Poetry Sunday: “Wine Country,”
by Kirsten Jones Neff

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Wine Country” is a free verse poem in seven variable-length stanzas whose numbers of lines are 7, 6, 3, 7, 6, 7, and 3, a series that feels ineffable and organic, like a pattern in nature. Line length is mostly short, with the exception of longer lines in the 4th and 5th stanzas. Ring construction is present in the way the closing words “this country” circle back to the “Wine Country” of the title. There is no meter or rhyme, and the diction is plain-spoken and vernacular, the speaker telling us a story about what happened with a lover one day in her youth.

The poem is set is “autumn,” but when I heard it read aloud at a Marin Poetry Center Traveling Show recently, it seemed to re-create the essence of late July, why I chose to feature it today. The wine country in Northern California is a thing of beauty any month of the year, but summer, when the roses are blooming and the vines are heavy and lush, is my favorite time. Do you know those roses? They are planted at the ends of rows, highly visible when driving past the vineyards, and my understanding is that they are the canaries in the mines to warn growers of the presence of mold and fungal diseases before they fatally infect the vines.

Driving though the northern California wine country is four-fifths Rick Steves reporting from Tuscany or Bordeaux and one-fifth pure Americana, with some vineyards boasting grand villas ranging from authentic to ersatz, and some—the best winemakers are among these—with little more than a parked trailer or modest ranch house and garage for a tasting room. I love seeing the rolling hills French-braided in neat rows of vines and plumed in blue mist when the sprinklers go off. It’s a remarkable place, gorgeous and, yes, infallibly romantic, the quintessential getaway for couples in the Bay Area.

Today’s poem invites us on a journey there, one taken by the speaker and her lover. From the start, in the reference to “my nicest thrift shop sundress,” we understand the speaker to be young, vulnerable, and of modest means. The first stanza gives an idea of the beauty and complexity of the landscape: “narrowing drives,” “terraced hills,” and “rows of tended vines / burning amber.” Stanzas 2, 4, and 5 begin with the phrase “Even as,” a species of repetition called anaphora that echoes through the end of the poem. Anaphora is an old rhetorical and poetic device, and you can see how it creates anticipation and suspense, ramping up tension and urgency in the most wonderful way. Stanza 2 is where we first understand this to be an erotic poem, sensual in those images of the speaker’s hand placed over her lover’s on the “rattling stick shift” of his “rugged battered car” and positively flirtatious when she asks “where, per chance, we were going.” Notice the contrasts going on here between the lovers’ penury and the vineyard’s “hallowed labels” and “fanciful flights” of wine, and the way that image of the “clover meadow” that is “gleaming beyond” visually captures yearning and suspense.

The urgency ramps up in active verbs like “rolled” and “bumped” and in the way the car gets “parked askew”—these lovers are in a hurry to get to their trysting place. In stanzas 4-6 we see the writer’s skill in modulating the action of the poem, as she slows things down. These lines positively tease us, lingering in the “veiled mystery” of the lovers’ last steps to where they will finally lie down together, an act presaged in the way the “damp earth [is] giving way beneath my sandals.”

After four repetitions of “even as,” each one bringing us closer to the poem’s climax, the action concludes with the couple embracing in the “deep shade of an oak,” the tenderness and innocence of that moment captured in “lay me down [from the child’s prayer] / in the crook of your arm.” This is no quick hookup or casual sexual encounter; there is real romance here, and we feel it, even before the poem’s last three lines that resolve so beautifully the tension of that sequence of “and evens” that came before: “I knew this, / this was everything, my heart desired in this country.” Returning in those last words to the “wine country” of the  title makes an effective ending, not just for the closure it brings to the poem but also for the multiple meanings we can read into the word “country.” It is the wine country, yes, but it also can mean America, or even more broadly, any metaphorical place or state of mind. The ending does what one of my writing teachers, Heather McHugh, taught me good poem endings do: It feels inevitable at the same time it surprises, and instead of closing the door opens a portal to some larger and more universal place or truth. I hope you will enjoy this road trip to the California wine country and the chance to return to your own memories of when love was fresh, an adventure that felt like “everything, / everything” we could possibly desire.



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  • Kati Short July 1, 2018 at 9:55 pm

    What a lovely poem is “Wine Country” and what a poetic criticism from Rebecca Foust. Please as you refine the forrmat of your, don’t take away our Poetry Sunday. How could we live without it?