The Postindustrial Pastoral

Adrienne Su’s accomplished new book of poems Living Quarters invites meditation on the material specificities of too-readily-typecast locales. Recalibrating the geographical and cultural tropes of ...

Adrienne Su’s accomplished new book of poems Living Quarters invites meditation on the material specificities of too-readily-typecast locales. Recalibrating the geographical and cultural tropes of American nature writing, Living Quarters offers readers a portrait of rural modernity1 rather than pastoral nostalgia—a portrait that unsettles the divisions of agricultural versus industrial and provincial versus cosmopolitan that have long defined ideas of place in the American national imaginary.

Built around four sections comprised of 14 poems each, Living Quarters takes its title keyword literally, as a structuring principle. Within each of these sections, the volume shuttles between the intimate scale of the lyric speaker’s life story and daily habits in her locale of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the planetary scale of immigration, diaspora, and the transnational circuits in which plants, products, and people travel. The keyword “Quarters” reverberates across this nexus of locale, region, and globe: a sign for architecture as well as seasons, cultivated land as well as financial cycles, and the familiar intimacies and injuries of home as well as the impersonality of markets.  

Su is Poet-in-Residence and Professor of English at Dickinson, a liberal arts college located in Carlisle. A first-time visitor to Carlisle who stays in the historic downtown and meanders through the verdant Dickinson campus might leave with a postcard image of the college neatly aligned with the American pastoral tradition of perceiving rural places as removed from modernity. Such a visitor would overlook, however, the layered history and landscape of Carlisle, a borough of 19,000 located 25 miles from the state capital of Harrisburg. Taken together, the Carlisle-Harrisburg region has a 300,000-person workforce centered in government, education, healthcare, and industry of all kinds, including the military infrastructure connected to the Army War College. By comparison, less than 0.1 percent of area residents describe their occupation as farming.2 Far from pastoral, this corner of South Central Pennsylvania exemplifies the role that small and medium-sized towns increasingly play in the global consumer and network economies. As a case in point, the 2010s saw the closure of two major manufacturing facilities that had operated in Carlisle since 1866 and 1917 respectively,3 just as Amazon opened a major fulfillment warehouse on the outskirts of town. The arrival of Amazon is a touchstone, moreover, for transformations underway in rural places like Carlisle, whose horizons seem more postindustrial than industrial or agricultural, more complicated and portentous than quaint or antiquated.

<i>Carlisle Interchange</i>. Photograph by Stephen Beaver / Flickr

Carlisle Interchange. Photograph by Stephen Beaver / Flickr

Living Quarters is an incisive literary response to both this shifting sociocultural terrain and the longstanding habit of seeing rural America through the lens of the pastoral. The book develops a multivalent sense of place that includes an acute awareness of the global markets and transnational histories shaping Carlisle, while it also explores the allures and challenges of cultivating a local food culture in a rural place whose modus operandi is no longer agrarian.

Su has said that the late Poet Laureate Maxine Kumin’s final volume, And Short the Season, influenced this sense of place—and especially Su’s use of a gardening motif in Living Quarters. Yet, there is a striking difference between the locales that inform the two books. In comparison to the rapidly changing landscape of Carlisle (which Su has called home since 2000), And Short the Season roams around the central New Hampshire region where Kumin and her husband maintained a farm for nearly 40 years. While Kumin depicts the land around her farm as a “summer pasture” comparable to the mythological “Elysian Fields” found in Greek pastoral poetry, Su knows South Central Pennsylvania as a region of “Minimalist stage-sets; mid-list authors; / discarded pets; streets no one’s heard of.” The latter is a place in which Su has been drawn to put “down a root” precisely because “soil seems not to have gathered” there.

Contra Kumin’s pastoral portrait of New England farms and forests, Su crafts an attachment to place that inheres not in the idea of terroir, of local belonging gained through settling and cultivating the soil, but rather in the interstices of wild and domesticated life that the backyard garden comes to exemplify in Living Quarters. In contrast to the deciduous forest biome that feeds pear orchards and horses in Kumin’s poetry, it is inexpensive land (“we freely pioneer / buying Manhattan for a dollar an acre”) and refurbished and affordable goods (“yard-sale furniture,” “no-name shampoo,” and “scratch-and-dent appliances”) that define Su’s “living quarters.”

