Thursday, January 7, 2010

I Wonder About the Chores

When I wrote this poem it was in response to an anonymous 17th century pastoral oil painting of a young countrywoman riding a farm horse away from the small house between fields behind her. She was dressed for a journey, and there were bags tied to the saddle. I had an emotional reaction to the painting that took me a year to understand: I'd left my own family's small, Welsh dairy farm at 18 to move to a city, not knowing what I would need for my new life, and then I left Europe for the U.S. when I was 24 with a husband, a baby a few weeks old and two small suitcases, again not knowing what I'd need or where my journey would take me.

I Wonder About The Chores

I am traveling between worlds,
Nellie loaned to me as far as the town,
a stage to take me from there.

All the small fretting
of the work of this house:
I have left it.

The gate that stuck against its post,
the poison ivy by the raspberries,
the crotchety old pump.

The way to hang the copper
so it would fit in the space by the door.
Where the flour bin was, and how deep the remainder.

(I always loved the sweet peas,
how they bloomed and swelled quickly
before summer could burn them.)

I picked huckleberries in summer on the ridge,
stripped chestnuts in fall, hung clothes in winter winds to dry,
and pulled spring lambs from the muddy cut.

I knew the stream for watercress,
and which wild roots could fill out our stew
when the cellar was empty.

I knew the kindness our young cow required
to let down her milk: the low voice,
the smoothing of her flank.

I knew how to keep brothers from fighting.
What to say to a mother so she wouldn’t despair,
to a father to keep peace.

I wish I knew what skills will be needed
in the next place. (If there will be kindness.)
I wish I could prepare.


  1. This is so beautiful.

    All the quotidian details of life where one grew up are vividly brought to mind with your lovely turn of words.

    And,yes,leaving what is known and mastered to a place where that knowledge might not be needed is a concern. But such is life, eh?

  2. I agree with Marisa, this is a beautiful poem. The opening explanation helped me to feel more deeply the anguish of the poem's narrator.

    I've spent much of my life moving from place to place, so the sentiment of your poem resonated with me.

  3. Thank you both. One of my recurring nightmares builds to the seconds before the airport gate closes / the train finishes boarding (I can hear the conductor slamming the doors, getting closer and closer)and around me is a roomful of items to either try to carry with me (I already have children in my arms) or lose forever. I think I was traumatized by being charged, whilst 8 months pregnant with my second child, as an illegal alien because of a dispute over a mathematical symbol in a labor certification document. They wanted to deport us, making us leave everything behind, with the knowledge that we may never again be permitted to enter the U.S.A.