Approaching the Fields by Chanda Feldman
Louisiana State University Press, 2018; 64 pp.
Reviewed by Nan Cohen
The title of Chanda Feldman’s first collection, Approaching the Fields, confers an almost cinematic impression of motion, like a film opening with a sweeping bird’s-eye view shot over a landscape. And while the poems themselves arrest the reader’s attention in the ways we expect poems to do, catching us by the sleeve with a quick commandment of imagery or rhetoric, they, too, seem caught in flight: though not in a hurry, they move purposefully, with a sense of destination.
The book begins with a series of core samples of its home ground, drilling down through layers of the poet’s family history in the South, where kudzu “twins//a telephone line’s length with vine, its only message/to overrun” (“Native”). The samples are taken not just from places—the speaker’s mother’s childhood home, her grandmother’s old bedroom, a ditch in Tennessee full of black-eyed susans—but also from times: a 1930 census recording her great-grandparents’ generation, an Election Day on which sharecroppers have a rare holiday (“No one picked in the fields on Election Day”) and the men sign ballots ratifying not their own votes, but the ones chosen for them by the fields’ owners. (Both “Census” and “Election Day” are plainspoken, effective pantoums that make good use of that form’s ability to cycle briskly into the past. Notice which lines Feldman makes vanish from the repeating structure as she brings each poem to a close; some of her most striking, and damning, observations emerge in such subtle ways.)
Family stories continue to unfold, and private experience continues to twine, like the kudzu vine, with the broader shared experience of African Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century. The sequence “But We Lived” works within and around the sonnet form much as the speaker’s parents’ and grandparents’ lives wrestle with the forms imposed on them by racism, segregation, and the struggles of subsistence farming:
But we lived, my mother told me, day to
day. It always was and we never thought
it wouldn’t be—separate entrances
at the doctor’s, dentist, the fabric store, or
the places we knew not to go. The lines
and the laws and the signs, as you saw
in Eyes on the Prize on TV…
The speaker investigates her parents’ pasts, traveling back to their early lives together in a poem titled “1976” (“their first fall, married, living/in graduate student housing”), and to the joys and losses that preceded her arrival:
It matters most my father and mother
hold each other again and again,
before they begin their days
on those cold mornings
of tears that lead them to me.
Some of Feldman’s most compelling obsessions are the happiness, sorrows, and simple endurance of the people who preceded her. In this, as in its lyricism, her work invites comparisons to Rita Dove and Marilyn Nelson, but it establishes an individual authority that is both orphic and intimate. The economy of Feldman’s language doesn't feel like parsimony—on the contrary, it is richness: little surprises of words like "umbrellaing" and "constellating," beautiful lineation, gloriously precise and sensual imagery, often just in a single verb choice ("unspool ripe cotton on the wind"), making Approaching the Fields rich and rewarding on every level.
Nan Cohen is the author of two poetry collections, Rope Bridge and Unfinished City, winner of the Michael Dryden Award from Gunpowder Press. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is chair of English at Viewpoint School. She has directed the poetry programs of the Napa Valley Writers' Conference since 2003.