The Farm Wife

A Series of Poems

The Farm Wife Sings
to the Snake in Her Garden

Bringing in the Sheaves”
is so you know I am coming
to pluck green beans in the dark

where you dangle. O garter snake
you are the refrain that returns
with every verse I sing. I spy you

in the watermelon’s ropey
vine or the smooth handle of a hoe
half-hidden in marigolds.

“Be Thou My Vision,” I hum,
cutting a cabbage head
and you jolt like an arrow

from the crooked shadow
of my arm. Against the picket fence,
your discarded skin hangs

thin as silver tissue once wrapped
around a gift. “All nature sings
and round me rings,” I whistle

as I wade through rustling corn
where tassels flicker
and August leaves hiss.

The Farm Wife Ruminates on Cows

If I’d been born a fortune teller,
I’d read my family’s future
in black peninsulas of Holsteins. I’d see
my grandmother, an orphan growing up,
rub her hands on December mornings
in steam where they had lain.

The only dream my mother ever told
was how she drew away the baby quilt
and saw the snout, the full-moon eyes.
Pregnant, I would dream of joining them
in the fields, our bodies, heavy pears, pulling
branches to the ground.

My girls believe they’re named for Bible women
but each was named for a favorite cow,
a blessing of sorts, the only kind I knew, so that
even if they never have cattle in their barns
or live near fields in which they graze
they will have one guardian with a steadfast shape.

The Farm Wife Lingers
in the Root Cellar

My husband says to send our youngest
down to fetch a jar of carrots or green beans
or pull an onion from the bin. He doesn’t suspect
how I love to stand in dim light
amid the gleam of mason jars.

Outside, snow lies three feet deep,
but here summer is stacked to the beams.
I’m in the cranium of the earth
where memory is mummified
in the mustiness of potatoes.

If I were an Egyptian queen,
I would not be buried in Yoder Cemetery
beneath a plain gray stone
but under garlands of garlic and chili peppers,
among gems of peach and plum and cherry.

The Farm Wife Describes
Her Mystery Trips

Once or twice a year, I board a bus with strangers,
none of us knowing where we’ll be
until we get there. It’s like floating in meringue
with no notion of what’s below.

I send everyone back home a postcard:
the mouth of Mammoth Cave, dunes that rise
like pyramids, the world’s largest egg.
My sisters think it odd

I never plan for Italy or a Caribbean cruise.
As girls, they studied maps, plotted their escape
from floors they could never scrub clean
and sheets that smelled faintly

of what bedded down in straw. I travel
the way of starlings, clustered like a cloud
that cracks the whip and then lengthens into a river,
leaving and returning, never asking why.

The Farm Wife Speaks of Her Letters

I keep each one going for days
like Amish Friendship Bread, adding more
of this, a little of that to fill pages on both sides
in blue, green or scarlet script. My sisters
would rather phone. They wonder how

I find so much to write, but each installment
starts with the state of the sun, how much rain
has fallen, how tall the corn. Then I move
to what’s in the oven. Margins overflow with ham
and mashed potatoes, green bean casserole,

perfection salad. One thought naturally leads
to another—like peach cobbler and cups of coffee
passed around the table. Ideas slip, agile
as calves through the gap in the garden fence.
I herd them back before I forget and begin

to hang the wash or count new quarts of stewed
tomatoes. Company comes, company goes,
and the corn is down to stubble. My daughters learn
to ride their bikes and as I turn to write it down
they’re at the steering wheel of a tractor or the car.

The Farm Wife Remembers
the Palm Sunday Tornado

All afternoon the barn’s western side perspired
like a nervous horse and the cows kept shifting—
lying down, rising again. The children
were restless, too. They wouldn’t sit for supper
so I let them carry their plates to the yard.
“It’s snowing!” the youngest shrieked
and I was pulled outside where bits of paper
fluttered like confetti. A man’s blue work shirt
passed like a wayward kite. Clouds blackened.
We heard the rattle of a locomotive
bearing down.

Every four or five years, the neighborhood
gathers for a slide show of the aftermath.
We tell our favorite stories: straw stuck
into telephone poles; a wedding gown blown
to White Cloud, Michigan; the baby nestled,
with his pacifier, inside a dresser drawer.

Only when the young have fallen asleep
do we speak of Aunt Iva at her cellar door,
pulling against the wind
or the newlyweds wrapped to their necks
in chicken wire. Even then, as we linger
in lawn chairs, the song of katydids
filling the trees, I hold my tongue.
How can I admit
that as I prayed for our salvation,
the tornado veered like a witching stick
toward Orville and Mary Hooley’s farm,
picking up the house,
the barn, the sheds,
shaking them like dice?

The Farm Wife Sees
the Shadow of Great Ships

My daughters hear waves
rising in the fields,
and they imagine sailors
with nimble hands,
a cargo of Persian silk.

They will turn from the apple trees
they climb—no more
hanging by their knees
so all that I can see are braids
like lowered ropes

leading to the sky. Soon,
they will spot the prows
of ships crossing the horizon
and slip away on some moonless
summer night

into the holds, barefoot,
long hair tangled. Their combs
lie side by side on the bureau,
a few burnished strands
knotted in the teeth,

and I remember how I heard
the wind with its sea serpents
rippling through green leaves,
how it murmured promises
of things I could hold but never keep.

The Farm Wife Receives
a Postcard of the Ocean

Behind those peaceful scenes
devised for inland folk
who must have beauty anchored down,
the ocean I imagine
rolls like a windy cornfield,
tossing tassels and dark green leaves.
It could take my breath
and never bring it home again.

