Susan Braley's Tilling the Darkness
Reviewed by Padmaja Battani
To read Susan Braley’s inaugural collection ‘Tilling the Darkness’ is to peer into the life of a farm girl in Southern Ontario, her perceptions of birth and death, siblings and seedlings. These are intimate poems set in the backdrop of rural setting describing tractor rides, racing plastic boats at the water trough, summer corn, hired men (at the farm), and the reunion of the sisters in quite a captivating manner. One other important element of this collection is gender inequities and discrimination portrayed in fresh arenas.
She opens talking about the tractor ride with her father in ‘Only One Round’. This brought back memories of my childhood and the tractor and bullock-cart rides on our grandparents’ farms. The most remarkable feature of this poem is the way she introduces her father’s traits in a very subtle manner.
Braley transforms the mundane aspects of farm living into vibrant poems. ‘The Cream and the Milk’ is a beautiful account of milking and skimming carried out by her mother and herself. To the background of her father’s singing, the cows chewed, flicked tails. The bonding she cherished with these animals flows through this poem.
Her father shares the same care and concern for the cattle and rescuing the cattle is as important for him as keeping the kids away from the danger. When the barn burnt to its knees in the night, she tried to help him and begged to leave the barn. His silence told her to leave while the same silence calmed the cows down.
She is very candid in unpacking the expectations set for children in a religious family and the consequences when they fail to meet them. In the long narrative poem ‘Cleansed’, she describes how the strap handed down from her father’s father ‘rained down’ on her brother who preferred to be silent and did not pray even after the mother’s insistence.
She views growing up and her blossoming body in the similar lens with which she sees the seedling nubs and growing plants. A universality in the cycle of life, in tilling the darkness for harvest and for human prosperity, inward flowering.
The poem ‘Tess and Her Child (1973)’ narrates the heart-wrenching episode of a teenage mother and ex-student handing over her Grade 12 books in exchange for petty cash. ‘Tess and Her Child (1983)’ is a series of Tess’s revelations about her child’s father and a stern advice ‘never to play rough’.
‘Remembering fields where Fathers and Uncles Fought or Spring Planting’ is a multi-part poem that unearths hope after tilling the layers and concludes with a robust optimism for rebirth, regeneration and rejuvenation.
The two poems that I personally like the most are ‘Sisters at the Family Reunion’ and ‘Two Polaroids’. ‘We clung together; as if our small hearts leap in one chest’ sums up the special bond sisters share. As one of the three sisters, I can feel that connection every time I come across that phrase. Two beautiful images of her parents together – in quiet embrace in the kitchen; the mother holding the failing father on the hospital cot make the poem stand out buoyant.
Intense feminism and references to gender bias are present in several poems. For example, the poem ‘Glory’ talks about how Braley and other girls who wanted no hats (especially in summer) trimmed white lace into oval as a chapel cap. Another poem ‘Pro/Creation’ portrays her mother framing her high-school diploma and immersing herself in the household tasks of ‘bathing, peeling, weeding, pleasing, praying, mending, milking, canning, canning, ironing…’. And what her father’s expectations are:
The series of poems ‘Via Femminile (the Path of Women)’ tell us the stories of ordinary women who have tolerated discrimination and violence yet survived and flourished. Christian via Crucis (the Way of the Cross) was instrumental in writing the series.
One outstanding feature of her poetry is the way she succeeds at looking incredibly closely at an object or emotion and then casts the scope of her attention so broadly as to sweep the whole world into her lines. Her comparing ‘stream of wheat pouring down’ to ‘the thick gold rain’ and similes like ‘steam rising from her iron like breath’ exemplify her poetic brilliance.
Padmaja Battani writes poems, book reviews and sometimes fiction. She has received an MA in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Sierra Poetry Festival, Trouvaille Review, Poetry Pause (LCP), CanLit Magazine, Bitchin' Kitsch, Tarot Poetry Review, Black Cat Magazine and elsewhere. Her latest passion is hiking. She is currently working on a poetry collection.