Selling the Farm by Debra Di Blasi

Winner of the C&R Press Nonfiction Award

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.

12 comments

  1. I think you make a really important point about how easy it is to romanticise poverty. People sometimes tell me that people lived healthier lives a hundred years ago because everything was simpler “and we didn’t have allergies” etc, but when I ask them to explain how average life expectancy has risen so dramatically over the last century if our lives were healthier then, they sometimes get quite angry. It doesn’t fit with their nice romantic view of the wholesome farmer’s wife contentedly living a natural, simple life, untroubled by modern problems – as if issues like child mortality among the poor were mere trifles that didn’t really worry them.

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    • I remember my grandfather getting so angry that he was prescribed cholesterol medication because he recalled his own father sitting at the dining room table, mopping up the lard from the pan in which something like bacon was cooked, and how “He never worried about cholesterol!” Well, of course he didn’t — he died when he was in his 60s.

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  2. Her works always sound so amazing when you write about them, but I recognize this mixed genre/style of writing isn’t for me. Keep reviewing her works, Melanie! I like living through your love of these.

    I know you’ve read a lot of Di Blasi’s work. This is obviously fairly autobiographical. Is that common to what she writes?

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    • The first works I read by Di Blasi were two novellas, both set on a farm, both emphasizing art, isolation, failure — but were more dramatic. They also read straightforward. Her Jiri Chronicles stories are experimental and hard for me to understand. But then she has a romance-type novel called What the Body Requires. I’ve also read a horror script she wrote! She’s all over the place, and it’s wonderful. I don’t always see elements of Di Blasi in her characters, which is nice, too. I like writers to imagine other lives besides their own.

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  3. This sounds fascinating. I especially like your point about romanticizing poverty or even imagining these things as something that existed long ago when, as you point out, poverty is an ongoing experience for many people and it is far from pretty. This is something that always bothers me when people talk about how much better childhood was in “the good old days” when kids ran around outside and there were no video games!

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    • My mom remembers what when she was a child in the early 1960s that cousins of hers were featured on the front of the local newspaper with the heading, “The Face of Poverty.” My mom and Di Blasi are almost the same age. It’s something I don’t forget because my mom’s experiences shaped her. One weird side effect: I did not think people went to college until a few decades ago, unless they were a rich, white, playboy in the New England area with ties to Europe. My mom didn’t go until the 90s, my grandparents don’t have college degrees, my great-grandma did go to college, but it wasn’t a college yet, it was a “normal school” for teaching. The fact that people I’ve met have grandparents with master’s degrees shattered my world.

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      • My mom remembers visiting an aunt without indoor plumbing but I always thought it was a story about farm life. Now I’m thinking it was that but also about poverty. I think it’s important to keep in mind how recently the expectations have changed, as you point out. My parents both went to university but I’m not sure any of my grandparents did. My mom for sure would have been the first in her family and I kind of take that for granted.

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  4. I easily fall into the trap of romanticizing life from ‘back in the day’, things seemed so much simpler, but you’re right in that we forget how tough life really was back then. Outdoor plumbing? Ugh no thank you.

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  5. This sounds excellent and I love the term “prosetry!” I also really appreciate the point you make about the reality of poverty and “simpler times.” I agree that people can be too eager to romanticize “the simpler times,” and I think it’s ignorant and even insulting when it’s coming from people who are quite privileged/haven’t faced much hardship.

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    • About 11 years ago I was teaching at a college that chose the textbook for all ENG 101 teachers, so we’d all be on the same page. There was an article in there about “the golden years” or “the good old days,” and what they’ve found, from a sociology perspective, is that people were miserable back in the “good old days.” Men wanted more time with their children, who were veritable strangers to them; women wanted freedom and equal rights; children wanted understanding. Many people were poor and lacked access to education. And I’m just talking about white families.

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