The Tillable Land

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The Tillable Land

$17.00

with foreword by Rebecca Gayle Howell

The Tillable Land is a heart-racing, heart-breaking lyric, a liberating coming of age for our stunted relationship to all that feeds us. I am changed by this book.”—Rebecca Gayle Howell, Author of American Purgatory and Render/An Apocalypse and Poetry Editor, Oxford American

“Melva Sue Priddy’s The Tillable Land is a double helix of a book. One strand is a story about a family’s life—dairy farming and growing tobacco, and also food for the table—beginning with an initial purchase of an unforgiving seventy-acre plot of land that had been deemed untillable. The other strand concerns the oldest daughter who, from a very young age, bears onerous responsibilities both inside and outside a house ruled by a father who believes that children—and women—should be seen and not heard. Because she ‘could not be silent’ as she matures, her life is marked by the ‘tingling numbness’ of this past. Water runs through this book: falling, flowing, and pooling, it turns manure and silt into slurry, washes off topsoil, threatens to burst pipes and hoses in freezing temperatures, opens sinkholes, and thins menstrual blood. Perhaps this is what throws into relief ‘In the Adjoining Field,’ a poem about fire: ‘You have to burn off all the grease, / girl,’ says a grandmother lighting a skillet hung with ‘barbwire’ on a maple; ‘It’s how you get it clean.’ It’s another metaphor for a book probing one woman’s legacy of land and family, as she moves from her child-self onward to being a grandmother herself. Robert Frost’s ‘The land was ours before we were the land’s’ is a line that maps the trajectory of Melva Sue Priddy’s teeming book. The Tillable Land, often not pretty, formally enacts a winding, unwinding, rewinding journey that leads one woman, buttressed by smarts and beauty, to salvage from memory a place written into her DNA.”—Debra Kang Dean, author of Totem: America 

“‘The farm raged with run-down fences,’ Melva Sue Priddy tells us early on in The Tillable Land, and ‘the family had no such boundaries.’ The poet sets those boundaries now, by chronicling a childhood where her father required his small children to do work they had neither the size nor strength to perform. Fear adrenalized her, and at age five, she could drive a diesel tractor by standing on the pedals. She lived on ‘land that god clothed / with rocks’ where ‘[s]ome of those rocks [were her] bones.’ Priddy makes brilliant use of the repetitive, braiding form of the villanelle to convey the relentless cycles of farm work. But somehow, amid this punishing labor, ‘another god spoke with [her]…and words warm songed through [her] veins.’ She never let go of that singing, and now she offers it to us. The next-to-last poem in this stunning collection finds Priddy at the Garden Center where she tells us, ‘Today I get what I want.’ Hallelujah!”—George Ella Lyon, Kentucky Poet Laureate, 2015–2016, author of Back to the Light

Cover art: Julien Dupré

In the Pasture (The Milk Maid) (detail), 1883, Oil on canvas

Collection of the University of Kentucky Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry H. Knight, 1958; transferred from the Carnahan Conference Center.

Enjoy a preview of “What Chose To Be Remembered,” one of the poems included in The Tillable Land by Melva Sue Priddy.

What Chose To Be Remembered 

Scored by water frozen in our ponytails
from morning wake-up call,
scored by the broad hipped holstein
walking within hand’s reach, her soiled rump
following the soiled rump before her,
scored by the wolf moon’s hunger and charm—
her predatory eye fixed on us—
scored by the unsteady ground, jarring,
slowing our steps, bone-cold and familiar,
each morning we coaxed the herd.

But, too, each cow’s billowing breath,
the silver-shimmered pond’s edge,
the snowflakes’ images repeated
just above the freezing water, and
we were scored, too, by life’s tingling numbness.

Copyright © 2022 Melva Sue Priddy

 

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Description

Melva Sue Priddy

MELVA SUE PRIDDY, an American poet, grew up working on her family’s dairy and tobacco farm in Hardin County, Kentucky. She received a BA from Berea College, an MEd from the University of Kentucky, and an MFA from Spalding University. Priddy taught English Language Arts and Creative Writing for twenty years. Her poems have been published in Appalachian Review, Lexington Poetry Month, Motes, and Still: The Journal, among other print and online publications. She lives in Winchester, Kentucky, with her husband, and together they own a small farm in White Mills, Kentucky. The Tillable Land is her debut book.

