KATIE PETERSON’S LATEST BOOK of poems, Life in a Field, is billed as a comedy about climate change, but the first time I read it, I saw a feminist critique of girlhood. At the heart of these prose poems is the story of an unlikely friendship between a girl and a donkey. The girl is from a privileged family, raised in material comfort, but given little leeway to roam, even to the field across the bridge from her house. The donkey is on his own after his mother is taken away to labor in the fields and breed for her owners. Accompanying this strange fable is a series of photographs by Peterson’s husband, Young Suh, depicting, among other things, a girl in a white dress in an indoor tub, a donkey in a field, and farmlands in fallow.
It is hard to describe what this book is about, but its refusal to fit into familiar categories is a large part of its pleasure. Peterson writes this story with the flat affect of a fairy tale: her characters are archetypes, her language tends toward the abstract, and she creates a world that is at once bizarre and recognizable. On top of the tale of the girl and the donkey, there is a narrator who comments on the construction of the story as she goes along, even bringing in anecdotes from her own life. Early in the book, the narrator remarks, “It is true that everyone lives in a story,” before segueing into a sketch of a friend who “was always a willing transformation — she followed a band for years, the concerts, the bootlegs, the fans. She married men who were open, but shut down when they weren’t drunk.” Peterson does not insist on a moral to this aside; she simply places it in the current of the fable.
As I read the book, I kept coming back to the idea that reimagining fairy tales is a feminist act. Disney understands the power of fairy tales: it sanitized many of the Grimm brothers’ and Andersen’s stories for a family-friendly audience. The evil mother in Snow White becomes the evil stepmother, for the culture is unwilling to acknowledge the violence that mothers inflict on their daughters, while the stepmother is a convenient villain. More recently, the icy Snow Queen becomes a misunderstood girl with powers beyond her control. These versions refuse to interrogate the nature of evil and insist on uplift and redemption, ending with marriage and, in the latter case, sisterhood. They are often our first understanding of fairy tales, their simplified narratives so deeply embedded in the culture that they seem natural and inevitable.
But it does not have to be this way. As Kate Bernheimer, a contemporary scholar of fairy tales, puts it, fairy tales are “a way to communicate dark truths and strategies for survival.” In the hands of a masterful storyteller, the flat abstraction of the narrative style and voice strips away the particulars of place and psychology in favor of canny allegory and aphorism. Peterson does not let us into the inner voice of the girl, but we see her character in passages such as the following, after she lies to her mother that she had gone unaccompanied into the field:
It was on that day or possibly the next she saw clearly that she would never tell her mother everything that had happened to her. Her left hand clutched a piece of lupine, its tiny broom, which she placed inside a storybook about a raven queen who wished to marry a human rather than between the pages of the flower press with four screws her mother had given her.
Falsehoods bring anxiety and truth makes people calm. One must ask first in any situation who is anxious and who is telling the truth.
When the girl went to the field again, she saw the donkey.
Here Peterson moves between observation, quiet and intimate gestures, and aphorism to critique the damaging belief that girls are only safe when they are hidden at home under supervision. The girl, however, defies this expectation and returns to the field to meet her friend.
In this way, Life in a Field unfolds in a land that resembles central California, with a reference to the American River as well as encroaching forest fires. The narrative does not follow a plot; instead, it luxuriates in tapestries of image and sound and dwells in moments of clarity and wit. “Beauty makes you greedy and love repurposes your greed.” “The original scene of goodness isn’t a family.” Beneath the gorgeous prose, though, is a fierce critique of capitalism and patriarchy, the forces of unjust power that dominate our lives:
The donkey grew up and became himself without his mother. He barely thought of her. But when he saw her, harnessed up to the market cart, his body stood at a form of attention more devoted than rigid and his eyes blinked more slowly, and whatever they had been making him do, he would not do any more, for a minute or two.
The donkey suffers the degradations of a species considered to be less than human. In forging the friendship between the girl and the donkey, Peterson asks questions of belonging and empathy.
And the girl is writing a new story for herself. In one of my favorite moments in the book, Peterson writes, “After all, what is a girl if no young man appears?” On the next page is a single word: “Happy.” The girl is not interested in conventional romance, in the sense that she takes control of her agency, rather than letting herself be defined by others. She would rather roam in a field, testing the limits of her world and knowledge, forging a deep relationship with nature, than marry a prince. In the normalized magic of this fable, the girl and the donkey decide to marry time:
The girl and the donkey have a similarity. They have decided to marry time.
Each in their own way.
I marry you time in the name of the farther and the sun and what’s only lost
says the girl.
I marry you in the name of the bother and the fun and these lonely fears
Says the donkey.
They are veiled in civilization.
Peterson deftly frames this peculiar ending as the inevitable conclusion of the story she has set in motion. “This isn’t a love story,” she writes. “This story intends to refute the creation of the world.”
But how is Life in a Field a climate change fable? It was not obvious to me, so I returned to the text with the pastoral tradition in mind. The pastoral is a genre of poetry that deals with the rustic life of shepherds — the root word, “pastor,” is Latin for shepherd — but it is more generally used to describe poetry that idealizes rural life. On the surface, these poems appear to fit into this tradition — after all, little is more idyllic than a friendship between a girl and donkey in a field. But Peterson insists on seeing the darkness in this world. The river under the bridge between the field and the girl’s house dries up. The donkey’s mother is exploited and prevented from caring for her child. The baker’s son, jealous and confused by this friendship, is cruel to both the girl and the donkey. That is to say, Peterson deliberately destabilizes this world.
In fact, destabilization is Peterson’s method and theme in Life in a Field. As I have described above, she destabilizes the narrative and genre expectations of the fairy tale, creating a text that is at once bewildering and compelling. I did not always follow Peterson’s intent, but despite the darkness that hems the story, her language is so joyful and ecstatic that I was willing to follow her to each new vista. And she destabilizes the environment. Her touch is light, but the details are there: “The firefighters in her town are never overworked until the end of the season.” Time is the “unwilling melter of glaciers that surround us, as we sleep.” The world is threatened by irrevocable change, but Peterson’s cold clarity shows us one strategy for survival: to strip our stories down so that we can see their bare truths.