On Pickiness

When the first mechanical picker had stripped the field,
It left such a copious white dross of disorderly wispiness
That my mother could not resign herself to the waste
And insisted on having it picked over with human hands,

Though anyone could see there was not enough for ten sheets
And the hands had long since gone into the factories.
No matter how often my father pointed this out,
She worried it the way I've worried the extra words

In poems that I conceived with the approximate
Notion that each stanza should have the same number
Of lines and each line the same number of syllables--
And disregard it, telling myself a ripple

Or botch on the surface, like the stutter of a speaker,
Is all I have to affirm the deep fluency below.
The Hebrews distrusted Greek poetry (which embodied
Harmony and symmetry, and, therefore, revision)

Not for aesthetic reasons but because they believed
That to change the first words, which rose unsmelted
From the trance, amounted to sacrilege against God.
In countries where, because of the gross abundance

Of labor, it's unlawful to import harvesting machines,
I see the women in the fields and think of how,
When my mother used to pick, you could tell
Her row by the bare stalks and the scant poundage

That tumbled from her sack so pristinely white
And devoid of burrs, it seemed to have already
Passed through the spiked mandibles of the gin.
Dr. Williams said of Eliot that his poems seemed so

Cautiously wrought that they seemed to come
To us already digested in all four bellies of the cow.
What my father loved about my mother was not
Just the beauty of her body and face but the practice

Of her ideas and the intelligence of her hands
As they made the house that abides in us still
As worry and bother, but also as perfect freedom beyond--
As cleanliness is next to godliness but is not God.



The Atlantic Monthly; April 1996; On Pickiness; Volume 277, No. 4; page 65.


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