Poetry Is Everywhere: Grandmother

The honor of being named South Dakota’s first living Poet of Merit, by the South Dakota State Poetry Society, astonishes me, because this state is full of poets, as well as of people who have not yet begun to write. Part of this job, I believe, is to encourage people to write their ideas, thoughts, observations, no matter what form they choose.

SD State Poetry Society website photo

I regard everything as possible material for writing: when I’m washing dishes, I may be thinking of the way silver shines through the suds, or how much I love the color of the plates. My pockets and purse always contain tiny notebooks so I can capture thoughts that might escape. No matter what I have done all morning, by noon I have a handful of ideas that might turn into finished poetry or prose.

So my advice to all who would be poets is always to have a means of recording your thoughts. I’m told that personal phones can accomplish this task these days, but that’s just a rumor to me since I have an ancient flip phone. But however you choose to do it, hang onto thoughts that might become poems, prose, or letters to your aged aunt by writing them down as soon as they arrive.

Poetry is everywhere in the world; make it your pleasure to read and record it.

Grandmother journal notes become ideas for poemsOne of the easiest ways to begin a poem is by describing an action or an event. This is another reason to keep a journal: many of my poems begin as notes in my journal, simply so I don’t forget a particular incident. Sometimes I immediately believe the notes might become a poem, and begin writing a draft right then, often on the computer. Just as often, however, I am simply recording the information, and only later do I begin to consider it as poetic material.

Remember, no poem is written down once and finished. No matter how wonderful you may think a poem is when you first commit the lines and images to paper, it is not finished.

William Wordsworth said, in Lyrical Ballads,

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

The tranquility is essential, and in order to have time for the recollection to occur, time must pass.

Here is an example, using my poem “Grandmother.”

Grandmother

I always see her hands first, turning
the handle of the Foley food mill.
The veins are knotted over old bones;
spicy tomato steam rises around
her white hair. A worn gold ring turns on
her finger but never will slide off
over the knuckle. Solid as a
young woman, she grew thin, forgot our
names. Hands that fed four daughters lay still.
She left us little: brown unlabeled pictures,
a dozen crocheted afghans, piles of patched jeans.
In the cellar, crowded shelves bear jars of beans,
peas, corn, meat.
Labels like white silent mouths
open and close in the dark.

© 1993, 2017  Linda M. Hasselstrom

~ ~ ~

The facts of the poem are in the first eight lines:

I always see her hands first, turning
the handle of the Foley food mill.
The veins are knotted over old bones;
spicy tomato steam rises around
her white hair. A worn gold ring turns on
her finger but never will slide off
over the knuckle. Solid as a
young woman, she grew thin,

Grandmother Foley Food Mill with tomatoes

Each time I read them, I am rewarded by being able to see my grandmother as if I’d seen her yesterday. She stands in the tiny kitchen area of her one-room house on the ranch, turning the handle of the Foley food mill which is fastened over a bowl which captures the tomato pulp and juice after the mill removes the seeds. The kitchen is hot; a pot of tomatoes steams on the wood stove. Occasionally she uses a lace-edged handkerchief to wipe sweat from her forehead or replaces one of her hair combs, holding the hair farther from her face. She smiles at me as she wipes steam from her glasses.

Grandmother sewing box and pin-holder penguinAfter this point, though, the poem took over the writing, and it was no longer strictly fact. I no longer remember how long this process took, but no doubt several revisions as I considered the poem, both consciously and unconsciously.

Grandmother grew somewhat forgetful, but she never forgot our names. Her children were not four daughters, but three sons and one daughter– but “four daughters” kept the number correct and fit the rhythm of the poem more closely.

“She left us little.” I have no idea if my grandmother had much savings or not; she lived with my mother briefly before she died. I have a tin box she kept sewing materials in, and an odd cloth-covered piece of cardboard in the shape of a penguin into which she put straight pins.

. . . . forgot our
names. Hands that fed four daughters lay still.
She left us little: brown unlabeled pictures,
a dozen crocheted afghans,

While I worked on the poem, other memories intruded, so the next few lines aren’t really about my grandmother:

. . . . piles of patched jeans.
In the cellar, crowded shelves bear jars of beans,
peas, corn, meat.

Grandmother home-canned produce with white mouth labelsInstead, memories of several of my aunts intruded: they were always patching jeans. And an aunt who will remain nameless here had at least three freezers in her basement full of preserved garden produce. The same aunt once took me to the cellar where rough wood shelves held hundreds of canning jars, some of which were so ancient that the contents couldn’t really be identified. After she died, we hauled them all to the dump.

And somewhere, in the darkness of the night perhaps, I found the last lines, which symbolize, for me, all the untold stories of those women who canned those thousands of jars of food before even country folk could routinely buy “fast food” and food preserved by others.

Labels like white silent mouths
open and close in the dark.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

My poem “Grandmother” may be found on page 10 of  Dakota: Bones Grass, Sky, (2017: Spoon River Poetry Press); this poem is also found in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (1993: Spoon River Poetry Press).

The photos of the hands writing in a journal and the sewing box with the pin-penguin are mine. Other photos are borrowed from the internet.

 

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