Although explicit references to the place that Su calls home are infrequent, the poem titled “Carlisle, Pennsylvania” gathers together the multiple threads of the volume and establishes Carlisle as central to the volume’s composition. The poem opens with the quatrain: “Even Gettysburg, which still matters, / isn’t that close, so when Hurricane Sandy / set its sights squarely on Cumberland County, / it was notable, briefly, to live in the county.” These opening lines set the stage for the poem’s organizing theme: the disjuncture between Carlisle’s representativeness and its invisibility. While nearby Gettysburg is a national historic landmark, Carlisle (the county seat) is a place passed through quickly and summed up dismissively by a “traveler / buying lunch or switching highways” who sees it as just another town in “a swath of country, town, country, town.”

Su’s poetry shuttles between the intimate scale of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the planetary scale of immigration and diaspora.

With the image of “switching highways,” Su makes visible the importance of Carlisle to national and global markets as a locale for product distribution centers (Amazon being just one of many) because of its geographical location near the intersection of two major interstates a legal day’s drive for truckers heading almost anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard. In the poem, the speaker herself seems suspended between the figure of the passerby traveling one of these interstates and the longtime local who has never moved farther than “down the street.”  The speaker is, instead, a member of Carlisle’s academic community, a group made up of transplants who hail “from coasts and cities.” Just as her identity troubles the binary of fast-moving outsider and rooted local, so too does the poem’s occasion. That occasion is Hurricane Sandy, which brings “brie[f]” national attention to the region and yet draws to the surface Carlisle’s enmeshment in the global economy. The storm event causes not catastrophic damage but “the usual inconsequential / beating: clogged gutters, canceled meetings, / a boon for grocers, Home Depot, Target, / the chance to claim we’d been a target –.”

A masterful stylist, Su reinforces this theme formally. Each quatrain ends in a couplet whose rhymed words are identical lexically but different semantically: the proper name “Cumberland County” versus “the county”; “the town” versus town in the abstract; “our houses” versus “the kind of houses” they are like; “highways” in general versus “the highway” off of which the traveler finds Carlisle; and, finally, the retail chain “Target” versus the community’s experience of being the hurricane’s “target.” This accretion of repeated words has three distinct rhetorical effects. It reinforces the highway driver’s sense that this place is like any other town located in parts of the United States that are more rural than urban. But they also suggest that what makes Cumberland County typical is not rural remoteness but pervasive modernity, specifically in the form of mass consumerism. Finally, the poem’s doublings combine with its collective “we” to indicate that the residents of this particular town, in this particular county cannot be neatly summed up as generic instances of a single type, whether the pastoral hamlet or the postindustrial node.

In such poems, Living Quarters makes manifest the tensions between lived realities and stereotypes (of small towns, immigrant families, liberal-arts colleges, and even lyric poets). Another provocative example of this rhetorical project is a poem set not in Carlisle but in an unnamed suburb in the southern United States. Titled “On Being Criticized for Coming from Suburbia,” the poem seems to portray the area outside Atlanta where Su grew up, a region that has its own problematic history of pastoral rhetoric papered over plantation economies and structural racism. The treatment of suburbia in the poem counters both literary and political representations of the South that traffic in the pastoral as well as those that represent primarily white and black communities. The suburb Su describes takes shape implicitly as a mostly white community where the speaker’s childhood street name “sounds the same / as the others.” However, her own family’s history as Chinese immigrants troubles this physical and cultural geography of uniformity. Exploding the aspirational homogeneity of suburbia via reference to histories of immigration and exile, the speaker recalls how she went to sleep “knowing / that the journey to this pocket of heaven / with its benevolent dogwoods, / clean sheets, and small chandeliers / had begun decades earlier with the sight of soldiers / marching down every alley.” The poem here highlights one of the many achievements of Living Quarters: the unfolding map the book constructs of Su’s childhood growing up in Georgia as a second-generation immigrant interwoven with her adulthood living in Carlisle as an ambitious poet, amateur gardener, and newly single mother grappling with divorce.

