Donna Vorreyer is the author of A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013) as well as six chapbooks, most recently Encantado, a collaboration with artist Matt Kish (Red Bird Chapbooks). She is a poetry editor for Extract(s), and her second collection Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in late 2015. She resides in the Chicago area with two large dogs and a regular-sized husband.
The Imagined Life of the Pioneer Wife
The Imagined Life of The Pioneer Wife is a life fully imagined. Vorreyer’s poems are sometimes brutal in their honest portrayals and always poignant in their beautiful rendering of landscape and language. From silken threads to shotguns to milkweed in bloom, the Pioneer Wife creates a time and space we can inhabit with her as we move from one tightly crafted poem to the next.
She waits in the rill, my riverine girl,
and water cannot hold me. Tonight
I am alluvial, powering past her
outstretched arms onto the bank
where my gills close and I grow legs,
eyes that stare from a human face,
skin a thing I never knew I wanted.
How can one want a thing until
he’s felt it, worn it, lived a moment
inside of it? She scans the water for
ombre waves of pink and gray, then
turns to offer her hands flat and
and welcoming. I glide my head across
her palms until fingers clutch my hair
and she explores my eyes, a darkness
she can recognize. Then she swims
into me, all lips and sway, all hips
and honey, and skin and skin and skin.
What others are saying...
Prick of the Spindle reviews Donna Vorreyer's chapbook The Imagined Life of the Pioneer Wife.
The Imagined Life of the Pioneer Wife, by Donna Vorreyer, is a physically beautiful book, revealing Red Bird Chapbooks’ deep respect and high regard for poetry. The sepia-toned cover is a photograph of a hand-hewn wood fence, reinforcing the prairie setting and pioneer history in this set of persona poems spoken by a refined young woman turned tough pioneer wife by hard necessity. At the start of her journey of transformation, she’s heading west in a covered wagon. The wrap cover of the chapbook folds into jacket flaps, carrying the picture inside. And there you have it: a literal journey and an imagined journey at once.
So you can judge a book by its cover!
And there are two well-chosen interior illustrations, as well: an image of Queen Anne’s lace, a ghostly reproduction from a glass lantern slide, to match the mother’s choice of a name for her newborn daughter: “Still hallucinating flowers, I say / Anne.” And an engraving from 1882 of dandelions in bloom, to illustrate “The Pioneer Wife Gathers Flowers.” Again, the historical setting is realized and honored.
Inside, the pages are thick, a pale and textured ivory parchment paper; the binding, tightly sewn. All indicates a fine, handmade craftsmanship—like the pioneer wife’s own sewing skills, gone beyond learned and decorative to sturdy and essential, intended to last. A lovely book—inside and out—and I’ve not yet told you about the poems!
In “The Pioneer Wife Writes her Sister Back East,” the speaker verbalizes her awe at the beauty of her new life:
would guess, alone with my need,
with all this longing, that I would love
this place, this brutal fist of wilderness?
That phrase grabs it all up, a handful of wildflowers!—“this brutal fist of wilderness”—smacking hard, spare and economical, like hunger and its sometimes meager satisfactions, but alluding to all the wild abundance of sky and sun, rain and blooming grasses. “The Pioneer Wife Takes Aim” is a turning point in the transformation of the speaker, who “spent [her] youth poking needles through cloth, stitching / pictures and proverbs, monograms for a future marriage” and now must learn to shoot a rifle to protect her family from various predators. “So I aimed and fired until it became as thoughtless and natural // as the needle probing silk.”
The whole chapbook has a narrative arc, the natural course of a woman’s life, but it also shows the power of a poem’s title to tell a story, as in “After the Stillbirth, The Pioneer Wife Dresses a Rabbit” and “The Pioneer Wife Practices Family Planning.” You know from the first how grief will be pressed into service as butcher and cook, with mouths to feed. You know from the second how she’ll take matters into her own hands, to avoid future grief and persistent hunger.
And you can feel the mature woman’s strength, and hear her philosophical attitude, in the title “The Pioneer Wife Considers the Empty Nest.” Now the needlework left behind in the rifle years is taken up again as a metaphor for a complete life.
My face is a death mask
of bone, my body a dull needle to thread
and stitch the word content.
There may be more life to come for this strong woman who has fulfilled her inner purpose and come to a hard-won, hand-sewn contentment. “I raised the girls in my church of isolation,” she confesses, “preached / hard work,” not taking them to church after the loss of a baby, when she “could not believe in mercy.” In that poem, “The Pioneer Wife Returns to the Fold,” she knows when it’s time to re-enter the life of the community, but she’s already learned to count on herself.
This is a beautiful imagined journey to take as a reader, in a wrap-covered wagon, and I hope you will.