Reviewed by Ariel M. Goldenthal
The “Overture” of Debra Di Blasi’s Selling the Farm (Winner of the 2019 C&R Press Nonfiction Award and published by C&R Press in 2020) starts with the clause, “As I live and breathe,” and no matter where the lyrical memoir moves, to what moment in space or time or, as Di Blasi writes in her preface, “placetime,” the reader is carried, that opening clause still applies. While this memoir evokes layers of grief for the Midwest farm of Di Blasi’s childhood, the chapters (that feel like moments, slices of memory expertly preserved and then rendered for the reader) are filled with such dynamic language and imagery that it’s the life and breath of the farm that rings the loudest.
Di Blasi’s work is bookended by considerations of death—“In Memoriam” of the house on the farm and an “Elegy” for her sister—but the core of the work is broken into sections titled for each of the four seasons. Di Blasi fills each season-section with vignettes that tell not only the story of her childhood, but also the story of the farmhouse itself, of the pig rescued from the cold, the cow’s burial, the disgusting minutia of a home without indoor plumbing, the best friend from town, and the land that bore these memories. Many vignettes begin with an image that grounds the reader in that season, whether explicitly (“Summer heat radiated the sweet undulating stink of every wild thing dead and rotting”) or with seasonal imagery (“A crow swooped down from a live branch and lit on the snow’s bones”), and though not all vignettes in each section are overtly linked to the season in which they fall, they all elicit the feeling of that season.
Rhythmic and lyrical language is the medium through which Di Blasi uncovers the emotional cores of the seasons. The memoir blends poetry and prose in a way that makes you want to mark every line to revisit and unpack later.
Some lines are feasts of images, drawn so clearly and layered so tightly that one clause reveals as much as an entire vignette:
boxes of rain-spoilt adventure books and cattle magazines, rusted iron bed, broken chair, one shoe, and later, the big brassy guts of a piano salvaged from the fire that burned the old house down to its cellar.
Other lines sharpen the action and stretch each word to its furthest meaning:
Even now’s a hemorrhage as we siblings advance toward each other, swords drawn, hilts of accusations and secrets glinting in a furious bloody light.
Still others have a vivacious cadence and consonance:
for we possessed each other’s lives wholly on at least the knowable surface, just as waterbugs skate airless on a skin-skim of pond until the pond’s nevermore.
As striking as the language and syntax in Di Blasi’s work is, the scaffolding is just as impactful. Within each vignette, she unravels the memory, using paragraphing and punctuation to visually cue the reader to the shifts. Each vignette tells the story of one moment in the memory of the farm, and though the memories are decades-old, the paragraphs indented the furthest contain the most recent thoughts, the least narrative distance. Some of these sections in brackets include content-based knowledge, like the definition of the Latin word cumulus, while others seem to speak directly to the reader, sharing insights gained from the years that have passed.
Selling the Farm is many things at once: It is a study in memory, loss, and nostalgia; an example of the power of the succinct vignette and the paragraph-break; and as Di Blasi writes, “an attempt to understand the nature of existence for human and non-human animals alike.” It is a work that you will want to read many times, through many lenses, and with many pauses to savor even the tiniest of details.