08 February 2013

“eye on the prize”: a closer look at … rachel mennies’ “no silence in the fields”

Beginning today, Friday posts for the Our Lost Jungle Chapbook Challenge will feature a look at the three critical sections of a chapbook, through the lenses of three unique chapbooks. We’ll look first at the “crown,” or the ever-important opening piece in a chapbook that prepares us for what to expect from the rest. Next week we’ll examine the “slippers,” and how a chapbook’s closing works to both keep the work as a whole together and bring the reader to a satisfying end. Finally, we’ll examine the “robes,” how a chapbook’s midway point can be just as important as its start and finish, and how that point can also represent the “glue” that holds the two halves of the chapbook together by representing both an end and a beginning.

(A note: the chapbooks we’ll be examining are by poets. This isn’t meant as a slight to any fiction or nonfiction writers, photographers, or artists also participating in this challenge. It’s simply that poetic chapbooks are both a bit more readily available. It’s also easier to look at a single poem than a story or essay, and for me easier to describe what’s happening in a poem than to detail a photograph or art piece for our purposes!)

No Silence in the Fields

No Silence in the Fields by Rachel Mennies (Blue Hour Press, 2012)
Rachel Mennies’ debut chapbook, No Silence in the Fields, was published in February 2012 by Blue Hour Press. As a whole, the collection tells a 36-page story of a couple that moves into a barn and, subsequently, falls apart. More broadly, the chapbook takes a beautiful and haunting look at the workings of the body, particularly the female body: beyond mere function, but also purpose, meaning, sense of self and other, etc.

In an interview with Hayden’s Ferry Review (see link below), Mennies describes her chapbook thusly:
The chapbook makes a narrative study of two characters as they move into a barn in rural Massachusetts and hope to have a child. “Barrenness” comes early in the collection, providing a chance for the female character to express the depths of her frustrations with her body. This was one of the earliest poems in the chapbook: one of the poems from which many others emerged, one where I realized this character had more to say.
There are two things I love about this description of her own work. First, I love how Mennies establishes, in simplified form, that this chapbook is telling a single story. There are many elements to this story, but it is a singular story. Second, I love how she hints at the purpose and play in developing a chapbook. Both in this interview and elsewhere she discusses how the chapbook came together, without her even realizing that a chapbook was what it would eventually become. If you’re sitting with your piles right now, or even if you keep going back to that one piece you know you want your chapbook to be born from, take heart in this! If you build it, the rest will come.

“The Barn”

The first poem in No Silence in the Fields is titled simply “The Barn.” Yet there is nothing simple about this poem. The piece does a great deal for the establishment of the chapbook as a whole:

Setting: This poem sets the stage for the landscape of the rest of the collection. Not only does it instantly establish that a barn is the literal setting; it also establishes bodies as the figurative and symbolic “setting” of what’s to come.

Tone: “The Barn” also establishes the tone of the chapbook. One thing you’ll notice if you page through No Silence is the threadbare layout. This poem establishes a landscape that is at once cold (the repetition of the question “Whose” suggests that we are entering a retrospect world, looking back on a story long over) and haunted by warmth. We begin with a “red shoebox,” paired with a “poisoned apple.” Mennies gives us a magical fairy tale landscape in the darkest sense: more of the darker side of those original tales than what we get from Disney. We are set on guard—we know that what’s to come may not end “happily ever after.”

Expectancy: One of the most important “gifts” from this poem is the sense of expectancy for what comes next in the collection. The repetition of “Whose” internally to the poem leaves us wondering, external to the narrative, whose story we will enter. We are met with juxtapositions that call us to question: there is at once a “mewing cat” and a “hissing wolf.”

The Crown

We will begin to look more at how the first piece in a chapbook is extremely important on Monday … but for now, let it suffice to say that the first piece is your “Crown.” It is the piece that sets the stage, delivers the tone, and prepares your reader with that sense of expectancy for what comes next. One thing you’ll find as you work through the process of creating your chapbook is that not every piece you include is on the same playing field. Some are higher, some are lower. One of the keys to compiling your work is thinking of how to get from one piece to the next, and how to keep your reader going.

No Silence in the Fields is available to view online (see the link for the text below). Your task for this weekend is to check out “The Barn” and see what it does for you. Does it make you want to keep reading? Why? Or does it perhaps do nothing for you? In either case, keep reading. See what comes next. Think about how, and why, Rachel Mennies chose the order and structure and style she did for her narrative. As you do, begin to think about what choices you need to make for your chapbook!

Have fun!


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Further Reading:


  1. Thanks, Khara! As usual sound advice with great explaination.

    1. Thanks, Carol. I always appreciate you reading, and am so glad you enjoy it!

  2. I'm really liking Scrivener as a tool for this task. It helps that haiku are short enough to sit on a notecard so I can see them all. It's so easy to reorder the poems and see how the narrative changes. I can also see where there are gaps and holes, and poems that don't have any linkage or cover more global themes. I wonder if it would work as powerfully with longer poems?

    1. That's a good thought, Jeannine. With longer poems, too, I think part of the "issue" becomes really being honest when it comes to finding the links to the rest of the chapbook. I put issue in quotes only because it's not really a *problem* per say, but longer poems (or any longer pieces) tend to allow the author to fudge connections (i.e. "Every story in this collection is part of my series on the human body. This story isn't really part of that collection ... but there's this cool scene with the MC's toes, so I can fit it in!")


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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