I’ve been holding on to this installment of the American Life in Poetry project in my inbox for some time now–from back in September of last year. I was so moved by the picture of hard work, of changing the landscape, of observing the motion of change. I just couldn’t let go of it, but I also didn’t know quite what to do with it.
My life is undergoing some changes right now. (Aren’t all our lives?) I hope to share more over the next several weeks, but at the moment, so many things are in that frustrating state of transition that I can barely breathe. Transition is incredibly uncomfortable. In the vernacular of Ms. Woloch’s poem, that ill-defined process of going from chunks of rock to dust somewhere between the old place of concrete and the new place of re-formed earth is frightening to watch–and to live. I like for things to be settled. I like to know what’s going on, what’s going to happen, where I stand. In real life, that’s not always possible. What do you do?
The best course revealed itself with another reading of this poem as I was clearing out the cobwebs in Mac Mail. The simple thought of changing the shape of the world with each single motion seemed powerful. In the seemingly powerless state of changing circumstances, my old friend diligence brings comfort and purpose. I want it now. I want it done. I want it really with as little effort and discomfort as possible. But, in reality, not much change happens that way, does it? The diligent and steady movement toward change may be sweaty, but it works. Simple and consistent–even faithful–acts affect change. They affect change at a pace that is manageable. With each blow to the hardened concrete or the bumpy ground to create flattened space, I grow more and more comfortable with the new form of my life. I’m more and more able to embrace the new terrain. And, I’m more and more capable of tilling it into new fertile ground. Diligent acts. They change the shape of the world. And, they change the shape of the world again.
American Life in Poetry: Column 236
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006
Cecilia Woloch teaches in California, and when she’s not with her students she’s off to the Carpathian Mountains of Poland, to help with the farm work. But somehow she resisted her wanderlust just long enough to make this telling snapshot of her father at work.
I watched him swinging the pick in the sun,
breaking the concrete steps into chunks of rock,
and the rocks into dust,
and the dust into earth again.
I must have sat for a very long time on the split rail fence,
just watching him.
My father’s body glistened with sweat,
his arms flew like dark wings over his head.
He was turning the backyard into terraces,
breaking the hill into two flat plains.
I took for granted the power of him,
though it frightened me, too.
I watched as he swung the pick into the air
and brought it down hard
and changed the shape of the world,
and changed the shape of the world again.
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Reprinted from When She Named Fire, ed., Andrea Hollander Budy, Autumn House Press, 2009, by permission of Cecilia Woloch and the publisher. The poem first appeared in Sacrifice by Cecilia Woloch, Tebot Bach, 1997. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.