Nonfiction / Stanley Plumly
:: Extremities ::
Strange what you remember. When I think of my mother the first thing I think of is her feet, her flat duck feet, with their bunions and calluses and size-whatever complaints; with their deep bottom crisscross lines, like dry rivers, lining every which way, as if to tell her fortune. Not that her feet were immediately-looking odd or outsized, only that in her youth she’d tried, like a Cinderella sister, to squeeze them into shoes that didn’t fit, shoes on sale or that had some special claim to beauty. At least this was her story. It was the Depression, she’d say, as if poverty had anything to do with it, which, as I imagine the subtlety of poverty, its depravations and denials, may be partly true.
As she got older her feet took on further distortion—they didn’t seem to belong to the nice legs and mother body above them. They’d sometimes look attached, from another time, peasant feet, field-worker from a painting. I’m probably exaggerating, but they seemed, at times, to trod rather than simply walk the ground. And it’s not as if she didn’t try to correct the disparity, so that the different thing is the degree to which she cared for them: the salt baths, the medicinal creams, the delicate foot files, the inserts to shoes, the high heels relieved with flats.
At home, cooking, doing laundry or housework, she wore slippers that fit like old gloves, which is to say she might as well have been barefoot, except for the fact that the slipper tended to slap the floor while her feet on their own were silent. Once a week she saw what she called her foot doctor, Dr. Schucutt—Shoe-Cut, I called him. I met him once, waiting in the waiting room. He was small and bent a bit—from bending over to perform his examinations, I thought, like a shoe salesman or a cobbler. My mother looked forward to these visits, both because they gave her some relief and because—now that I think about it—they were sensual experiences: the little surgeries, the hand-handling, the ministering of medicines, the mere intimate attentions, the feet as something utterly personal.
I have my mother’s feet, pancake feet. Our feet, after all, are the platforms of our being and the first parts of our bodies the ancients paid caring and public attention to, especially in welcoming visitors. Think of the thousands of years and the millions of miles that our feet have carried us on the footpaths and across the thresholds. No wonder we’ve anointed them with oil and blessed their travel, though it’s unlikely that my mother, on her best day, could have covered a walking mile.
Yet those feet were the most human part of her, the most vulnerable and reassuring. As a small child I loved touching them, particularly the calluses, which were, in imagination, like Grandpappy Lyn’s wen—ugly, otherworldly, magical. I think there were moments when she too loved those feet, loved them the way we come to accept our flaws as essential to our identities. I once compared the warmth and character of my mother’s feet to a “bricklayer’s hands,” and those hands, I realize now, are my father’s hands.
That’s the part of his body I remember most, those large hard hands, that could squeeze the juice from an apple. In his prime, my father was six feet, weighed 200 or so pounds, and had a thirty-two-inch waist. He had a laborer’s hands, almost as callused as my mother’s feet. To watch him with an axe or hammer, the way his right hand swallowed the handle, was to be impressed. To watch him lift a tray of bricks and carry it up a ladder or hold a shovel or move an anvil cradled between his arms, his hands in fists…
When he stopped working in the woods he turned to welding, mostly because by then we’d left Virginia for Ohio, and left nature for industry, though the farmer in him never left him. Perhaps he saw some artistry in drawing a seam of soft hot metal in order to heal a rift. He looked ominous in the welder’s mask, though at both French Oil and Dupps he was soon promoted out of the welder’s chair and mask to foreman.
Some of my happiest times with him were helping him build our half-built house and watching him use those hands. For him it was an after-work and weekend job, for me an after-school fantasy. I was nine. He had two workmen from work to fill out with the extras, cheap labor for the least skilled of the digging of foundations and measuring off of rooms and mixing hod and generally holding things together. I sort of carried bits and pieces and stayed out of the way and played the spy. The three of them poured the concrete floors, but it was my father who laid the brick and leveled its flat-face surfaces and angles, sometimes better than other times.
It was my father who shaped the shape of the roof, his big raw hands handling the two-by-sixes as if they were mere lumber, which, of course they were—the helper workmen at each end of the longer pieces, just like those years ago in the woods. We were always working against the clock, which is to say the weather, since our work hours were always up against sunset and the rain and, finally, the snow. The first year the house was enough of a shell we could work inside on walls and windows and doors, none of which seemed quite right, as if my father’s hands lacked the subtlety of the square.
The thing is that my father was a sober house-builder, then a drunk after dark, when he would disappear—as far as I knew—until the next morning, usually late for his regular foreman’s job. He finally lost his position at French Oil for being late at least a hundred too many times, but by then we’d pretty well closed on finishing our half-finished house.
It sat in the countryside on Garbry Road just outside Piqua, Ohio, practically in the middle of a cornfield. It ultimately turned out to be a small farmhouse, with an added small barn and a couple of outbuildings. When I’d come back summer from college I’d find different additions and combinations of domesticity that might include a couple of useless horses, a donkey, chickens, a half-dozen white-faced Herefords, a pen of youngish pigs, whatever. My father always wept sending off the cattle to slaughter. And he seemed just as close to tears each evening talking to his pigs, whom he petted on their pink heads with great care with his great hands.
From the writer
:: Account ::
by David Baker
“Extremities” is a remarkable piece of prose, of remembrance, in the manner of a compressed memoir. It will appear in Stanley Plumly’s posthumous volume, Middle Distance, in August of 2020 (W.W. Norton), and is one of four such prose works in this book of lyric poetry and richness. The present account is a little unusual, since Stan isn’t writing it. I am working with Michael Collier, as we assist Margaret Plumly with Stan’s literary matters, and I am honored to have this chance to say a word about “Extremities.”
What I can account for here, indeed, is the beauty and lapidary precision of the piece. Much like Stan’s poems, this work is sharply focused in its representation of detail—for his mother, her feet; for his father, his hands. Synecdoche is the portrait painter’s not-so-secret secret: let a part speak or stand, as it were, for the personality of the whole person. So here is his mother, standing on her own two feet, standing up to work, standing firm as caretaker for the family. Stan’s early poem from Summer Celestial, “My Mother’s Feet,” is a beautiful family forebear to this half of “Extremities,” which is about love and pain and the easing of pain for the ones we love.
Notice how deftly the metaphor of his mother’s feet, “like a bricklayer’s hands” in that earlier poem, becomes a link to his father, who was indeed at times a bricklayer—and a woodturner, lumberman, welder, and (like Whitman) a housebuilder. He had hard hands, Stan says, hands hardened by so much work but capable of affection, petting the pink heads of those pigs.
A homemaker and a housebuilder, his mother and father, both makers. And they were both dear to Stan, as the tenderness and precision of this piece attests. Memory is what we carry forward of the facts of our lives. It seems to select us as much as we select what to recall, and in “Extremities” Stan creates—as well as recreates—an indelible double portrait of his parents. He is still their dutiful son, two of whose duties have been rapt attention and unmatched stylistic skill. Makers must run in that family.
Stanley Plumly published 10 highly influential books of poetry during his lifetime, as well as four important works of prose on the Romantic poets and painters. His posthumous collection of new poetry and lyric prose, Middle Distance, will appear in August 2020 from W. W. Norton. He was Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Maryland at the time of his death in April 2019.