The Inevitable Sorrow of Potatoes


It’s been a year now, and as W. H. Auden said, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” That certainly hit me this morning as I realized that you and I have now been with one another for 52 weeks of the “In Time Project.”

Many countered what Auden proclaimed by saying that poetry is created, composed, and meant for “one human heart,” that there is where something can happen. That has been the hope all along for this project, not to combat but to counter 45.

My sister sent this photo below of the mugs that she and her friend use each morning as they have coffee with one another: one has coffee with cream, the other black. A metaphor there? Well, one can say that everything is metaphor. Perhaps this week’s poem is both what it is as well as revealing what these days for all of us are like. There’s the word: “like.”

The Inevitable Sorrow of Potatoes

Half way into the ubiquitous diminishment
that is November our dog and I are here
on the porch. The space heater parting

the cold, keeps parts of us warm.
But this hand holding this pen
feels the chill while a black-capped

chickadee, a downy woodpecker, and
the ever upside down nuthatch cling
to the feeder. In mid-June we turned

over our sun-spotted plot and settled
what would be golden-brown potatoes
into the company of worms and along

the bypass of moles. We believe in
the modesty of potatoes, the humble
spuds that carry the legacy of famine.

There can be no knowing if things can
molder deep, if a blight can singe
the mottled skins: scarring variations

on the darkening silence that too soon
will shorten the dog’s walk into pause
and sniff, a few steps more to another

sniff and then back home. A cardinal
is taking fallen sunflower seeds
back to his mate, head cocked

in the hemlock. One night we surprised
ourselves talking about potatoes, their
stark humility, how they offer to the sanguine

one percent an au gratin choice, to the hungry
a skin with a slap of butter. Last month
we sent our spades into their patch, carved

them out from the summered earth.
Their skins had blackened, marred
by what we could not know was there.

How silly to mourn this. November is Vermeer.
We know the kitchen will take the light, and
the potato soup will comfort, as it always has.

–Jack Ridl

Forthcoming in St. Peter and the Goldfinch (Wayne State University Press)


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24 thoughts on “The Inevitable Sorrow of Potatoes

  1. “The summered earth” I can smell it. Thank you for being here in this tragic year. You’ve made Thursday mornings something to look forward to.

    • Jill, so important for you to know that what this project has hoped
      to do has happened for you. This sustains the ole scribbler. Thank
      ye so much, so very much.
      And to know I got smell into that poem is a joy: it’s one of the
      most difficult senses to evoke. Delighted!!! : )

  2. Jack, Among your finest, this. I was thinking about potatoes just yesterday, the way the word spuds feels in my mouth. “November is Vermeer.” So much love, Reka

    Sent from my iPad


    • Linda, to know that a bit of light comes from the project helps keep me going.
      Thank you for telling me. And may you have lots of curl in out of it all times.

    • Don, Please know how much this sustains me. There come times when I, of course,
      wonder if it really matters at all.
      Thank you! And here’s to lovely days out of this cold!!

  3. Ben just came downstairs (at 4:30pm) and said, “you know you’re sitting in the dark, right?” I’m now calling it “the ubiquitous diminishment / that is November.”

    Can’t wait for St. Peter and the Goldfinch (such a great title!) ❤

  4. Loved the poem. Mainly because it brought back memories of similar times for me – Trying to write a thought or two outside when something I see grabs my eyes, imagination in the hard cold. I always read your poems from top to bottom and for me its a mid-week push to do something I like. I then was moving to the bottom of the scrolling page and found your Ted Talk. You are right about stopping what I loved or liked a lot. I mean my high school art teacher gave us an assignment…Take balloons and create what moves you with paper mache and color. I did it. I went crazy, and got cudos from him as I created my sculpture. He liked it until I got to the colors. You see I have finally figured out that I had incorporated some of my anger that I had always kept inside. And then he hated it and yelled that I had no idea what art was. I gave up, much like I did with my writing. I wasn’t as good like many of my classmates who excelled. That was the standard in my family. And I lost the point of art and writing for me. I am going get out all the art books of lovely paper that have never colored or painted in and start again. Not to make a Van Gogh or a Piccaso, but to just create for me. From me to me. And most of all have fun. Thanks for that reminder. ❤

    • Chris, after reading the experience you had with that horrid teacher, I then was made glad
      by your resolve to do art for the right reasons. So many, millions, have been humiliated away
      from the real reason for doing any art: what happens when one does, that which can happen from
      no other experience. I truly believe what your teacher did was not only abuse, but should
      be a felony. If one can be brought to justice for physical, sexual, etc abuse, then spiritual
      abuse HAS to at long last be included. We sadly live in a product-centered culture when that’s not
      the point of art at all. Even the Van Goghs and O’Keefes knew that, never did their art in order
      to end up with a finished and excellent product. To do an art is to be taken “where no one has
      gone before,” and to receive gifts and realizations that can come in no other way.

      Thank you for your many affirmations of this “Thursday Project.” You sustain my hope for doing this.


  5. Love this one, as I have so many others. They are like little life lines connecting us to the collective goodness in each and all who read them, and to you, in this hard year, Jack. The one about the night your brother was born and died is still reverberating. These words you write and stories you tell seem to want to stick around. “We believe in the modesty of potatoes…” How at the same time you tune us into beauty and pain you also gift us with humor.
    In September I had the surprising pleasure of digging potatoes with my bare hands for the first time in my life, having spotted vines where we had tossed out a bag of very sprouted organic potatoes perhaps a year earlier. It was so much fun, rummaging in the dirt, wood stove ash and leaves finding the prizes! It was like hunting for easter eggs, finding little nests of potatoes in the dirt, in the little caverns they had carved out as they grew. Smiling now remembering the fun. Sure there was a pitchfork and shovel handy for the job, but once I knew they were hiding there, it seemed there was only one good way to retrieve them, and that was by hand- pawing through the earth to find them, so that they would not be bruised or cut by a shovel. No potato has ever tasted so good. Cannot wait to see what the sprouters we buried out there last month do…. Thank you for writing and for sharing it.

    • Oh my, Patty, what warmth, delight, and gratitude your message brings. Thank you so much.
      To know that the project has been doing this for you helps so much in sustaining it.
      And what a magical story!! I was right there with you. My gosh, look at all the layers
      of meaning and metaphor going on there, let alone the beautiful unity of you and the earth
      and the lovely realization that you wanted to keep from cutting the potatoes. I have a hunch
      that you would very much appreciate the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
      That experience of discovering those humble spuds is gonna stay with you always, gathering
      more and more importance.
      Thank you so much for telling me this!

  6. Hi Jack, great poem as always…I, too (or is it also) have a great empathy for the poor spud, no matter how you strive to live your life you always end up either mashed or fried…Blessings, bill h

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