For Seamus and Rajmund

farmhouse

Chodkowski farmhouse

My grandfather on my mother’s side, John Chodkowski, was born on a farm in Poland, fought in the Polish underground in WWII, and immigrated to America to escape retribution when the Stalinist government came to power. He died seventeen years ago, when I was a senior in college. His brother, Rajmund Chodkowski, continued to live and work on the family farm until he passed away a few days ago. I was able to visit him there in 2006, in the middle of winter. I was so struck by the snowy, bitterly cold farm, the steamy barn where the cows were milked by hand, and the tiny farm house that he shared with his wife and son. But the image that stuck the most in my brain was that of my great-uncle’s hands, roughened by decades of hard work and gnarled and twisted by arthritis. What a different life he lead than my own.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, also died this past week. I have to admit I’ve never read much by him. So I looked him up just now, eager to discover a new poet. And the first poem I stumbled across was this one, Digging. He could have written it for Rajmund instead of his own father and grandfather. Polish potatoes instead of Irish. And I could have written it myself, pen in hand, so closely does it mirror my own thoughts. So here it is, for Seamus’ father and father, for Seamus, for John, and for Rajmund.

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Rajmund's farm

Chodkowski farm

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2 comments on “For Seamus and Rajmund

  1. jasonharrod says:

    I’ve just been reading, via http://ww2today.com/, about the Polish resistance against the Nazis in WWII. Those guys fought like lions. So cool you got to go there! great post.

    Like

  2. I read this one as an ad hoc spoken word exercise during class in college, but I forgot about it completely until now. Thanks for finding it again!

    Like

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