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.