive mounds of dirt,
a marker to commemorate abandon

inside this elbow of the Green. Bristly
cottonwoods abound in serpentine, bound
by water to the banks their roots uphold—

this is a kind of love, a state of need
distilled and tough.

The volume opens with a single-line frontispiece poem titled “The Wish for a Garden”: “I could grow old again.” This unorthodox structure offers readers a hint of Parks’s strategy: to disarm and surprise.

Other American poets—May Swenson, Richard Hugo, and Gary Snyder come quickly to mind—have also written in response to the Western landscape and of their relationships to its vistas, inhabitants, promises, and disappointments. Yet the relationship of the artist to her landscape is never a simple one, especially if the artist is aware of the natural and historic forces that have shaped it. In The Practice of the Wild Gary Snyder writes, “It is often said that the frontier gave a special turn to American history. A frontier is a burning edge, a frazzle, a strange market zone between two utterly different worlds.” Parks energetically investigates the power of this threshold; especially interesting is her decision to write about a female form and female imagination set in this environment. Her speaker is clearly a female presence that interprets, inhabits, and, at times—as in “Trapline”—submits to the powerful lure of the land and its stories:

The landscape holds you in no clouded thrall
but holds you nonetheless. After witching,
after fear, you greet the literal: post-and-rail
as deadfall, peppermint as weed, whispering

as runoff in a ditch. What breaks the fog-
topped pond will be a wayward ladyfish
before it’s love; in the aftermath, frogs

Parks’s formal choices range widely, from the villanelle, prose poem, and sonnet to more eclectic and avant-garde lyrics. The poems spiral on associative leaps and unexpected images. Readers might be surprised to find in the endnotes references to Dickens and Frost—though perhaps less surprised by the note on William James’ work on human consciousness. These poems, while closely connected to a tradition that looks to the natural world for its triggers, are also deeply grounded in literature.

One section, “Letters of a Woman Homesteader,” creates something collage-like from Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s well-known volume of the same name.


 Dear Mrs.,

Snowstorm, silence while [            ]. Our sheep-herder
scattered meadowlarks about.

Miles. Most women wouldn’t have been afraid. 

These epistles, rarely exceeding more than a couple dozen words in length, are cryptic and oddly evocative. Parks self-consciously violates the chatty and expansive tone of the original text, which is available through the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library as well as in several print editions. Bracketed erasures, parenthetical asides, and deliberate obfuscation characterize this short section. While intriguing, this montage is too fragmented and lacks the context that might provide coherence for the fragments.

In Field Folly Snow Parks investigates the made world as well as the natural world: fish, rain gauge, horse, river, seismograph—each of these examined at close range and the speaker’s discoveries expressed in a voice that is probably familiar to readers of contemporary poetry. Distinguished in part by tone, Parks’ voice is exquisitely self-aware, at times cagey and often startling. In “Luna Moth,” she quietly juxtaposes the marvelous and the mundane in a melancholy meditation:

Pale green and pressed against the window screen,
shot through with field, you watch with four white eyes
the nighttime’s corners curl, your underself unfurled
to my one room of world—kettle, counter,

knife block. Having lived one of your life’s
six nights, you leave a limp silhouette where you
left off—let me be the creature circling
your sleep. I am the most benign unknown.

This close watchfulness permits the speaker to inhabit what she observes even as she observes it. Quietly effective, it dissolves the boundary between watcher and watched. This shape-changing magic is expressed most beautifully in a series of self-portrait poems, which are interspersed throughout several of the book’s five sections.

“Self-Portrait as Rain Gauge” takes as its ostensible subject a passive vessel that rests on our lawns and in weather stations, a mere receptacle into which the rain falls to be measured. Parks finds a voice for this object and assigns it a persona that teases and warns:

Come, someone, I’m shaped like invitation
with a sharply beveled rim. The barometer

drops, the wind vane dervishes and I
dumbly attend. Come, someone, if I’m made

for filling, I’m made for emptying.

Other poems in this vein include “Self-Portrait as Seismograph,” “Self-Portrait as Angler’s Damselfly,” and “Self-Portrait Which Makes Use of the Beaufort Scale.” These persona poems—among the strongest in the book—suggest a way to know some thing as well as one knows one’s self.

Field Folly Snow draws deeply from both surreal and historic settings, from the natural world and the made world. Though at times these contrary impulses seem at war with one another, the result is often unexpected and resonant. This pursuit is central to Field Folly Snow: how best to listen, to see, to cross the boundary into frontier where imagination is our best guide and most reliable companion.

Cecily Parks’s poems have appeared in Five Points, The Paris Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Yale Review, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Cold Work (2005) was a winner of the Poetry Society of America’s chapbook competition.