Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.
Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.
My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Although, at least at first glance, or after the first reading of it, this poem doesn’t seem to apply completely to what we are doing down here, it came to my mind because, aside from surveying, measuring, and marking, digging is the only actual physical work that has been done on the site so far. (To my knowledge, there are no poems that have the titles of ‘Surveying’ or ‘Measuring’ or ‘Marking’. And if there are, I am confident in assuming none of them were written by poet laureates.) But this isn’t just an excuse to post a really good poem on our website. After thinking about it a little more, it does pertain to what we are doing.
First, I will acknowledge the discrepancies between the content of the poem and what we are doing. There is no father digging. Our digging is done by a tractor. It does the job much quicker. And the other thing is we aren’t digging for potatoes – we are digging, or the tractor is digging, to create a space in which will be put the foundation of the house, and then the rest of the house. (However, as a side project, we have purchased a plot in the community garden, and we could very well be planting and harvesting potatoes.)
So how does the poem apply to what we are doing, which is, building an eco-friendly house? What the poem communicates most to me is a sense of a connection to the land. The first lines describe the pen in the poet’s hand; right away we are given a tactile feel for the poetry. Then we are given the image of the father digging. The description becomes auditory: “Under my window a clean rasping sound, / When the spade sinks into gravelly ground […]” We can see and hear the father digging, and we ourselves can almost feel the motions he is going through and the sensations he is feeling. We are connected to, not just the land, because that might be too general, but the earth, the dirt.
This is really why we are here in New Zealand, to smell the fresh air, to take in Mother Nature’s landscapes, and, if we aren’t “getting back to the land”, we are at least trying to disentangle ourselves from the rush and push and web of the American culture we have all recently left.
The other thing in the poem that pertains to what we are doing, or pertains to why we are here, is represented by the father and grandfather, and the poet’s expression of generations transcending one another. To my mind, the poet’s central motivation for writing the poem was to express, and therefore to exorcise, in a way, memories he had of his father. To quote an American songwriter, “Memory is like the sweetest pain.” And who is a grander figure in one’s memory than one’s father? Anyway, Tom and Diana decided to move here, yes, for themselves, but also for their two sons, Travis and Roarke. Excuse me while I state the obvious, but as one generation transcends another, we should try to leave things better for our children. We should try to create a better world, or a better place to live, for our children. Certainly, this is what Tom and Diana are doing for their children. (This last point, of bettering things for the subsequent generation, isn’t in the poem; it was merely a personal dalliance.)
You will notice that the opening and closing stanzas begin with the same line: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests […]” To be honest, I don’t know what to make of the rest of the opening stanza, the “as snug as a gun” line. Maybe he is suggesting writing can do damage, but this poem seems anything but threatening. The last line of the last stanza, the last line of the poem, on the other hand, is, I think, perfect. Perhaps, since he isn’t carrying on the family tradition of digging for potatoes, he had to make amends with himself for not doing this, for becoming a writer, which, to people who work at physical labor, might seem like insubstantial work. The simple declaration seems like his fully accepting his being a writer. And this is a good message and a good feeling for the reader, too, being content with oneself and affirming for oneself that you are leading a meaningful existence. The other day, when we were listening to the builders and planners finalize plans for the house, Diana said to me, “I wish I had a trade.” Her and I – I much more than her – had been doing nothing the whole meeting but sitting back and listening. I told her she did have a trade, that she had a few trades. Even if not all of us are moguls or celebrated much at all for what we do, we all have trades. We all have some form of a pen which we dig with, which makes our lives meaningful.
To conclude, I will say that, if you don’t think the poem applies to what we are doing, at least you read a world-class poem.
From the New Zealand Alps,Benjamin Johnson