Selling the Farm by Debra Di Blasi* is a short book, 148 pages of creative non-fiction. But it’s unfair to really call anything by Di Blasi one genre. She mixes poetry and prose — sometimes called prosetry — and a dash of nature writing, all within a form that separates present thought from past recollection, and admits the inability to return physically or in memory to a place that no longer exists. She veers toward the philosophical and smartly reels it back into the visceral. Let me give you an example:
What is the shape of a place no longer approachable except through memory? Perhaps it’s the shape of galaxy clusters that resemble the shape of a brain’s neural network that resembles the shape of the internet that likely resembles the shape of spacetime itself.
This paragraph opens the preface, demonstrating Di Blasi’s attention to the connections of science technology, and humans that I’ve come to believe is characteristic of her thinking. Cut to this example in which she evokes what it’s like to to go to the bathroom when you have no indoor plumbing:
…[there are] flies swarming under your ass from the shit in the outhouse holes…
This back and forth of poetry and the grotesque fit perfectly with a book about a life of poverty on a farm in Missouri with a family of seven.
At times, I caught myself trying to read at my usual pace, but the sentences force you to slow down and engage in a wave-like rhythm, lest the meaning be lost on the reader. Just as I felt lulled into the beauty of the farm — Di Blasi largely breaks her book into the four seasons — something mutilated, be it a feeling or the flora/fauna, would slice across the page and bring me back to her reality. I can almost imagine Di Blasi living in Missouri 100 years ago, but she was born in 1957, a time when other families were buying the latest kitchen gadgets and sending boys to college. There is the trickery of poverty: it’s easy to romanticize as old, quaint, foreign. Just when the book begins to ask readers, “Don’t you long for easier times, connection with nature, and children who roam outside?” it gives a stark reminder about slaughter, carrion, rust, malfunction, infestations, a blazing sun, a frozen-to-your-waste landscape.
While the landscape and poverty shape the memories, there are hints at the human relationships. Rage sneaks in, though is not expounded, and in one scene, when the whole family picnics, Di Blasi remembers:
My mother whipped open the wedding-ring quilt with its binding worn and colors faded like her marriage — except on that day when she seemed happy for a reason unknowable that appeared rarely (and then rarer still until it vanished entirely). . .
What happens between the parents, and what causes the mother’s gradual unhappiness? Is the father the cause of the rage — did he do something unforgivable? I notice the book is dedicated to the mother, “who survived to move on.” While I wanted more of the relationships, I stuffed aside my selfish feelings because that’s not what Selling the Farm is. This book holds a place, a memory of a place in a place, a place that’s gone and can’t be recovered.
A highly recommended read for folks who enjoy creative non-fiction, mixed genre, poetry, and literary fiction. Debra Di Blasi’s work can be challenging, but her gift is unequaled. Selling the Farm was published September 2020 and is now available for purchase.
*I first met Di Blasi in 2009 in Buffalo, NY, at the annual &NOW festival. Since then, we’ve communicated as friends and writers. As the former owner of Jaded Ibis Press, she published my work in two collections. Thus, I am inherently biased in this review.