John William Kulm
The Five Stages of Quitting Farming
Gazoobi Tales Press
79 pages, $9.95
Culture relies heavily on crossers of borders—smugglers who bring hill news to the valley, sailors carrying tunes across the sea. (One hero restored to us all by Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire is John Chapman—"Johnny Appleseed"—endlessly voyaging between the cities from whose cider presses he collected apple seeds and the edge of wilderness where next year’s settlers will be customers for his trees, like Dionysus "a figure of the fluid margins, slipping back and forth between the realms.")
I don’t know what John William Kulm’s farm family and neighbors thought of his career as a performance poet, what memes trickled back to the farmhouse from those smoky slam nights in the city, and what reception they found there. This book travels the other way, describing the life of the American farmer to people who might well not otherwise hear much about it. Yes, we’ve all heard how globalization and mechanization have caused the depopulation of rural America, as families who have farmed for generations can no longer afford to go on doing so. But Willie Nelson’s annual "Farm Aid" concert and the occasional passing reference to crop prices on "Prairie Home Companion" are not much information on the continually deteriorating plight of the farmer. As Kulm’s poem "I Wish I Was Smart Like Alan Greenspan" observes,
Every hour on the am radio news they play the
status of the New York Stock Exchange
but never the Chicago Board of Trade.
Every hour the doctors at the Federal Reserve Board
lean over their S&P 500 patient
with stethoscopes to their ears
as if the economic well-being of America
is based on their own indexed mutual funds,
and they never notice the crippled up
commodities market in the next bed.
This book, organized around Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's famous five stages of dying, recounts the story of Kulm's coming to terms with the impossibility of his being a farmer in twenty-first century America. (Though the "acceptance" demonstrated in the final stage is grudging and sardonic at best.)
I would have liked more texture, more detail about the farm itself. What is here is mostly the lament for its loss. The reader would be able to join more readily in the lament were there more felt sense of what is being lost. As the quote from "Greenspan" above hints, these poems too often settle for rhetoric.
The book reaches out for a wide audience, each section beginning with an explanatory prose exposition to spell out the theme. I might have made the same decision, but this explicit "story" can detract from the individual poems, many of which are stronger by themselves than this argumentative framework shows. They also suggest they'd be stronger in performance than on the page, and I would certainly look forward to an opportunity to see Kulm perform them.
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