When asked if I would marry,
I said, to the chagrin of my family,
that he would have to be a sailor,
a man who moved lightly across the water,
setting sails by constellations.
But after years I grew tired
waiting in the fields.
For a time I dressed in black
and then put on my white.

When all the vows were said and done,
I discovered what I never looked to see:
I had married a man who counted
his fortune by the number of bushels,
by the starlings he shot from the rafters.

For every machine he buys,
I buy another tree,
a quaking aspen,
to grow in the circle
reaching around my house.
Whenever a gale comes from the North,
I stand against the kitchen screen
and hear the leaves
like rising water.

The Farm Wife Looks Out
Her Kitchen Window

Only soybeans, where once
sycamores formed an island
and, behind them, fence row maples—
bluish in the distance—made a breaking wave.

Thinking of that wave kept me cool,
even in August with my arms
half-submerged in dishwater
or canning beets in steam so hot

it fogged the window glass.
The cows mourn those trees most.
The shade spread a wide lagoon
they would wade. On humid afternoons,

they still graze near the fence, touched
by ghosts of old trees pulled down
to make room for irrigation. And even
the wind won’t let us forget—

It rushes across the fields in winter,
wraps us in its grief.

The Farm Wife Memorizes
Every Detail

As I turn toward sleep, one scene drifts
to haunt another. Like double-exposed

photographs, the old chicken house
perches on a line of flapping

towels, our barnyard tabby levitates
over a leaf-jammed creek.

There’s no time to put them in order,
less than half a year to learn by heart

the faces of tiger lilies,
the tracks of Holsteins in the snow.

The Farm Wife Sells Her Cows

The cats gather by my kitchen door,
rubbing ribs against a box of overshoes
and spewing curses that waver
like an organ’s vibrato. I’ve given them
every left-over in the fridge—none of it
seems to soothe them, though when we enter
the dairy room where a sour scent still lingers
they hush and assume places, calico
sphinxes against the wall.

I switch on the radio, wait for
the first ones to lumber through—black
and white boulders—larger than you’d imagine
watching them in the field. If only
we could call them back, but by now
they must be past the beltway of Indianapolis,
peering through slats with eyes bewildered
as on the day we pulled them from their mothers.

The Farm Wife
Leaves the Farm

Not by accident
did Queen Anne prick her finger
and a drop of blood
stain her tatted lace.

Like me, she lost
her kingdom, everything
she loved, and wanted
to leave a small memento.

It’s in what shimmers now
against the corn.

The Farm Wife Moves to Town

We still wake at 5 A.M. to milk the cows,
but my husband buries his face
deeper in the pillow while I wander
through the dew-wet grass, pinching
old petunia blooms and checking
the Miracle Tree, whether it’s grown

another inch. My husband brings me
creatures to stand inside the fence:
a flock of plastic chickens, a fat
ceramic frog, three plywood pigs.
Evenings, we watch reruns of Bonanza
as I peel apples, their coiled skins
like snakes inside my bowl.

Plain as a toothpick, the Miracle Tree
arrived in an envelope, but soon
it will reach the roof and sprout
sea-green fronds like a fountain,
a pond of darkness I can wade.

Then, one afternoon, resting
on the stoop, fanning
with a mortician’s cardboard fan,
I will watch the old ones
graze near that great tree. They will flick
their delicate tails or lower
their bellies to the ground, a warning
of thunderheads.


“The Farm Wife Ruminates on Cows,” from Evening Chore,Cascadia Publishing House, 2005; first published in Midland Review.

“The Farm Wife Describes Her Mystery Trips,” previously published in DreamSeeker Magazine.

“The Farm Wife Sees the Shadows of Great Ships,” previously published in Hopewell Review.

“The Farm Wife Receives A Postcard Of The Ocean,” from Evening Chore, Cascadia Publishing House, 2005 (“The Farmer’s Wife”); first published in Black Warrior Review.

“The Farm Wife Sells Her Cows,” from Evening Chore, Cascadia Publishing House, 2005; first published in The Mennonite;featured on The Writers Almanac, Audio of Garrison Keillor, July 2, 2010.

“The Farm Wife Moves To Town,” previously published in The Flying Island.

The Farm Wife is a fictional character, but I owe a debt of gratitude to my aunt Doris Mast, a family storyteller who told me about Mystery Trips and Miracle Trees, about the only dream my grandmother ever told and about what it was like to sell her cows. Because of visits to her and Uncle Bill’s farm in northern Indiana, I know about the beauty of root cellars and Holsteins.

I want to express my deep appreciation to Gaye McKenney and Chuck Wagner, poets whose insightful counsel helped me in the crafting of these poems.

About the Author

Shari Miller Wagner

Shari Miller Wagner has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Indiana University and currently teaches poetry and memoir writing for the Writers’ Center of Indiana. She is the author of Evening Chore, a collection of poems, and collaborated with her father on his memoir of Somalia ,A Hundred Camels.Most recently, her poems and creative non-fiction have appeared in North American Review, The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, Shenandoah, The Christian Century, The Midwest Quarterly and the National Wetlands Newsletter.A cluster of her poems was previously published in the “Folk” issue of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing (see Archives). Her work has been nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes, and she has been awarded two Arts Council of Indianapolis Creative Renewal Fellowships, as well as eight grants from the Indiana Arts Commission. In 2009 she was the co-winner of Shenandoah’s The Carter Prize for the Essay. Shari lives in Westfield, Indiana, with her husband Chuck and daughters Vienna and Iona. For more on Shari seehttp://www.goshen.edu/mennonitepoetry/ Poets/Shari_Miller_Wagner