In a book filled with such thematically complex poems, one stands out—a poem that clarifies the significance in Living Quarters of gardening and cooking. “Chinese Parsley” makes edible plants—specifically, the herb popularly known as coriander or cilantro—a metonym for transnational histories of migration, commerce, and cuisine. The speaker begins by critiquing the herb’s name (“Chinese parsley”) for “evok[ing] too freely” a set of ethnic stereotypes, from “checkers” to “zodiac.” The poem then resituates the plant in relationship to the multiple identities of the lyric speaker, who objects to the term “Chinese Parsley,” both as an academic who chafes at its scientific inaccuracy and as an avid home chef and a Chinese-American woman for whom “parsley” connotes Mediterranean cuisine (“minestrone / steak / roast chicken”) and cilantro Latin American and Asian dishes (“a taco / biryani / spring roll”).

As many of the poems in Living Quarters do, “Chinese Parsley” thus makes cross-cultural histories essential to the poetics of place. To this point, the poem links the manifold ecological and cultural lives of “Chinese Parsley” to two geopolitical concepts: political citizenship and national borders. The speaker observes that the centuries during which cilantro has grown in China qualify the introduced plant “to be considered / citizen,” while the term “cilantro” makes “the better partition” for dividing Latin American and Asian foodways from European ones. In this pairing of ecological and cultural migrations, Su is careful not to collapse one into the other. Rather, the poem suggests that both plants and people should garner their “citizenship” not through their place of origin but through their histories of dwelling in and becoming part of a locale.

This account of “Chinese Parsley” points to the connections between Living Quarters and And Short the Season, and why the two works benefit from being read alongside one another. Published one year apart, both attend to the ecological particularities and cultural histories that inhere in gardens, farms, and kitchens. For readers interested in tracing these correspondences, key poems include Su’s “Backyard,” “Rosemary,” “Tomatoes,” and “First Garden,” and Kumin’s “A Day’s Work,” “No Place,” and “The Standing Roast.” These poems conceptualize food-work as a creative analogue to poetic composition. They do so partly by situating cultivation, cooking, and writing together within a domain of everyday routine that also serves as a space of artistic life, and partly by exploring the importance of place to all three practices. At the same time, Su and Kumin share an anxiety that agricultural and culinary labors compete for time with their writing lives. Su articulates this concern powerfully in Living Quarters by way of an expressed ambivalence about how an investment in nourishing both gardens and children might compromise a woman’s ambition to be a poet of consequence, as the speaker of “The Frost Place” puts it.

The poem suggests that both plants and people should garner their “citizenship” not through their place of origin but through dwelling in and becoming part of a locale.

For her part, Kumin puts cultivated spaces at the center of a sense of place that is, like Su’s, regionally specific and historically layered. But if Living Quarters develops from Su’s attentiveness to the industrialized, networked landscape of South Central Pennsylvania (and, by extension, the mid-Atlantic), And Short the Season celebrates the agrarian and forested terrain of New Hampshire. The labor-cum-leisure of foraging, husbandry, horse breeding, and farm work in turn provide the experiential fodder and imagery for many of the volume’s lyrics.

Among these, “A Day’s Work” is perhaps the most successful. The poem describes a New Hampshire conifer forest and the “long ago” acts of logging that left “flat stumps” along with “saplings desperate / to become trees in their own right”—a history responsible for the fact that by the late 20th century only 1/1000 of New Hampshire forest land could be classified as old-growth.4 Alongside these marks of ecological degradation, the speaker finds possibilities for resilience in the form of wild edible fungi that continue to spore in the “ancient mycorrhizal paths” that logging, ironically, enriched. Dedicated to Barbara Swan, a Boston-based painter who worked with both Kumin and Anne Sexton, the poem culminates in an ekphrastic mode by turning from a reenactment of foraging to an invocation of a mushroom painting:


I come to forage among these slabs in the clearing

where men and animals sweated together.


