By Jean Macpherson
“Potatoes are especially sensitive to changes in soil moisture when they are forming tubers− between the time they flower and two weeks before harvest. Monitor soil moisture and water whenever the soil is dry more than 2 inches (5cm.) down.” – Edward C. Smith, The Vegetable Gardner’s Bible, 10th edition, 2009, pg. 281.
Besides being a historic tuber, the potato is a dirt down deep poetic metaphor that somehow represents a voice underground, or in this case two voices, and the seed growing in a mother’s body. “The plant must grow very tired, and I very sleepy” is one poem from Karen Weiser’s collection To Light Out (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009) that initiates a metaphorical conversation with unborn child as potato. Brendan Galvin’s “The Potatoes Have a Word to Say,” originally published in his collection Place Keepers (Louisiana State University Press, 2003) speaks loudly with demonstration and vitality. In both poems, new life grows in the body, earth and mother, the size of a russet perhaps, or the beginnings of a fingerling, maybe a thin-skinned Yukon Gold. The variety is uncertain, but it does not matter as attitude appears with growth and development, but indulges in possessing a nocturnal secret, a connection that only exists between mother and child, soil and plant:
The potato says these things and admires them
for their quiet self languages:
“…a consideration of form and content
glass and wine, breath and field
gives me a grid to romance and order all eyes 5
here, a species there;
what is consciousness, a kind of rough platform ?” (28).
Unlike a conversation, the voice in Galvin’s piece is candid, puzzling and humorous, but also objectifies a secret longing or grief:
These are the faces we made down there
to entertain each other. We were green,
marble-sized, scabbed over and rutted
when you threw us into the compost
last fall. After nights of rain that swelled 5
and softened the earth so we wondered
how any of you anywhere ever thought
it was flat, we returned from exile
and you shoveled us under the rototiller
to be rendered impossible. (42) 10
Like the time spent waiting for baby to arrive is the time spent waiting to emerge from darkness into light and for these ‘poor’ scabs, light back into the soil. There is something safe and harmonious about the womb, a delicate place, temperate and secure. Maybe potatoes would rather stay beneath, recognizing baby’s need to stay inside away from blinding light and cool air, swim in the amniotic depth as the dirt down deep is quiet and restless all at once. So enjoyable.
“Potatoes like to grown in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun. They’re not fussy about soil PH; anything from 5.0 to 6.8 will do. Some gardeners recommend a PH around 5 to prevent scab, but others report scab-free potatoes in sweeter soil, provided fertility is high.” (Smith, 280.)
I imagine life is humble underground, growing rapidly as kicks and punches to mothers gut become regular in the months that swallow the passing seasons until harvest. And all those conversations. I recall my own with unborn child, deepening my voice out loud, convinced I carried a boy and I was right: “Daddy, when am I going to see you? Tell mommy to let me out.” Proclamation of the highest order that I will do my best to teach you all the right things, but ultimately it is up to you, my son. Once you arrived I was no longer sole decision maker. And Weiser’s potato speaks and observes to the bystanders awaiting arrival:
The potato says these things broad and comparatively:
“we are watching a potato grow
in the painting of this poem 10
you and me, dear reader
insofar as genitals swing and remain in place
without notice or eviction
our magisterial gaze is this
quiet world of stanza, where 15
I be a lead male friend
you are a little earth anywhere
the female opposite of laughter
in how we react to one another
a sensitive regime change between 20
brooding stanzas of Earth.”
Closing my eyes, let me sleep, I would say, let me sleep past all the back aches and discomfort, accept my happiness as I wait for you. And yes, I shall nap during the end of this ultrasound, the cold comfort of gel and yes I could see you but I already have, haven’t I?
I’m looking at you right now my little dictator.
Edward C. Smith does not seem to think the potato is a demanding vegetable, nor outspoken or forthright in it’s world of habitual didacts. But Galvin on the other hand is other-worldly in some ways that accompanies Weiser’s “world of stanza” if only there were a soapbox waiting near the garden’s edge for those first words to be aligned with a galaxy of working class:
down in the marsh arose from their own
torn parchment and mummy cloth,
and we shoved up, thick-stemmed among
the early unfurlings of squash and beans, 15
and in evenings of broken thrush music
began drawing gold-centered,
lavender starbursts out of ourselves,
in concert with the sleeping trees:
red dwarfs in the maples, constellated 20
petals of wild apple. We had toughened up
in that rejects’ underworld the chickweed
flourished over. How you have drawn us
into September, volunteers caught out
in our proletarian jackets, but don’t 25
misread us. Whether as slave food
or aphrodisiac, we have always been
in politics, and though never educated
like the artichoke, or fopped-up
like certain squashes, we can be multiplied 30
by anyone, prepared more ways than bread.
You are tired of living when you’re tired of us. (42)
Babies descend, crown, emerge. Sometimes they come sooner than we expect, and sometimes they are rather timely, or fashionably late. Giving birth and growing potatoes is a secular mysticism screaming and crying into the hands of those who furrow beneath the soil. A dexterous process; the final outcome, joy. I can hear a symphony of “broken thrush music” the vegetable protest and the opinion that life is over when you no longer want ‘me’. Light is a powerful substance. Babies live in the dark and I cannot imagine eyes thrust open after months deep in the dirt, the soft rained out dirt of a mother’s womb. The dirt down below protecting potatoes from political action, hoping
“Your verbal tick is beautiful
a metaphysic wit of the longest blossom 30
illuminating your face as it drapes its own century
Who knew the gaudiest peacock
would be he one without color
lying in an inquiry of our own gardens
sculpted to grow only biblical plants?” (Weiser 28) 35
Peeling potatoes is not a favorite activity. Neither is changing diapers. But there is great pleasure in tending the garden, carrying the weight; a substantive expectation of pleasure. Why ever live without either one? Yes, I agree it is not for everyone. But somewhere between all the quiet languages is a poetry full of meaning and all the things we do not understand.
Jean Macpherson writes from New England. Her garden did not do well this year, but her son flourishes.
 I have read and quoted Galvin’s poem from Habitat- New and Selected Poems, 1965-2005,Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
I love this essay! It’s cute and sweet and real life!
What a beautiful essay. And what a clever concept—No one’s garden did well this year but ah, those babies! I just get stuck at the ‘peeling’ 🙂