139. Maple Syrup: Donald Hall

This is my regionalism showing (Vermont), so my apologies to those with lemon groves. Yesterday I boiled down my first ever batch of maple syrup. It is mud season here, and the patches of snow hold spring back another day.

I got this poem from the Poetry Foundation webpage, which lists 1990’s “Old and New Poems” as its source. That’s out of print, but his more recent “White Apples and a Taste of Stone” seems to be the replacement. You can get it here.

Poem might be in this book, but it's good nevertheless.

I like how senses create memory (and vice-versa), especially olfactory. We have a visceral reaction to smell. I make toast before the kids come in and they react. They tell stories. Bring a bread machine into the classroom. Or brew coffee. My sister told me that coconut has a stronger association with happiness because it reminds people of sun tan lotion and vacations on the beach. Heck, if you teach middle school you probably have the waft of Axe cologne on a daily basis disrupting class.

Combine this with memories. Memories of first grade. Of a sister, or mom. What are the smells? Now, recreate them. Have them bring in a smell (or touch or sound or song) and see if reactions are different, or universal. Ah, the universal nature of… bread, coffee, and… poetry?

Maple Syrup
Donald Hall

August, goldenrod blowing. We walk
into the graveyard, to find
my grandfather’s grave. Ten years ago
I came here last, bringing
marigolds from the round garden
outside the kitchen.
I didn’t know you then.
We walk
among carved names that go with photographs
on top of the piano at the farm:
Keneston, Wells, Fowler, Batchelder, Buck.
We pause at the new grave
of Grace Fenton, my grandfather’s
sister. Last summer
we called on her at the nursing home,
eighty-seven, and nodding
in a blue housedress. We cannot find
my grandfather’s grave.
Back at the house
where no one lives, we potter
and explore the back chamber
where everything comes to rest: spinning wheels,
pretty boxes, quilts,
bottles, books, albums of postcards.
Then with a flashlight we descend
firm steps to the root cellar—black,
cobwebby, huge,
with dirt floors and fieldstone walls,
and above the walls, holding the hewn
sills of the house, enormous
granite foundation stones.
Past the empty bins
for squash, apples, carrots, and potatoes,
we discover the shelves for canning, a few
pale pints
of tomato left, and—what
is this?—syrup, maple syrup
in a quart jar, syrup
my grandfather made twenty-five
years ago
for the last time.
I remember
coming to the farm in March
in sugaring time, as a small boy.
He carried the pails of sap, sixteen-quart
buckets, dangling from each end
of a wooden yoke
that lay across his shoulders, and emptied them
into a vat in the saphouse
where fire burned day and night
for a week.
Now the saphouse
tilts, nearly to the ground,
like someone exhausted
to the point of death, and next winter
when snow piles three feet thick
on the roofs of the cold farm,
the saphouse will shudder and slide
with the snow to the ground.
we take my grandfather’s last
quart of syrup
upstairs, holding it gingerly,
and we wash off twenty-five years
of dirt, and we pull
and pry the lid up, cutting the stiff,
dried rubber gasket, and dip our fingers
in, you and I both, and taste
the sweetness, you for the first time,
the sweetness preserved, of a dead man
in the kitchen he left
when his body slid
like anyone’s into the ground.


2 thoughts on “139. Maple Syrup: Donald Hall

Add yours

  1. I enjoy this poem. It makes you feel as if you were actual there with poet, seeing, tasting, hearing, and feeling the same thing he does.

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