I GAVE UP writing poetry years ago to devote myself to painting. They spring from the same source, but all too often the editor in me would overwork my poems until I had sucked the life out of them.
These days I confine my writing to essays and other nonfiction, where my editor is gainfully employed. A handful of poems survived my butchery, however.
Every few years I dust off this one, in celebration of that annual rite of spring, the return of the fiddlehead ferns. It originally appeared in The Berkshire Review in 2004.
Eight years after Yettie died
Rolando still sniffed the house
for boiled cabbage and bacon grease
lingering in the corners
he seldom swept or wiped.
He sat up sleepily,
gripping the bed on either side,
trying to recall her warmth and shape
lying next to him 51 years.
Scratching his head,
he looked down at his spotted legs
and was struck by how skinny he was,
although his belly sagged.
Today was May one.
He pulled himself up.
This was the day to get fiddleheads.
He dragged a comb across
his still thick, cream-colored hair
and threw his jacket on.
Rolando walked by their small stand
of tightly budded lilacs
on his way to the garage
and climbed into the car
he’d driven eleven years
that still ran well with minor repairs,
a cream-colored wagon like his hair,
and drove a mile or more
on dirt roads through new potato fields
until he came to a spot by the slow river
where the ferns annually unfolded.
Yettie wore a faded cotton dress
that seemed full of her life
like no other perfume.
She would set her line for yellow perch
while Rolando hunted through the wilds
of broken bottles and new growth until he
filled a bowl with the tender, tightly-wound scrolls.
They’d mix their catch that night,
fried with butter and a small onion
then simmered with milk into a thick stew
which they’d make three times
in the next two weeks
and then not at all for fifty-two.
Rolando turned the radio up
because who was he bothering
at this hour and in this place?
and inched along the road, avoiding the ruts,
thinking about the years now long ago
when he supervised two men in a greenhouse
growing half the pansies in western Massachusetts.
The moist greens and violets and golds
blossoming in a thousand rows
beneath acres of glass while outside it froze
kept his spirits up and his sleeves short
no matter how cold it got.
But the day picking fiddleheads
marked the change from plants sown indoors
to those that stirred from roots or seed
directly under wind and sun.
* * *
TO LEARN MORE about this first crop of the season, visit Fiddleheads, a weblog post from 2012.