Black Soap

By Sandra McPherson b. 1943 Sandra McPherson
White lather on black soap—
Maria’s gift. It reminds me   
Of when a woman died
And they handed me her ring.

Then they left to divide the roots for her.   
Daylight went down there shining.
By accident, cleaning the hearth
Of a house to leave it for good,
I learned how to see
A star come out: work
My hand into the ashes.

“You’ve thrown a chestnut hull into the fireplace again,”   
Said Colette’s mother, “My clean ashes!”   
Naughty Colette had soiled the washing ashes
Of applewood, poplar, and elm.   
Stretched over the big cauldron
In the washhouse, hemp cloth held the ashes
The washwoman poured a jug of boiling water on.
They smelled almost sweet as the lye   
Filtered into the mass of linen.   
The air darkened with blue clouds.   
In the smoking lava layer of ashes,   
A few cinders of chestnut hulls,   
The tannin’s yellow stain.

Look for something
You’ve been every day of your life.   
You said it was “lonely.”
I’m certain it is also “clean.”
My body’s big years diminish soap.
My grandmother, whose diamond it was,   
Had a stone in her tub.
I rubbed it on my feet
As later I walked,
Building little hoofs,
All summer shoeless on creek gravel.

That black bar of stone
In the widow’s clean house,   
That volcanic pumice skips   
Over most hard places
But softens at least one.

Once there was a downpour of rain   
They took as a judgment.
It confused her billowing, steaming skirts.   
Another time—those times were hard—
The executioner let go the twisted hemp   
From her neck sooner than he should   
Because the flames reached his hands.   
Nor would I, if I’d had to live then,   
Put my hands into the fire
Those three hours it took to reduce her.   
But after, I’d scrub all over
With the ashes of the still warm
Black heart of the witch.

Sandra McPherson, “Black Soap” from Patron Happiness (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970). Copyright © 1983 by Sandra McPherson. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Poetry (February 1980).


This poem originally appeared in the February 1980 issue of Poetry magazine

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February 1980
 Sandra  McPherson


Sandra McPherson weaves vivid images culled from nature into what Contemporary Women Poets contributor David Young characterizes as "rich, complex, and deeply satisfying poems." In collections that include the National Book Award-nominated The Year of Our Birth, 1988's At the Grave of Hazel Hall, and 1996's Edge Effect: Trails and Portrayals, McPherson has increasingly honed her unsentimental, insightful verse, imbuing it with . . .

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Poem Categorization

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

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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