Tilling the Darkness

By Susan Braley

Categories: Poetry
Imprint: Caitlin Press
Paperback : 9781773861067, 96 pages, February 2023

A fierce debut examining the tension of gender dynamics amidst the firm immutability of the church and the cyclical nature of rural life on a farm in the 60s.


In Susan Braley’s debut poetry collection, Tilling the Darkness, a young woman born into a family of eleven navigates the inequities of gender roles on the farm and in the church. In this dramatic rural setting—birth and death sudden in the barn, the seasons vivid over the fields—she experiences first-hand how swiftly seedlings become stalks ploughed down, how easily she and her sisters are discounted. Tilling the Darkness explores how we all undertake this tilling ritual, season after season, in the finite field of our lives. Our darkness may be a calamity we seek to escape—a grave, a war, a grief—and our wish is the promise of renewal. In these powerful poems, it is often women who, even in the face of injury and erasure, turn dark to light. Braley’s poetry traces how this woman, after leaving the farm, comes to appreciate the complex, bountiful legacy of her early life.


“Susan Braley’s beautiful inaugural collection is a celebration of life. In particular, the life of a daughter growing up on a mid-century farm in southern Ontario in a large religious family riddled with gendered expectations. The poems reveal the everyday and the extraordinary of farming life: its misfits, its sadnesses, brutalities, disappointments, and joys. And beyond. In strong, careful poetics, Braley conjures the cows afloat in the pasture, the barn burnt to its knees in the night, the ever-present milk, the breasts. And the babies, the babies, the babies. Her poetry tills the darkness with a clear shining light.”

—Arleen Paré, author of Time Out of Time

“Braley gets her hands dirty in Tilling the Darkness. She unearths a fierce, feminist voice as she wrests standing-ground for farm women and their stories. In the ‘mushroom dark,’ readers discover, with Braley, a slanted, beneficent, and necessary light.”

—Cornelia Hoogland, author of Cosmic Bowling, a collaboration with Ted Goodden

“In Tilling the Darkness, Susan Braley opens furrows—‘dark earth pelts’— into the past: her girlhood on a farm in Southern Ontario; her choices, or lack of choices, as a daughter in a large family and a young woman raised in the Catholic Church. Braley does not romanticize rural life or the histories she recounts; siblings, soldiers, students, stones—all are viewed with a scholar’s eye and drawn with a poet’s precision. Darkness is tilled here, but much more is turned over as seasons unfold, as fields are seeded, harvested, and seeded again, as blood seeps and stains, as elegy and requiem give way to reimagination and rebirth.”

—Laura Apol, author of A Fine Yellow Dust 

“Have you swum in grain? Dive into Tilling the Darkness and you’re in a hopper of kernels under the ‘thick gold rain’ of Braley’s engrained clarity. With swift, spare intensity, she depicts the bountiful legacy of her early rural life and later, how she navigated inequities of gender roles. Her Via Femminile series gives us images of ordinary women who survive discrimination and violence—and thrive. These finely made poems plow darkness to reveal ‘fire, earth, water, jewel.’”

—Jane Munro, author of False Creek