Sunday, October 13, 2013

Ekphrastic Poem #5: Peasant Woman Digging Up Potatoes

I've started work again on my series of poems based on Van Gogh's paintings.  "Peasant Woman Digging Up Potatoes" was one of the first poems I began drafting, but has taken quite some time to bring to fruition.  I could never quite settle on what I wanted to say in the poem, so I set it aside.  I revisited it today, following the general theme found in "The Potato Eaters"-- potatoes as "earth apples" (aardappel in Dutch; pomme de terre in French), reference to the eating of the apple in Eden, mankind's fall from Paradise, etc.  A little research indicated that potatoes need to be harvested before the first frost, otherwise they might be damaged.  Thoughts of Eden and fields led to Elysian fields and Elysium, where heroes enjoyed the afterlife, engaging in the work that brought pleasure in life.  As I thought about that, however, it occurred to me that for someone who had toiled all their life in backbreaking work, Elysium might not be a wonderful place to spend one's afterlife.

And with that, here's the poem and the painting (courtesy the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp).


After Van Gogh’s painting of the same name

Row after row, bent to her task,
she digs into the waning light.
Before the fall, fields bathed
in sunlight and joy. Now,
engaged against the coming
frost, she toils to the harvest,
though each thrust of her spade
only brings her closer to Elysium.

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