The dedication at the front of Janet Sunderland’s recent poetry collection At The Boundary (published by Finishing Line Press) reads as follows:
After many years of living everywhere else, I re-entered Kansas, took over managing the family farm, buried my mother and two close friends, and married the husband I’d always hoped for.
This book is dedicated to them.
Those few lines encapsulate perfectly the scope of the collection as a whole. Over the course of twenty-five poems, Sunderland takes us on an intensely personal journey through a period of time in her life which was clearly filled with rapid and disorientating change. We are shown her return to the family farm, the loss of her mother and friends, and the courtship between her and her husband. We begin, however, with some memories of childhood.
It is clear that Sunderland has a close relationship with Kansas as a place. In the first poem “Riding The Pony Express”, she relates a common exchange that she has when speaking of her state of origin: “’Kansas,’ fellow wanderers / have said to me. ‘What a boring drive.’” It is, perhaps, not an uncommon observation – Kansas is famous for its flat and featureless landscapes – but Sunderland sets out to show us that there are secrets and wonders lurking below its at-first-glance bland surface.
The world which she conjures up is an earthy and intense one. We see her thirteen-year-old self standing in the farm yard, stretching up towards the newly-risen full moon. We see her planting peas with her father, pressing “green nubs / into wet, black earth”. And when it comes time for her to sign off on a county appraiser’s map of the family farm, we are deluged with memories:
His map won’t spot Great Simba’s trunk,
now rotted to a termite’s meal, won’t capture
hazy afternoons Mom sent us for gooseberries
wild and thorned at the giant’s side, or the clamber
up the peeling bark to ride the gray husk to India.
This poem is quite substantially more effective when considered in addition to the poems that have come before it. Having seen Sunderland’s attachment to the land, we feel alongside her the inadequacy of the appraiser’s map. It is not uncommon for the poems in At The Boundary to build on each other in this way. “New Year’s Eve” for example – in which the poet takes her mother out to a casino to celebrate on the last day of the century in which she was born – would be rather soppy and sentimental were it not for the revelation in a previous poem that the mother suffers from Alzheimer’s. With this information in mind, the final lines of “New Year’s Eve” have a rather more saddening tinge to them: “and her face lights up like a little girl – / like a three-year-old girl – / awake at New Year’s Eve for the very first time.”
Just as with so many poetry collections, At The Boundary has grief at its centre. There are a series of losses, and – for a brief time at least – a sense of sadness and longing overwhelms the collection. Overwhelms a little too literally, perhaps, as the run of poems which speak of the poet’s grief have little in the way of the specific imagery of earlier verses. Detail is sacrificed and replaced with generic and intangible things: flames, destiny, hearts and doves. It speaks, you might say, of the all-consuming nature of grief, but for a short time the collection almost lost me.
The raw interlude is brief, and Sunderland returns to form before the end of the collection with a series of poems about finding love. For me though, the finest part of this collection was almost certainly the beginning, with its wonderful, evocative and absorbing descriptions of Kansas: the family farm, storms, secrets, parents, plants and animals.
Christopher Frost now lives in Stoke-on-Trent, after studying at nearby Keele University. He is a freelance writer, and spends most of his time working for a local charity. In his spare moments he reads furiously, and writes book reviews.