Maple Syrup

By Donald Hall b. 1928 Donald Hall
August, goldenrod blowing. We walk   
into the graveyard, to find
my grandfather’s grave. Ten years ago   
I came here last, bringing
marigolds from the round garden   
outside the kitchen.
I didn’t know you then.
                                  We walk
among carved names that go with photographs
on top of the piano at the farm:
Keneston, Wells, Fowler, Batchelder, Buck.   
We pause at the new grave
of Grace Fenton, my grandfather’s   
sister. Last summer
we called on her at the nursing home,   
eighty-seven, and nodding
in a blue housedress. We cannot find   
my grandfather’s grave.
                                  Back at the house
where no one lives, we potter   
and explore the back chamber
where everything comes to rest: spinning wheels,   
pretty boxes, quilts,
bottles, books, albums of postcards.   
Then with a flashlight we descend   
firm steps to the root cellar—black,   
cobwebby, huge,
with dirt floors and fieldstone walls,   
and above the walls, holding the hewn   
sills of the house, enormous
granite foundation stones.
Past the empty bins
for squash, apples, carrots, and potatoes,
we discover the shelves for canning, a few
pale pints
of tomato left, and—what
is this?—syrup, maple syrup   
in a quart jar, syrup
my grandfather made twenty-five   
years ago
for the last time.
                           I remember
coming to the farm in March
in sugaring time, as a small boy.
He carried the pails of sap, sixteen-quart   
buckets, dangling from each end   
of a wooden yoke
that lay across his shoulders, and emptied them   
into a vat in the saphouse   
where fire burned day and night   
for a week.
                Now the saphouse   
tilts, nearly to the ground,   
like someone exhausted
to the point of death, and next winter
when snow piles three feet thick   
on the roofs of the cold farm,
the saphouse will shudder and slide   
with the snow to the ground.
                                          Today
we take my grandfather’s last   
quart of syrup
upstairs, holding it gingerly,
and we wash off twenty-five years   
of dirt, and we pull
and pry the lid up, cutting the stiff,   
dried rubber gasket, and dip our fingers
in, you and I both, and taste
the sweetness, you for the first time,
the sweetness preserved, of a dead man   
in the kitchen he left
when his body slid
like anyone’s into the ground.

Donald Hall, “Maple Syrup” from Old and New Poems. Copyright © 1990 by Donald Hall. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Source: Old and New Poems (1990)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Donald Hall b. 1928

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Home Life, Death, Living, Relationships

 Donald  Hall

Biography

Donald Hall is considered one of the major American poets of his generation. His poetry explores the longing for a more bucolic past and reflects the poet’s abiding reverence for nature. Although Hall gained early success with his first collection, Exiles and Marriages (1955), his more recent poetry is generally regarded as the best of his career. Often compared favorably with such writers as James Dickey, Robert Bly, and James . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Home Life, Death, Living, Relationships

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.