In a writers’ group when various member critique one another’s works, often someone will comment, “I’d like to have more ‘smells’ in that passage.” She might be referring to someone’s description of a murderer hiding under a dark pier…. or the spookiness in a dusk-coated attic room…or a bouquet of flowers a lover might put together for a sweet rendezvous.
Hummm. It makes a writer pause. The five senses often figure in descriptive passages, and each rounds out and fleshes out the mystery, romance, the nostalgia --or a combination of all--in a story.
Lately I have been remembering my long-deceased parents. I recall how it was when I was a child, watching my mother working with the bounty of the garden… canning tomatoes in a hot, non-air conditioned farm kitchen. Recently I had lunch with a woman of that generation. She recalled when she was little how it was when her mother had to “go out in the yard and kill a chicken for dinner. What do young people know now,” she remarked. Her comment made me remember a poem I wrote called The Red Hen.
I first came to my writing career by way of poetry—my father reading it aloud, my writing it in high school, my studying it in college and graduate school, my teaching it in college and workshops. It has to be lush, spare, and tight, the poem, that is. Evocative. It has to tell a story. Sometimes, it is the story.
The Red Hen
When Mama went to kill a hen
So we’d have chicken on Sunday,
I’d hide behind the woodpile
Not wanting to see the way she clucked around
Picking just the right one, old enough, fat enough.
I’d see it though, peeking through the woodpile
Thinking I would not see, knowing I would.
There she’d stand in sturdy shoes, faded apron,
Hair tight in a bun, hard at her task,
Rejecting the rooster for being too stringy,
The pullets and fryers, she’d give more time.
I watched her catch the old red hen, a
Squawking and fluttering, a burst of feathers and dust.
The other hens raged and scrambled around, while
Mother put her hand about that thin neck,
Holding her own high and away from her body.
The red hen’s eyes widened and bulged.
I watched, covering my eyes, dizzy to see
The whirling motion of her arms
Then the slack and that sunshine of red feathers,
That awful hopping, jumping, headless hen
Bouncing around among nervous, squawking chickens,
Who like I knew about warm nests, speckled eggs,
Soft yellow biddies and how to drink from the rain trough.
I watched from behind the woodpile, knowing I would
Have to help Mother scald, singe, and pluck that hen.
I know the smell of wet feathers and still can see that
Shiny eye in watery, old newspapers.
Mother cut wings, legs, and thighs into manageable parts and I helped her fry the old red hen.
Company came on Sundays and
Always raved about Mother’s fried chicken,
But I’d slip away from all their talk and go to the swing
Where I would try to think.