Plucking today’s flush, I salute the artist

whose pen-and-ink sketch of armillaria

hangs on my study wall, how she reported


she drew three versions of our day’s pickings

here fifty-five years ago, then took them home

cooked ‘em up and et ‘em.


Multiple timescales converge in these lines on the local site of a New Hampshire forest: a “long ago” timber industry; “ancient” mushroom ecology; the 50-year friendship between Kumin and Swan; and, lastly, the immediacy of a day spent foraging, cooking, and creating art at home.

<i>Armillaria mellea, aka honey fungus</i>. Stu's Images / Wikipedia

Armillaria mellea, aka honey fungus. Stu’s Images / Wikipedia

Throughout And Short the Season, wild forests and cultivated farmland function in this way, as locales where the speaker unearths “Jurassic” geological strata and “centuries” of human history during ephemeral acts—from burying a horse and turning up Eocene soils (“Indian Pipes”) to finding in the woods bordering Kumin’s farm “red pine pillars” installed by the Great Depression Era’s Civilian Conservation Corps (“The Path, the Chair”).

It is here that Kumin and Su seem most kindred, as poets who weave together everyday and intimate experiences with geopolitical and geological timelines embedded in the places from which they write. Both write about losses that locales variously conceal and carry, albeit profoundly different kinds of loss. For Su, the relationship of loss to locale is a quotidian and intimate one connected to middle age: a recognition that “living quarters” accumulate losses that are, like the volume’s depiction of Carlisle, at once ordinary and difficult to sum up with clichés. The losses in Living Quarters are those of divorce and sickness, but they are also those of a garden wintering over or going to seed. Put differently, Su’s poems bring to life common heartaches, bodily aches, and disappointments by locating those experiences in a richly textured sense of place. In contrast, the losses Kumin links to particular locales are extraordinary and even theatrical—from the tragedy of injustice and inhumane treatment at Guantánamo to Kumin’s own heightened sense of aging on her New Hampshire farm.

The differences between Living Quarters and Short the Season crystallize in their respective final poems, which in each case explicitly address the ultimate loss of death. Su concludes Living Quarters with an elegy to a black Dickinson student who drowned in 2009 while, poignantly in light of the volume’s earlier reference to Hurricane Sandy, working on hurricane relief in Guatemala. Conversely, it is Kumin’s partial blindness and anticipated death that occupy the brief closing poem of And Short the Season. Titled “Allow Me,” the poem pays homage to John Milton (an all-too-famous poet who went blind) before turning to Kumin’s mortality. The last poem of her last book, “Allow Me” ends with an intimate echo of prior poems that depict climate change as a chaotic death knell for the planet, imagining the end of one life in one corner of the world: “But who gets to choose this ordered end / Trim and untattered, loved ones at hand? / —Allow me that day.”

Both volumes thus end with a nod to lyric poetry as a literary mode of individual, locally rooted contemplation turned often toward loss. But while Kumin’s final poem concludes with an inward reflection on death nostalgic at once for elegiac poetry and agrarian life, Su’s elegy turns outward: in this lament for the death of a young Dickinson student in Central America, Living Quarters underscores the planetary network and complicated cultural, economic, and political ties that bind locales like Carlisle to the larger world. icon

  1. As a term, “rural modernity” describes how sociocultural and economic developments as well as particular technologies associated with modernity impact rural communities in the context of globalization and neoliberal capitalism. I have elsewhere used the term to convey the non-pastoral depiction of agriculture and agricultural communities in Willa Cather’s post–World War I fiction. See Allison Carruth, Global Appetites: American Literature and the Literature of Food (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 19–48.
  2. As of May 2014, only 170 people out of 309,740 in the Harrisburg-Carlisle region were occupied in “farming, fishing, or forestry.” US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “May 2014 Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates: Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA.”
  3. The plants are, respectively, Masland Carpets and Carlisle Tire and Rubber Company.
  4. Old-Growth Forests,” in Good Forestry in the Granite State: Recommended Voluntary Forest Management Practices for New Hampshire, edited by Karen P. Bennett (University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, 2010).
Featured image: Cilantro plants. HitroMilanese / Wikipedia