Asked why she writes poems, Dorothy Holley says, "I'm a woman of few words." But while it's true that poems are typically shorter than essays or short stories, Holley's answer sounds paradoxical. After all, at 82 she's just published her first book, and it contains lots of words: nearly 50 poems about growing up on her family's farm, in western Ohio.
The paradox lasts as long as it takes to read the title piece of A Whole Quart Jar (FootHills Publishing). Holley's almost radically plainspoken verse doesn't waste a syllable.
We seldom went to the store.
In the twenties and thirties
on our farm in Ohio
Holstein cows provided milk,
Leghorn chickens eggs and meat.
Building with the sturdiest nouns and verbs, Holley evokes everyday farm life -- making soap, collecting blackberries, working with horses -- as indelibly as a vintage home movie (in black and white, with lots of close-ups). The effect is disarming, but so grounded in its particulars that it refuses sentimentality. "Let Go," a remarkable poem about a thieving hired hand ("We got the car back, not the chickens") is taut as haiku. And while her generalizations are rare enough to be jarring, Holley can evoke an existential tranquility, as in "Otherness," about her father's death: "[H]e opened his eyes, smiled / at her and returned / to what he was about to be."
Holley's family left its farm when she was 17. Rare for a farm girl (or boy) in those days, she attended college (Ohio University). She married, and after World War II she and her husband moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico ("We didn't know what it was") and subsequently around the Midwest, following his engineering jobs.
Holley, who's now divorced, came to the Pittsburgh area in 1981 to help care for her daughter's children. "I decided they needed me and they agreed," she quips. Shortly she began to formally pursue a life-long affinity for writing, first at Michael Wurster's poetry workshops at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and later with the Madwomen in the Attic poetry group at Carlow College, once taught by the late Patricia Dobler, now by Jan Beatty.
While she writes about other subjects -- nature, spirituality -- Holley's store of memories about her childhood seemed ripe for a book. "At first I wrote it for my children's sake, and then I took a broader perspective," she says. "It's part of American history." Kanona, N.Y.-based FootHills Publishing was the first publisher she approached.
The former farm girl now lives contentedly in Squirrel Hill. She says she's learned a lot in nearly 25 years of studying poetry. "I've become more direct," she says, "trying to [use] stronger words." A free book party and reading by Dorothy Holley takes place 2-4 p.m. Sat., Sept. 10, at Calvary Church, 315 Shady Ave., Shadyside.