Poetry in Motion: Tilling the Darkness

On the blog today we have Susan Braley reading her poem “The Egtved Girl” from Tilling the Darkness(Caitlin Press). Braley’s poems trace a woman in a rural setting who comes to appreciate the complex, bountiful legacy of her early life—exploring grief and renewal. Watch below for a peak into Tilling the Darkness.


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As I wrote my poetry collection Tilling the Darkness, the rural setting where I grew up returnedto me vividly: field, barn, creek, stone. These elements still ring through me, heart and bone. The first poem in the collection describes a child riding with her father on a tractor. She is entranced by the clay furrows, which unfurl like “dark earth pelts” behind the plough. They will feed spring seeds.But the work – and the astonishment – of creating this collection was in discovering how my early experiences generated fresh meanings beyond the farm. These poems reveal that we all undertake this tilling ritual, season after season, in the finite field of our lives. Our darkness may be a calamity we seek to escape – a grave, a war, a grief – and our wish is the promise of renewal.The fields of chalk-white gravestones in the Canadian war cemetery in Groesbeek, the Netherlands, led me to imagine the April,1946 burial of the soldiers lying there. In a chilling inversion, the remains of 2000 men were lifted from makeshift graves in German battlefields and reburied on this allied ground. I called my poem “Spring Planting.” The “mushroom-dark” of fall fields returned to me when I wrote “The Egtved Girl.” The remains of this young woman, found in a Danish bog in 1921, lie in the National Museum of Denmark. Her body, presumed to be from 370 BC, is more soil than flesh; her corded-wool skirt is the colour of peat. But her butter-yellow hair and her cropped top, still intact, drew me to her, as if she and I shared the same era.Like the fields, the barn in Tilling the Darkness becomes charged with meaning beyond its rural purpose. In “The Hired Man,” a young girl observes a hired man clearing muck from a pen in the bottom of the barn. Though the barn in her life is a male domain, she secretly follows him to the top of the sun-filled mow. She sees him leap down a chute, his arms full of gleaming straw. She cannot find him in the pen below or elsewhere; she is left to contemplate his vanishing.In the poem “Archived,” the barn burns in a sudden fire. The girl, now a young woman, is saddened, but presses herself to see this razing as a new beginning, like fields burned clean of old straw before seeding. She conjures hearths lit by ancient goddesses who exercise power in both home and state.In the collection, I engage form to celebrate the strength of such women—mythical, modern, millennial: I place frames around a series of feminist poems, as though they have been hung like paintings in a church or gallery.The form of the three-part poem “Spring Planting” offers a glimpse into the workings of Tilling the Darkness as a whole. A play on the palimpsest, the poem goes deeper with each part, tilling the layers of meaning, as a scribe would have done as he unearthed ancient texts in the layers of his parchment.

Susan Braley reads “The Egtved Girl” from Tilling the Darkness

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Susan Braley grew up in a family of eleven on a farm in Southern Ontario. Her life in this rural setting profoundly shaped her as daughter, sibling, feminist, partner, reader and writer. Her poetry is included in Best Canadian Poetry 2023, and was nominated for the 2022 National Magazine Award in Poetry. She was the winner of the inaugural BC Cedric Award for Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in the literary journals Antigonish Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, Canadian Women’s Studies, CV2, The Literary Review of Canada, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, and Room; and in anthologies such as Walk Myself Home and Poems from Planet Earth. Her poems have been recognized in numerous writing contests, including Arc’s Poem of the Year. For much of her adult life, Susan lived in London, Ontario, where she earned a PhD in Modern Literature, and taught literature, writing and women’s studies. She now lives in Victoria, BC, with her partner.