A mind will wander
hither and yon
when hands set to
some reg’lar task –
here I am snipping
a peck of runner beans,
popping tails and tops
whilst the big pot comes
to a raring boil
and the greased spider
is smoking for corncake.

Woodsmoke and hot iron
I follow right on back
to Big Elk Branch
and Miz Gaston teaching me
to put food by:
catsups and pickles and millionaire relish,
sweating at the Home Comfort
as we scalded peaches
in August and slipped them
from outta their bright skins,
stirring apple butter in the kettle
over a fire in the yard.
I learnt it was a labor
but aftertimes a joy to see the jars
filled red and yellow
in that dirt-floor cellar,  
a treasure-room
where women held the key.


Sometimes as we roll
past hayfields or tobacco, 
field-hands under they hats
in the sun, or cotton busting white
from the knife-edge bolls
and I recollect
the burn on my stooped back,
the itch of hay dust, the fiery sting
of the saddleback worm
whilst working the green corn,
but too the cold water a-trickling
over moss at the springhouse, 
and birds as would flame up
in the trees, and the mister’s orchard
sweet both spring and fall.

I had my pallet then
and not much more – 
nothing I mought call mine, 
even my ownself, 
not like now when I have
my own place
with my bits and pieces, 
books, a pot of chamomile
to take for my sleepless. 
Still, I do pine at times
for the old place,
knowing that outside
the back door a mist be
‘mongst the arms of the hills
and the first wrenbird calling clear.

 

___________________________________________

Valerie Nieman’s second poetry collection, Hotel Worthy, was published in 2015. She has held poetry and fiction fellowships from the NEA, North Carolina and West Virginia arts councils, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She has published three novels, the most recent being Blood Clay, winner of the Eric Hoffer Prize in General Fiction, and a collection of short stories, Fidelities. Nieman graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte. A former journalist, she teaches writing at North Carolina A&T State University and recently enjoyed a month of solo hiking in the Scottish Highlands.