Separating the self in “McCormick’s Reaper”

Robyn Schiff threads a constant theme through her poem: that of separation. The poem itself appears to be about a farming implement, a sickle of some type, which in itself is an object designed to separate, to cut. She expands this into a larger concept in the very first line by using the word “isolates,” and offers a juxtaposition in the third line with “attachment.” The idea of cuting in half is then expressed numerically in the second stanza: “the yield an acre gives ten men to only five; halves them” and also literally: “halve him”.

In the third and fourth stanzas things continue to get more complex, where a separation seems to develop within the person addressed as you: “…Come/to the window, see for/yourself: Are you not in the house?/Are you not in bed hearing/yourself in the acre binding/shocks together with one/self-same stalk containing hundreds?” A lot presents itself to unravel here. The “you” appears to be in several places at once: in the house at the window, in bed, in the acre. More interestingly, in one place (the acre) the “you” is “binding shocks together,” the opposite of separation. But not somply binding. Binding with “one self-same stalk containing hundreds.” Again the theme of one self divided into parts, but in this case, not separated, but bound back together.

The last line of that stanza (“I rise, my guarantee.”) and from there the final stanza, takes then what might be a jarring turn, where for the first time the “I” appears, and is put in conjunction with the you. “I rise so you don’t have to.” Again, what appears to be a separation, but the compassionate or generous intent (“so you don’t have to”) implies, in contrast to the unfolding separation, a personal or emotional connection or attachment between the two people, whoever they may be. So here we have a case of separation that was helped to be brought about through attatchment.

The final lines of the poem, “Every/now and then a rattlesnake shimmies/into the shock and rises with me,” presents a case somewhat different – what one might call a holding on or attempt to prevent separation. Althought in this case, the rattlesnake’s entrance into the shock seems unintentional or accidental with regard to being separated from the person, and so is harder to analyze.

Overall, though, Schiff keeps the theme consistently present and gives the reader a hold with which to grasp the poem.


2 Responses to “Separating the self in “McCormick’s Reaper””

  1. I think that the idea of the theme of separation, a layered theme of separation, is one that is very useful to the reader in understanding the poem. I agree that, ironically, separation seems to be the glue that holds “McCormick’s Reaper” together. The quote from Schiff’s poetry chosen for the back of the book — “Splayed it is a bouquet of all the ways a point mutates” — seems to speak to this layering; there is the whole which is built on separation, and within the separation whole, there are separated pieces, broken down into further divisions, all laid out together in this bouquet of separation, a whole held together by separation. I think we see Schiff pointing to this ironic dual function of separation (to separate and to combine) in one of the parts of the poem you pointed out to indicate this idea of binding/combining:

    Are you not in bed hearing

    yourself in the acre binding
    shocks together with one
    self-same stalk containing hundreds?

    Just a side-note – I think it’s appropriate that even at the line break level, Schiff is building this separation/combination dichotomy; the word “binding” is separate from what is being bound, “shocks” in the following line. Similarly (but in opposite fashion), in the first stanza —

    Your credit’s good, it isolates
    the wheat, is strong enough
    to push it toward the attachment blade
    reciprocating to clear

    — “isolates” is separated from what is isolated, “the wheat.”

  2. erinl09 Says:

    Taking James’ point and relating it to my earlier comment–

    Here, again, Schiff seems to be struggling with the conventions of American pride. That separation/combination dichotomy (thanks, Billie) seems to suggest how she places herself in her homeland. America is, undeniably, her home, but she is questioning the values. After all, the McCormick reaper is strongly associated with slavery–not something Americans are particularly proud of, but is it enough for us to expatriate? I feel like Schiff is constantly rethinking the idea of patriotism, about whether or not you can be American AND question the national policies/beliefs.

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