Advance Praise

“Melva Sue Priddy’s The Tillable Land is a double helix of a book. One strand is a story about a family’s life—dairy farming and growing tobacco, and also food for the table—beginning with an initial purchase of an unforgiving seventy-acre plot of land that had been deemed untillable. The other strand concerns the oldest daughter who, from a very young age, bears onerous responsibilities both inside and outside a house ruled by a father who believes that children—and women—should be seen and not heard. Because she ‘could not be silent’ as she matures, her life is marked by the ‘tingling numbness’ of this past. Water runs through this book: falling, flowing, and pooling, it turns manure and silt into slurry, washes off topsoil, threatens to burst pipes and hoses in freezing temperatures, opens sinkholes, and thins menstrual blood. Perhaps this is what throws into relief ‘In the Adjoining Field,’ a poem about fire: ‘You have to burn off all the grease, / girl,’ says a grandmother lighting a skillet hung with ‘barbwire’ on a maple; ‘It’s how you get it clean.’ It’s another metaphor for a book probing one woman’s legacy of land and family, as she moves from her child-self onward to being a grandmother herself. Robert Frost’s ‘The land was ours before we were the land’s’ is a line that maps the trajectory of Melva Sue Priddy’s teeming book. The Tillable Land, often not pretty, formally enacts a winding, unwinding, rewinding journey that leads one woman, buttressed by smarts and beauty, to salvage from memory a place written into her DNA.”

—Debra Kang Dean, author of Totem: America

“The Tillable Land by Melva Sue Priddy is one of the truest books I know. These poems are spoken from ‘deep inside / my own bones’ heart, where no one could touch me.’ They speak to that heart’s hard road of becoming, of saving itself by naming and refusing what must be refused and—just as importantly—by loving what can still be loved. Alongside the witnessing of cruelty and its injuries are praise poems to some of the most common matter of the earth and to the surviving beauties of human life here. ‘When young, I thought trees waved and made the wind,’ Priddy tells us, and later on, ‘Sweet scented straw, in my garden I scatter you. / You are harvested music falling from my fingertips.’ Also, always, earth falling away from under our feet, ‘the new sinkholes’ we never see coming. This voice does not falter in the face of a hard road. In these poems, Melva Sue Priddy shares a way, for each of us with ears to hear, to live and speak the truths of our own ‘bones’ heart.’”

—Diane Gilliam, author of Kettle Bottom

“‘The farm raged with run-down fences,’ Melva Sue Priddy tells us early on in The Tillable Land, and ‘the family had no such boundaries.’ The poet sets those boundaries now, by chronicling a childhood where her father required his small children to do work they had neither the size nor strength to perform. Fear adrenalized her, and at age five, she could drive a diesel tractor by standing on the pedals. She lived on ‘land that god clothed / with rocks’ where ‘[s]ome of those rocks [were her] bones.’ Priddy makes brilliant use of the repetitive, braiding form of the villanelle to convey the relentless cycles of farm work. But somehow, amid this punishing labor, ‘another god spoke with [her]…and words warm songed through [her] veins.’ She never let go of that singing, and now she offers it to us. The next-to-last poem in this stunning collection finds Priddy at the Garden Center where she tells us, ‘Today I get what I want.’ Hallelujah!”—George Ella Lyon, Kentucky Poet Laureate, 2015–2016, author of Back to the Light

“This hard-won book of poetry portrays a family determined to beat a living out of the land—without realizing they belong to it. There is little comfort and there are very few moments even of calm in this hardscrabble farm life, a blunt reality these poems note, yet the speaker of these words so clearly longed for affection. What got left out? What in the speaker’s recollection of her childhood was misguided or poorly handled? In The Tillable Land, the poet’s answer is heavily shaded with ambiguity. Growing up and coming of age in these poems requires a tug in two directions at once—the desire to flee and the desire to hold on have held equal sway. It is a powerful double bond and makes the poet’s response all the more poignant.”

—Maurice Manning, author of Railsplitter

“Melva Sue Priddy is that rare twenty-first-century poet whose lines both vault and crawl from the earth—and that means the muck and manure of farming—in her remarkable debut volume, The Tillable Land. Here, she sets the environmental clock ticking by plunging her readers into the contradictions of herding milk cows and harvesting tobacco—the narrowest of choices on the slimmest of margins. Priddy portrays the visceral realities of cows in their stanchions, of girlhood, of a farmer-father’s threats and violence, and of women’s bone-tiring labor. In other poems, she displays a deep, rewarding knowledge of growth and gardens. Her harrowing poems give profound meaning to the phrase ‘dirt poor.’ I read them all in awe of Priddy’s clear-eyed understanding—not to mention the subtle craft that always underpins her powerful illuminations.”

—Molly Peacock, author of The Analyst: Poems and Flower Diary: In Which Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries, & Opens a Door.

Additional information

Category:

Poetry/Memoir

ISBN:

978-1-945049-22-4

Paperback:

$17.00

Publication Date:

April 2022

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