Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Weeds, Jobs, and Long, Tall Poems

I was talking with someone who works at a college and employs college-students. She said that for some of the students (who are 18-22 years old), this part-time job at college is the first job they've had. She and I discussed the merits and drawbacks of going to work early, as in when you are 15 or 16. I think we both had started working "full time/part time" when we were about that age--meaning that we'd held 8-hour-a-day-jobs but only in the summer. I never worked during high school because I played sports, but once summer started, I worked full time. Oddly enough (odd-jobly enough) my first paying job was as a self-employed laborer--a cutter of weeds.

I'd been meaning to write a poem about, or "out of that," experience for the longest time, but it took me, oh, 35 years to get to it. That's probably a good thing because when you write a poem about something you know really well, sometimes you are too loyal to the facts, and imagination sits on the bench. For me the poem is a throwback not just in the sense that it's about something that happened a long time ago but also in the sense that I used to write "long, tall" poems. They're in free verse, but the lines are pretty much the same length--and short. I don't really know why I got into that groove, but I did. Then I got out of it. With this poem, I went back to it.

Regarding work: it's probably a good thing, a net-plus for a "kid" to hold a job before s/he gets to college, chiefly because a) it reminds the person why college can be an economic benefit, longterm b) it induces you to encounter difficult personalities and c) it gives you some basic good habits: show up on time, pay attention to detail, get the job done. Also, if you or your family need the money, then the job is giving you part of what you need. Otherwise, I'm not Puritanical about work; there's more to life, so they say.

Regarding work and poetry (or creative writing in general): I often advise writers who are stuck to write about work. It's something they know, it brings vivid images, it often involved some kind of conflict, it can bring its own language (for example, carpentry brings "joist," bussing tables brings "Run silver!"), but probably you have some distance from the job-in-the-past, so you are free to make stuff up, too.

The poem, which first appeared in Sierra Journal a few years ago:

Weed-Cutter for Widows

I used to cut weeds for widows.
--Blue shirt, blue jeans, brown boots,
cap, a pocket knife, gloves, and
a wood-handled, saw-toothed hacker
called a devil-stick. Sweet-pea vines
rioted, overwhelmed old ladies’
clapboard houses. Yards and cars
and stuff like that had been territory
of the husbands, who’d retired
into death, picture-frames, and
annuity payments. The widows
came out on porches and waved
baggy, soft arms in slow motion
toward a place in the yard they
didn’t like. I went to work.

I cut back ten summers of growth,
sweating shirt and jeans through.
Inside the stuffy houses, the widows
napped themselves into youth, where
they married someone different who
didn’t have the bright idea of buying
a summer home in a hard High-Sierra
town full of thin oxygen and mountain
misfits. The widows woke up
and were old and shawled again.

They brought out a few dollar bills
and lemonade, too sweet. I needed
water. I was quiet and polite
and did the work,
unlike their children, who were 40
years old, mean, fat, lazy, and down
there in the Bay Area hoping Ma
would die soon and feed their greed
with Will. I walked home on state-highway
asphalt that pulsed heat. One widow
would tell another about the boy
who cut weeds. I had quite the
little business that summer. Sometimes
the widows visit me when I nap and
dream. I give them their money
back just before a wave of sweet-pea
vines crests and inundates us all.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom. First published in Sierra Journal, edited by Bill Hotchkiss.
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