How to Write a Poem

by Edith Bartholomeusz

The following story first appeared as the prologue to Edith Bartholomeusz’s book Into the Sun: Selected Haiku and Tanka, published by Black Cat Press (Eldersburg, Maryland, 2009). You can order a copy of the book from Edith Bartholomeusz, 2713 W Ashurst Drive, Phoenix, AZ 85045 USA, for $ 12.00 (includes shipping). For more information about the publisher, operated by Cathy Drinkwater Better, please visit the Black Cat Press website.

“Teach me how to write a poem,” I said to the woman.

She cleared the table and placed a large bowl in the middle of it. Then she brought out barley, sugar, ginger root, sultanas, potatoes, yeast, one lemon, and a heavy pitcher of water.

“Wash the potatoes,” she commanded, “but don’t peel them.”

I washed the potatoes and she cut them into chunks.

“Now bruise the ginger,” she said.

I bruised the ginger. I squeezed the juice out of the lemon. I chopped the lemon rind. One by one the woman tossed the barley, potatoes, sultanas, sugar, ginger root, lemon, and yeast into the bowl.

“Add the water and stir,” she ordered.

I poured the water into the bowl and stirred until the sugar and yeast had dissolved. What an odious mixture, I thought.

“You will stir this every day,” the woman said.

After five days, bubbles formed on the murky water. The smell was repulsive. But I stirred the concoction, as the woman had asked me to, for twenty-one days.

“Today we are going to strain the brew,” she announced on the twenty-second day.

The woman picked up a wooden stool and placed it on the table, legs pointing to the ceiling, and stood a wide bowl in the center of the legs. Then she brought out a clean piece of gauze and tied its four corners to the legs so that the cloth hung like a hammock over the bowl. Carefully she poured the brew into the cloth. At once an opaque brown liquid squirted through the cloth and splashed into the bowl in a steady stream. After a while the flow slowed to a fast trickle, then to a steady drip. The bowl was nearly half full when the woman removed it and poured the liquid back into the cloth hammock.

“Wash the bowl,” she said to me.

I washed the bowl and put it back under the hammock. In the meantime the woman had caught several drops in a glass; they were honey-colored and translucent.

“Oh—” I cried.

“Much too cloudy,” she interrupted me and returned the drops to the hammock.

After one hour about a cup of liquid had dripped into the bowl. The woman ladled some of it into a glass and walked to the window. She raised the glass to the light. I thought it looked golden and transparent and expected the woman to be satisfied.

“Still cloudy,” she muttered.

For the second time she poured the liquid in the bowl back into the hammock and asked me to wash the bowl. I did that five times. It was already dark when she said:

“Now we can let it drip.”

And it dripped all night.

The next morning the drip had stopped and the woman placed the bowl on a shelf.

“We’ll leave it here for fourteen days. Now help me wash up.”

Two weeks later, the woman said to me:

“In that cabinet over there you will find glasses, cups, and mugs—choose one.”

I opened the cabinet. There were pewter mugs with coats of arms, cut glass chalices with golden rims, crystal flutes, and wine glasses with delicately etched designs. I picked up a tiny white porcelain cup and handed it to the woman. She filled it with golden liquid and said:

“Here is your poem.”