What a privilege it is to slip into a new decade accompanied by the careful (and care-filled) words of the 5 finalist books for “Read Poetry Central Minnesota.” I’ve just finished reading Joyce Sutphen’s Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems, a book in which I’ve found great pleasure and solace.
In mind of Lyricality’s goal to introduce Minnesota poets to new audiences, I offer this guide for readers who don’t generally go for collections of poetry, (as well as for those who already love poetry). As encouragement to spend time in the company of this beautiful book, here are:
7 ways to read Joyce Sutphen’s Carrying Water to the Field
1. Read Carrying Water to the Field as a Minnesota writer’s journey.
People with writerly ambitions might enjoy this entry point. To read Carrying Water to the Field in the usual manner, from first page to last, is to follow the journey of a poet, from the publication of her first book in 1995, through this, her eighth, in 2019.
In the first section, containing poems from Straight Out of View, the speaker contemplates: “I’m thinking of birds…” This is where a writer begins, in thought. And later in the poem she says, “I’m thinking of ink, / letters fading, / words that are fragile,” bringing to mind a writer’s struggle to evoke the essential feeling of an experience or perception, using one’s only medium–words. As the sections unfold, the writer’s preoccupations advance and circle back through a prairie landscape, exploring work and purpose, relationships, change and loss. Following the first are six more sections of poems selection from each of her published books, in succession. It is possible to read with an eye toward a writer’s development. To conclude, we arrive in the recent history of New Poems. One poem in this section, “Your Name,” brings us to a place of silence, which is also, despite the erasures of time, a place of nearly limitless, love.
I say your name, and you answer
with a silence that I take
for love—a love that I carry
all the way to the horizon.
If a writing life fails to take a writer deeper into love, one might wonder what is the point of a life spent writing? “Within these pages,” the poet Ted Kooser writes in his introduction to this book, “is everything good about Minnesotans and Minnesota writing.” I agree.
(Tip: if you want to learn about a writer’s journey, the acknowledgements and the Introduction are never boring yada-yada. They are like moon stones marking the path through the maze).
2. Read Carrying Water to the Field as the story of a Minnesota farm family.
The back cover of this book tells us that “Joyce Sutphen’s evocations of life on a small farm, coming of age in the late 1960s, and traveling and searching for balance in a very modern world are both deeply personal and deeply familiar.” It is possible to see in this volume, the story of central Minnesota farmers, remarked on by a woman who shows us parents, grandparents, extended family, neighbors, nature and landscape. Elizabeth Hoover, a Milwaukee-based poet writes in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Her careful, clear observations capture the particularities of growing up on a farm outside St. Joseph and the sensual pleasures of the work there.”
3. Read Carrying Water to the Field as contemplative explorations on what makes work meaningful.
If you’re prone to asking What’s it all about?, or if you’re wishing you could be more content in what you do every day, you might find value in picking through this book for Joyce Sutphen’s poetic observations on the sensual pleasures of simple, meaningful work. In the poem “Work” she speaks of her own manual labor, “It steadied me, calmed me, saved / me from the edge of the pit, from the ledge.” In the same poem, she tells of similar pleasure found in the work of honing the sound of a piece of writing, “to work the / / lines, to lift the sounds–so clear and easy / they almost seem effortless–into place.” Readers who care about well-being will be rewarded by gleaning through this book in mind of the question, “What makes our work–the tasks we set for ourselves to do–meaningful?
4. Read Carrying Water to the Field as a celebration of ordinary life.
In a media-frenzied world that hypes the extraordinary, when most of us are, in truth, quite ordinary, it’s heartening to be reminded now and again that every life, even the most seemingly insignificant, is ripe with goodness. In the many people and images populating this collection, the poet shows us simple and mundane bits of life, then unveils their particular, often awe-inspiring, significance. For example, in “Chickadees,” she treats us to a new vision of those ordinary, often overlooked creatures, transforming them from humdrum, black-and-white things into admirable adapters, “resplendent // in their down-layered jackets, / each one impeccably capped– / little bellhops in the Sky-Blue Hotel.”
5. Read Carrying Water to the Field as a collection.
This may seem obvious, but some readers might need permission to never finish this book, and still enjoy it. Its subtitle, New and Collected Poems, is there for a reason. It tells you this is a collection of little treasures to roam around in. It doesn’t matter the method you choose for your wandering ways. Proceed in an orderly manner, from section to section as if from room to room. Like the tenderest of caretakers, you might take each poem-object one after the other to hold, examine, and dust. Or let the book fall open where it will. Accept the luck of the draw; take your fate.
You can even riffle through these pages like a capricious child, waiting for your eyes to light on something delightful. When a title or phrase appeals to you, allow yourself to linger in its presence. Gaze, knowing you have discovered something the poet-maker has loved so sharply, she has turned it into a “well-honed thing.” Simply find your own style for browsing the collection. Whatever suits your own personality or your mood is the best way for you to read these poems.
6. Read Carrying Water to the Field for the sheer musicality of the arranged words.
You can experience these poems as you would listen to a 21st century composer at the height of her powers. In the same way a consummate music maker studies and builds on the work of great composers throughout the ages, Joyce Sutphen has memorized hundreds of classic poems, Karla Huston, explains in her review for Library Journal with the effect that these poems “move to an underlying beat.” Read one or two aloud to a friend, just to enjoy the music.
7. Read Carrying Water to the Field as an homage to Heartland.
Maybe you feel a nostalgic connection to this geographical place called The Heartland. Or maybe you live primarily “by heart,” operating from your interior landscape of attachment and loss. If you are a person for whom Heartland is significant, you are sure to find something here that speaks to you.
Although there’s no one right way of looking at a thing, if we want to experience life deeply, we would be wise to find a way to look attentively enough to recognize what is worth seeing. Poetry can help us see the world afresh. Perhaps you are interested in a poet’s journey, or the story of a family, the value of meaningful work, the beauty of things well-crafted, or the muscle and music of words. Perhaps the Heartland as a place intrigues you, or maybe you are fascinated by the places the heart will take us. If any of these things matters to you, then no matter how you choose to read Carrying Water to the Fields, you’re likely to find rewards.
To order Carrying Water to the Field by Joyce Sutphen
Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems by Joyce Sutphen is the latest publication in The Ted Kooser Poetry Series from University of Nebraska Press. In her acknowledgements, the author expresses her “deepest gratitude…to Ted Kooser,” who wrote the introduction, as well as to many others (see #1–read the acknowledgements!). The cover image, Stormy Skies II by Barry Hilton is breathtaking.
Click here or on the cover image below to order Carrying Water to the Field.
About Joyce Sutphen
Joyce Sutphen grew up on a farm in Stearns County, Minnesota. She is a professor ermeritus of English at Gustavus Adophus College and is Minnesota’s poet laureate. Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems is her eighth poetry collection.