Wolf and Pilot by Farrah Field. Four Way. 72pp, $15.95.
When Farah Field announced the opening of Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop (Field and Jared White’s pop-up shop, the only all-poetry bookshop in New York City) two Februarys ago on her blog Adultish, she wrote this: It is kind of an anti-capitalistic act because no one could ever pay what poetry is worth. This sentiment is exactly true ofher new book, Wolf and Pilot, too. There’s no way to pay what Field’s poems are potentially worth. If you could, it would be in the currency of jewels fallen from their settings, taped and re-taped paper doll outfits, brass buttons from your favorite coat, and coins from unidentifiable countries. This book is at once a fairy tale you may recognize from long ago, an alternate universe eerily similar to our own, and a history of four sisters written in their chaotic, collective voices.
Each poem in Farrah Field’s Wolf and Pilot contains the branches and multitudes of a world busy with complexities, the whelming story of the four sisters (Elsianne, Matilda, Emaline, and Aubrie), and their journey from out of their bedroom window. Wolf and Pilot often reads as if you’re squinting at a detailed scene in a sugar egg, or watching a troubling movie through netted fingers. In the first of four different sections of the book, the sisters disappear through the window of their room. The seemingly archetypal adults (the detective, the teacher, the mother) then set out in search of them. But the sisters are immersed in their forest hide-away where they watch animals and humans from a concealed distance. This shifts to them living with the detective and teacher as their new, caring parents, though one sister dies. Finally, they arrive at the new world the sisters and the new parents emerge into once their grief has subsided and their lives as humans develop.
The morning I finished reading Wolf and Pilot, really reading it, my husband entered the bedroom and told me that there was a dead cat in the neighbor’s backyard. He saw it through the bathroom window, thought it was sleeping, and then realized it wasn’t. That, he explained, must be what our dog was barking at last night. I immediately recalled this stanza from the second of four sections in the book:
Aubrie makes the sign of sleep
and points to dead animals.
On one side, they’re comfy and curled
yet smashed on the other.
At this point in the book, the four serenely feral sisters are enduring their life on the run in the woods, no longer fully integrated into the animal or human worlds. Throughout the whole book, but especially at this midway section, the sisters live partially in the animal world and partially in the human world. This gray area they exist in makes it more understandable that the distance between comfy and smashed would be so short for them. Is it sleeping? Or is it dead? Maybe the two can exist simultaneously. Following the same logic, characters endure unnatural transformations that are accepted as fact. In the poem “Wanting to Train Pigmy Goats,” as the image of their real mother is literally dismantled—she “pull[s] her face off at the nostril,” “threw one of her feet at [the sisters] and never lost her balance,” the sisters see a “horse family/stand[ing] close together in a big field.” The wildness of animals, even when smashed on one side, seems somehow more civilized than the unpredictability of their human family.
The forms of the poems exist as vehicles for the story of it all. Some are lineated and separated into stanzas of varying length, while others are kept in squared prose blocks. Oddly specific titles stand in contrast to the dreamy, hazy language of the poems. The last stanza of the first poem in the second section, “Bedtime Stories,” contains a rush of information in a single sentence that is broken up over several lines, tempered by a final line with a clear thought:
We are stronger than blackbirds
we don’t know what anything means we put our
hands on the cool glass called a window.
Once upon a time all adults used to be children.
The sometimes-scattered language of the poems reflects back on itself—especially when either a single sister speaks or all of the sisters speak in unison. Field creates a voice that sometimes sounds like the fragmented recollections of a victim of abuse, occasionally reminding me of the transcribed testimony of Elizabeth Smart, or the stories of people held captive in single rooms for years. This trauma is reflected in the language, forcing them to create skewed perceptions and dialects.
Mother didn’t know we knew
our birthdays. Twelve children died
of polio on mine. Fourteen of fifteen
September birthday holders
learn to be overlooked.
Here and there without a coat still.
I never went to school.
From our room,
I watched the rusted-clutch bus
choke its way to select houses.
When the voice is that of the girls speaking collectively, you are left creepily unaware of who is speaking or what is to be believed. Are the actions of the adults truly as strange as they are described? Or is it because of the girls’ filter? Here is one such instance of this disorientating strangeness, from “Our Food Will Not Come From a Cigarette Company,” in which the sisters take on the teacher and detective as their parents:
Our teacher needs a potato masher and time to think,
watching us hold the seeds, bored to sticks.
We can never be too aware of what’s really being said.
The detective sweated with the shovel
that kept hitting a large stone. He threw
his heavy coat on a pile of dirt. His own air
circled his face and the teacher told him not to swear.
Field’s words and plot are often weightless and untraceable, the extreme whimsy pinned down only by the steady rhythm and telling punctuation.
The mothers were like pulling a hangnail and watching the blood
rush back and forth underneath until it pops up to drown the tear.
Who could possibly know what someone else looks like anyway.
A habit of bodies is like lighting a stick on fire and breathing.
Under our fresh outfits, we’re variations of wolves at best.
Farrah Field’s Wolf and Pilot unravels a mottled mystery of sisters gone missing. It’s a page turner because it begins with a mystery. Where did the sisters go?
We don’t know how the sisters crawled out of the window,
the detective said, counting footsteps from the rocking chair
to the window, from the desk to the window as if the girls,
scattered around the room, one by one got up and left.
But as you persue the answers, it becomes clear—the sisters haven’t gone anywhere at all. New details and meanings rise to the surface and link together with each re-read—just what happened to the sisters? Did they runaway, or were they kidnapped? Who exactly are their parents? The sisters are there the whole time, speaking to you. And as you turn the pages, the mysteries of where they went and why don’t solve themselves neatly, instead the poems are built with imaginative holes—à la the father’s morning newspaper attacked by the scissors of his naughty children before he can get to it—but these are not just empty holes, they’re intricate cut-outs made with delicate flicks of Field’s thin-bladed shears.
Lesley Ann Wheeler is a poet and teacher who lives in Kansas City. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a coeditor of Strange Cage. Her chapbook, Dream Treatment, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press.
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