Micah Ling’s Sweetgrass is one of those books that will either be right up your street or not – and if it isn’t up your street, it’s the kind of book you’ll pick up the way my dad used to pick up books (sideways), peering askance, wondering just what it is. As for what it is: what it is is a pocket sized book of short (and shorter than short) prose poems. Prose poems, for the uninitiated, are lyrical flash fictions, blocks of text that look (to the untrained eye) like common or garden paragraphs (or in some cases plain old sentences) that seek to do the job of a poem (and therein lies the best possible distinction between prose poems and flash fictions – a flash fiction might seek to tell a tale in the shortest manner possible; a prose poem is more reflective, at times obscure, obtuse, sing-song-y, arguably concerned more with mood, weather and emotion than getting person A and person B to location C).
Coming on like the bastard love child of Annie Proulx and Thomas McGuane, Ling’s collection (which comes adorned in a Rothko-esque cover intended to suggest the rolling plains and bigger than big skies of rural Montana) concerns itself with country life: horses and cattle, pick up trucks, mountains, dry heat, fire and the primal yearning for rain. The thought of yourself in the midst of a landscape that doesn’t change for hundreds of thousands of years, against a backdrop of scale that dwarfs you at every turn (‘Look at your shadow compared to the mountain’s,’ she writes. ‘Watch things smaller than yourself, like ants, doing work bigger than you can imagine.’).
‘The sky here is bigger than the sea, bigger than all the seas combined. The sky is bigger than things said, and things not said. The sky here is bigger than wonder or doubt; it’s bigger than hurt or scared or sad.’
Like anywhere there are universal truths, irrespective of place (children still misbehave, men still drink), but the truths come tempered with peculiarities (men practising for rodeo in the dead of night, swimming in the creek in the just after noon), and rub shoulders with the kind of advice you’d expect from seasoned farm folk (‘Touch the pig’s right ear with a stick to make it turn left. Touch the stick to its left ear to make it turn right.’), pretty shorts that dance like haikus
Finger the sage grass
Wind carries seedlings uphill
Coyotes creep through
and italicised sentences that read like stray phrases overheard by the author:
After July, any more than three days without rain is drought.
Doing a half-assed job is like a calf suckling the back udder.
Ling deftly conjures a world at once bright and unfamiliar. This feels like the kind of book that To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout might have written if she’d married a farmer and moved to Montana. Caught between speeding fires and elks dressed up like punks, Sweetgrass is the kind of book you’ll get from one side to another of in a lunch hour – but I guarantee once you’ve made the journey once you’ll want to walk these ways again, and maybe drag a few other people with you.
Any Cop?: There’s a lingering strangeness, to be sure (prose poems feel like a form I haven’t come to grips with yet), but for all that, Sweetgrass is well worth checking out.