Winner 2003 - Patricia Lewis
Sourdough for Sara
Grandma's sleeves are rolled to the elbows.
Her fingers feather through
flour, salt, water, punch them
into sourdough plump as a baby's chuckle
as her mother had taught her.
And she tells us, her words dropping
like the thud of the dough
against the big earthenware bowl
that in those days she and Sara plodded
at her mother's side in a throb of heat,
that the wagon wheels beat up grey dust
that swirled like sparring wolves.
Lips dray as baked clay, necks larded
with boils they knotted blades of prairie grass
into fists for camp fires, boiled
water from the Platte where wiggle tails
scribbled their question marks;
baked lightnin' bread black as charcoal
outside, rubberized inside
in the cast-iron kettle.
And Sara, haloed in her white calico bonnet
sang as her reflection flowered river water,
sang as she squatted at the water bucket,
scrubbed the dish rag with lye soap;
sang till the first rasping rusted her voice,
till the first spasm jack-knifed her body
and the spurt of her vomit arced
into the dust. And Greatgrandma,
once past that small mound at the roadside
walked with lead in her moccasins;
talked with gravel in her throat;
saw Indians in the fire; heard hyenas
in her sleep; knotted prairie grass tighter;
boiled water for longer.
Punching, patting, folding, turning,
Grandma's fingers shape the dough
into a loaf, shape it to a letter S
as her mother had taught her.
Shape it for Sara.
like this poem for lots of reasons but mainly because the human heart of it feels so real and sharp. It moved me very much in the reading.
I like the feeling of the generations and the way the poem itself keeps the story alive, kneading it much as the grandma kneads the sourdough. I like the real details of the Oregon Trail -- the 'throb of heat', the 'question marks' of the wiggle tails, the 'lightnin' bread' you feel like you've tasted. I like the slow pace of the poem in the first two stanzas, where it builds up the scene almost pleasurably, but with those little ominous signs - the 'throb', the 'sparring wolves', 'the boils' the 'question marks'.
The poem is beautifully structured. The stanzas really work for it. The third stanza which both introduces Sara like a wee angel, and then destroys her, is shocking and powerful. She works the verbs to the hilt: sang, sang, squatted, scrubbed, sang, rusted, jack-knifed, arced -- and then the stanza break which takes Sara 'into the dust'. The understatement in the next stanza: "once past that small mound at the roadside" is wonderful. You don't know how old Sara was, or how old the Grandma at the time, but the 'small mound' suggests very young.
And then the verbs kick in again: 'walked with lead' , 'talked with gravel' 'saw Indians', 'heard hyenas', 'knotted grass ..tighter' boiled water...longer'. So much is not said, and part of the power lies in that. The rhythm in stanzas 4 and 5 gathers pace and energy. Stanza 5 is full of rhythmic tension. And then the final stanza, returning to the bread, with the verb participles preserving an ongoing action: "punching, patting, folding, turning' - it carries the poem forward to the bread, moving the memory of Sara with it and into it.
I think the last line is completely beautiful. I felt sure it was exactly what the Greatgrandma had said, 'Shape it for Sara'. I think the poem is also shaped for Sara, and shaped beautifully.