I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Sally Buckner, poet and retired English professor at Peace College. I was helping fire the kiln at the community center where she lives and found out she had written a poem about clay. It is a wonderful poem that captures essence of the historical interrelationship and interdependence of clay with farming in the North Carolina Piedmont. Most early North Carolina potters were farmers. Pots were often made during light farming periods as a means to supplement incomes and to make necessities (storage jars, butter churns etc.) that could not be easily imported. Early North Carolina pottery was wood fired which requires a tremendous amount of wood and effort, an alchemy of the elements that Dr. Buckner captures with her alchemy of words. I hope you enjoy it!
CLAY by Dr. Sally Buckner
The sun, a one-eyed taskmaster, jabbed
Grandpa's shoulders humped above the plow
that leapt its jagged way through Piedmont clay.
Urging his reluctant mule across
the russet field, Grandpa dreamed a green
landscape of tobacco stretched from barnyard
to the bluest rim of horizon.
Come July, that sun sent stern reminders
of its hard power: drove right through the bonnet
shielding Grandma's carrot-colored curls:
pulled a sheen of sweat to her three sons'
near-naked arms lost in the sticky jungle
her husband had envisioned, bedded, nurture:
pried white blooms wide, released the sweetish odor
which claimed their kin: petunia, nicotiana.
August cropping: hefty sheaves of leaves
dangled in the rough-hewn barn-turned-kiln,
surrendered moisture to the savage heat
that ranged beyond two hundred fierce degrees.
Smiling, Grandpa fingered golden leaves,
dry as the greenbacks he had yearned for
all those days in fields of clay.
Those greenbacks, savored, hoarded, passed on down
from Grandpa's soil-stained hands through my father's
frugal fingers, filled my cabinet
with stoneware spun by Carolina crafters.
Lifted from earth, dropped on a turning wheel,
embraced by sturdy fingers, clay forgets
its years and centuries as ground, as bed
for that which would be green, then, later, gold.
Whirling in response to knowing hands,
it rises, thins, curves, opens
in silent, sweet ballet, assumes a shape
far removed from the random spread of field.
Partnered then with fire stoked each five minutes,
twenty-five hundred degrees, forty-eight hours,
the clay confirms its form. Cloaked in glazes
of rutile, cobalt, iron, it glows almost
as brightly as the flames that fill the kiln.
Lifted from its oven, once again
it glows in sunbeam and in candlelight,
an elemental transformation, like that
wrought by the miller's daughter in the fairy tale
who spun a pile of common straw to gold.