Antler says: "Basic
Hygiene" is a favorite, the archetypal gardening
poem and ode to earth. I can't think of
another poem that has the same effect.
Ethel Dahir always had dirt
underneath her fingernails
even on Sundays
when we went to her house
for pie made from strawberries
right out of her garden—
and coffee, well, the grown-ups
drank cup after cup
while Ethel squeezed me
lemonade in a tall blue glass
with clouds of ice.
It was fascinating
how Ethel didn’t totally wash up
before our visit—I’d sneak looks
at her strange hands which I supposed
were because Ethel lived in the country
and had married a farmer during
Salt of the Earth,”
my Mom would always say
as we drove toward Ethel
and away from town.
Reddish-brown, like good rock,
the backs of Ethel’s hands made
the teacup fingers of city ladies
seem pale as slugs.
Dark-blue veins were merging rivers
that fed into her torn knuckles
full of new scratches and tiny scars.
I’d run my eyes along her lined
rough fingers until there they were,
her jagged nails and the dirt beneath
which would leave me to wonder
about basic hygiene and the pie,
like did she really clean the strawberries
or had they gone into the cooking pot
with just a little dirt left on them, too?
I would go home and dream
of Ethel’s hands: how life
had gross and fertile secrets
beyond my Mother’s house
and wake up queasy like when
I’d see earthworms’ slimy bodies
on the sidewalks after heavy rain.
One Sunday visit Ethel took me
out to dig potatoes after a sun-shower.
“Enough of all this chatting,”
she said, “Now’s just the best time
to stick your hand into the earth
and poke around ‘til you get
a good-sized one, then
loosen it up.”
Kneeling, she took those mysterious
fingers of hers, worked them
into the ground, wet from rain
and warm, just to give me the feel
for digging. I fell to my knees
in my fancy clothes, with a sudden
thirst for the Earth, plunged
in my arms alongside Ethel,
And in that moment
when she pulled up
out of the dirt, right then,
Ethel’s hands flew
into my soul, like
the Book of Revelation.
I knew that all summer long
Ethel wore the Earth
like her Sunday clothes.