I cut back my shriveled garden this November,
all fruits gone, leaves frost crunched but fragrant
with the last stores of water rising to the snipped stems.
In other yards, scarfed gardeners bundle stakes,
cast neat squares with winter rye,
are soundless but for movement, harvest
long plucked like the mills and jobs
that built these homes. They snug potatoes
for winter, firm the mounds over onions,
while I cut back the odd ornament of roses,
lady’s mantle, thyme and lavender.
Through these softened Appalachians,
western Pennsylvania towns crouch half hollow,
Main Street a straight shot to foundries and old rails
bleeding rust into the gravel, scrub dead
grass and bent underbrush by the turnpike.
People here wrinkle against the cold. They still
can, put up food, cure meat, hunt and hold church
bake sales, dances, festivals, card games. They
keep shelves of pillowy pears, firmed apple butter,
cabbage pressed to glass and tomatoes
glistening with stymied sun.
On these coldest days, snow is like dust,
twisting glass ghosting along salt routed
pavement and stretches of potholes.
The windows of downtown darken with emptiness
so deep I see the back walls of former stores.
Farm fences mimic hillocks at sight’s edge,
where the sky is opaque milk crusted dry, and I see
only the slow steps of people in the fog,
grey as ghostly poplar trunks, hunched
shadows heavier than the cold’s
pale or the wind-worn stone of storefronts.
On those days, I understand their pantry shelves,
and why my wife wicks summer into a Ball jar.
We want to smell the work of summer’s
earth, our home when green and warm.
I crouched one day last August and pruned
the shrubby lavender stems pouched in blue,
stripped the stems and packed the buds
in a jar with alcohol gurgling deep. We left
the jar for months in our tight pantry,
among artichoke hearts and olives,
keeping it like food.
This winter, amid the buffeting brown and gray,
dulled by the dour churches and salt scud,
wrinkled truck drivers and breath smoked
with cold, I opened the jar, and the smell
plopped out, spicy-thick and vibrant
as the day I picked it, drenched in alcohol
that normally kills, preserving an essence
like light captured in silver, a photograph
of a smell. The foreign musk mingled with steel,
the rot of frost kill, canning steam and the whiff
of stored cabbage, all sharpened by cold.
Preserves was first published in Lucid Stone, Spring 2001.
Poem, copyright © 2001 by Gabriel Welsch
Appearing on From the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2005, From the Fishouse