This poem happened precisely as it says: in early spring, I decided to plant some peas in the rich earth of my biggest garden.
The month may have been as early as March; I was probably thirty-five years old. Bundled against a cold wind and shivering, I hoed a furrow down to black earth beneath the melting snow. Then I began dropping peas into the broken ground, enjoying the way the green shriveled shapes slithered into crevices. Each time I finished a row, I straightened up and used my hoe to draw the soil gently back over the peas and tamp it down lightly.
As I planted, I began the poem in my mind, then stopped and began to write it down on the scrap paper I always carry. I didn’t spend much time revising or reflecting on the poem, which is rare for me; it felt right from the beginning.
This plot of land has been subject to spring floods that bring in earth as well as manure from the pastures upstream. In addition, I’ve buried compost there for years, to aid the fertility. Harvests have often been terrific.
It’s not spring yet, but I can’t
wait anymore. I get the hoe,
pull back the snow from the old
furrows, expose the rich dark earth.
I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,
one by one.
As I shuffled along the row, bent over, I looked at my firm young hand and recalled my grandmother’s bony one, dropping the peas every two or three inches as she showed me how to do it. The soil of her ranch deep in a Black Hills canyon is gray gumbo. When it is shiny with rain, it is slippery underfoot, clinging to our rubber boots. Later, we’d have to chop and hose it off our boots, and we’d laugh, finding it on our coats, even in our hair.
I see my grandmother’s hand,
doing just this, dropping peas
into gray gumbo that clings like clay.
This moist earth is rich and dark
as chocolate cake.
As I saw her hand planting the peas, I could see my nine-year-old self squatting beside her in my tiny jeans, my blonde hair held back by a barrette she had placed in it that morning. While my mother supported me by working in town, coming to visit on weekends, I lived seventy miles away with grandmother in her one-room house, that had once been a bunkhouse. She kept me busy all week, walking with me all over that place, showing me how to live in the country— though neither of us may have realized that. I was too small to climb the ladder to the barn loft, so she’d climb it in her lace-up black shoes, and hand a squealing kitten down to me. Remembering now, I can see her flowered dress, her strong legs in their thick cotton stockings.
Her hands cradle
baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft
and hands them down to me, safe beside
the ladder leading up to darkness.
That memory, of course, led to others: the way she met me at the schoolhouse door in Rapid City, having left her beloved ranch to help my mother by taking care of me after school. How she piled her slowly-graying hair on top of her head in a bun that grew smaller every year as her hair thinned. Her “blue-eyed smile.” I’ve made gallons of biscuits and gravy, trying carefully to recall everything she did, but mine has never been as tasty.
her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,
but mostly her hands.
The final image, then, is one of pure joy that the experience of planting peas has recalled to me some memories of my grandmother that I had let slip away.
I push a pea into the earth,
feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,
she says, in long straight rows,
dancing in light green dresses.
I enjoyed choosing the word “light” to describe the green dress because it can mean either gauzy and see-through, or pale green. And “dresses”? All those pea plants, slender stalks filled with leaves, swaying in the wind made me think of multiple tiny grandmothers waltzing down the rows.
Of course, my grandmother never cavorted around the garden, and I never saw her dance, but I remember she mentioned how she loved dancing when she was young. The image made me laugh, and she would have enjoyed it; I could see again how her cheeks crinkled and her eyes sparkled.
Here’s a fine reason, if you need justification, for writing poems: to recapture memories that might have slid to the background of your busy mind. As you struggle to write what you remember to preserve your mental image, other memories will crowd in from your subconscious, memories you might have lost without the effort to write the poem. Like my images of grandmother, these memories will “come in May”: return to your mind.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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The poem has a long history of publication. I probably wrote it in one of the workshops that I was giving for high school students for the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative in 1983 or 1984. That teaching coop published it a couple of times before it appeared in my first book of poems, Roadkill, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 1987. I didn’t publish it again until it appeared in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poetry of Linda Hasselstrom, also published by Spoon River, in 1994.
Doubtless I read from the book at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where my friend Teresa Jordan heard it, and picked it up for Graining the Mare: The Poetry of Ranch Women, published by Gibbs Smith the same year.
Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, writes a weekly poetry column, American Life in Poetry, sent to 3 million readers worldwide via newspapers and individual email subscriptions. In August, 2014 he shared my poem “Planting Peas” in his column #490. Find it here.
You can find the poem used as an illustration of the value and richness of memories in the Beltane chapter of The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, 2015, as well as in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River’s 2017 collection.
In 2018, I granted Educational Testing Service the non-exclusive right to use the poem in developing test questions for their K-12 Programs beginning in 2020. I’m especially thrilled to think of the poem being used in Braille recordings: imagine young fingers feeling my words tactilely!