Friday, June 6, 2014

Cutting In

Not long ago, I lurked as Paul Allison, teacher, writer, blogger, and host of the weekly Teachers Teaching Teachers Hangout, chatted with some of the contributors to the recently published collection of poetry titled Teaching with Heart. Their previous collection, Teaching with Fire, rests comfortably on my bookshelf, a gift from a former colleague, with many more pages dog-earred than not. And as I listened to that night's chat with Sam Intrator, Kevin Hodgson, and others, I was inspired by the power of poets. Carefully selected words speak to the desires and fears that linger in all of us, whether we are 13 or 93. Poetry confronts us, connects us, calls us to respond. So the other morning when Teaching with Heart arrived on my doorstep along with Austin Kelon's Newspaper Blackout (the inspiration for this creation), and Michael Cirelli's The Grind, I had poetry on my mind, words and ideas swimming through my thoughts, waiting to be written.

It rained the other night, not a downpour, but the kind of rain that pulls you into a deeper sleep when it slips down your windows in the pre-dawn hours. And when I stepped outside to load my boys into the car, our morning routine to get them off to preschool, I was struck by the smell of wet soil. Our garden is just beginning to pop with green. Soybeans, green and yellow beans, radishes, and kale. This is the first year that I've grown kale. My family eats a lot of kale, but I've hesitated to grow it not because it is difficult to grow, it isn't, but because I have a history with kale.

At 13 and 14, I worked in the muck. In Western Michigan, where the soil is damp and dark, farmers grow kale, collard and mustard greens, cabbage, and letteuce of all varieties in large farms we simply called "the muck." For two summers, I worked with other teens from break of dawn to late afternoon, weeding rows two and three times the length of football fields, slicing stalks of kale, washing and boxing greens. It was the most physically demanding job I have ever had. I would come home each night needing to clean soil from my fingernails, ears, and nose. By close of summer my palms were callosed, stained a mucky brown that soap would not wash away. But, I made enough money to pay for my first car.

With about 25 years of distance, I can see those fields of kale a bit differently. But for about 24 years, I hated kale.

Cutting In
     by Jennifer Ward

Lingering damp
the scent of soil seeps
beneath my skin
awakes memories packed away
of summers spent
in yellow slickers
sharpening knives
each morning
in the barn.
Teenage girls to one side
eyeing each other
watching the older farm hands
not yet men
like a middle school dance
comparing nicks and scars left
behind when we cut
a bit too close.
Piling into trailers
hauled out to beds
where we'd never sleep
but would bare our backs
to midday sun
and work our
calloused fingers deep
gossiping between
rows of green.

We were trying on women
as we labored
in the fields
and peddled our bikes
home each night
pockets full of
piece work pay.


Violet N. said...

Love all the details in your poem, Jen, and it's coming-of-age vibe:

"We were trying on women
as we labored
in the fields"

I hope your kale does well. You probably won't plant it in football field-length rows :)

Mary Lee said...

This is just to say that I have been here and read your words, but surgery on both thumbs last Tuesday prevents me from typing a personalized comment. Forgive me -- copy/paste is the best I can do this week! :-)

Tabatha said...

You set the scene very well. I can smell it, feel the heat, the exhaustion.

Glad that you are able to make your peace with kale now!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

What a wonderful poem, Jen. It totally transported me.

Carol Varsalona said...

I enjoyed this nostalgic poem with its thoughts about young girls living between adolescent years and womanhood.

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