When poet Sarah Heady was a writer-in-residence at Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska, she found a pile of magazines in the attic of the farmhouse where she was staying. She discovered that these were issues of a women’s magazine called Comfort that had been published between 1888 and 1942. Its tagline read “The Key to Happiness and Success in Over a Million Farm Homes.”
The readership of the magazine had been the lonely, isolated, and overworked rural housewives of the Great Plains, and its purpose was the sale of Oxien, a mail-order potion that claimed to cure a variety of ailments. Comfort subscribers were urged to use Oxien to treat everything from bruises and stains to muscle weakness and feminine malaise—and also to sell Oxien to family and friends, as in an early-20th-century form of multi-level marketing. Comfort magazine provided hope for relief from the physical pain of constant childbirth and manual labor, advertised gifts as a reward for selling the snake oil, and maybe even more compellingly, it provided companionship, a sense of connection between the lonely women scattered all over the country.
In the pages of Comfort magazine, Heady found much of the language that she later wove into the pages of her poetry book Comfort. She writes in the voices of these comfort-seeking women—searching, exhausted tones, with a “womb plumbed,” working and managing loss, and gliding in and out of chorus.
Divided into three parts—Sunup, Day, and Dusk—Heady’s book has an elemental wholeness that can be felt physically. The startling intrusion of dawn is “like a collect call.” A keening relentlessness pervades the “thickness of the season” when early morning work begins in a prairie that is overwhelming in its strangeness to its speakers.
“We stopped here,” Heady writes, and in this book, time does not belong to the speakers:
“here only stars move on their own : no anchor, no time-telling : just slaughters to see by : o hull-motion. o that feeling of hundredfold birds, not heat / exhaustion / just prairie as ocean :”
Manifest Destiny is experienced by these women as stagnation and awe. Slaughters light the path of the wagon, but what of these dead? As they settle, the women colonize the new soil in their own way– planting saplings and using their “wombs as a churn for making humans out of loneliness.” They work:
“is efforting every day. is hard on her knees. is hard on her lumbar. is on top of her own fertility, mostly. is counting drops of chestnut oil, one for every year the child is old (for whooping cough). is seasoning sirup. is adding to her collection of patterns. is dissolving lye in rainwater. is covering her nose & mouth. is managing the lifespan of every species. is stewing & keeping. is keeping on top of. is managing loss. is consolidating. is cooking things that keep a full week, even in summer. is walking to the mailbox on w. 21 rd.”
The work of this “efforting,” and perhaps also, this longing for oblivion, is constant, relentless. They are tired, overheated, and things they desire—beauty products, letters from friends and family, Oxien, of course—keep getting lost in the mail. Between Puritanical busyness and the torpor of heatstroke springs ardent consumerist desire. The language of magazine marketing intrudes the stifling atmosphere of work like a spell: “Oxien was, and still is, the only true food for the nerves.”
The book circles around the question of what comfort actually means for these women. Is comfort rest? Or constancy? Stillness? The productive hum of tasks? A numbing? Or a free unyielding movement away from the respiteless tasks of domestic work? What is the distance between loneliness, being alone, and oblivion—the promise of a “nerve oil” like Oxien?
A desire for the comfort of oblivion may explain the appeal of Oxien, and this desire for oblivion seems to underscore Heady’s critique of the settler-colonialist logic threaded through the book. Heady’s collage technique is dazzling—disturbing, vivid, and unified. The weight of patriarchal confinement that these women experience is on every page, as is the settler-colonial system in which they are complicit, and their longing for some kind of relief.
“i just kept pulling bones out of the ground: / and her field was a thicket of corpses,” says a comfort-seeking woman, frantic, exhausted. Whose bones are these? The women are silent, but another voice answers, punctuating the tired laments and material longings of Heady’s comfort-seekers with the image of “a thicket of corpses.” This voice asks what settler violence, land seizure, and ongoing colonialism meant—and still means—for the existing sovereign nations on the Great Plains.
In her afterword, Heady more explicitly reckons with the settler-colonial violence that brought these lonely white women to their farmhouses in the Great Plains in the first place:
“The underlying condition of settler colonialism explains so much of the emotional landscape (unsettledness, discomfort) suggested by my book… Comfort centers the experiences of white women who, through their settlement, participated in the genocide and displacement of the Pâri, the Očhéthi Šakówin, and other tribes of the Great Plains and the Midwest.”
In the Dusk section, a woman whom Heady calls “the seer” and who is considered a witch appears, and seems to address the death that surrounds them:
“from all the way over there she somehow told me you will conquer those who would do you harm she moved her entire body like a tongue”
The Seer is feared, marginal, dismissed. She rolls her body like a tongue, scandalizing all those settler-husbands. No one listens to her, a husband-less woman, with her scraggly hair and her sexual dance. She’s vital to Heady’s book. While silence often, perhaps necessarily, attempts to do the work of contrast and perspective, of addressing the presence of the dead, sharper and brighter are the moments when the bones in the ground speak with the persistence of advertising, and sensuality, when this voice refuses to be ignored. When the slaughter illuminates not just the path of the wagon, but the genocide, and the complicity of the settlers crossing the plains.