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Sean Karns' "Jar of Pennies" and Kitty Carpenter’s "Farm Sonnet"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of Sean Karns' "Jar of Pennies"

The speaker in Sean Karns' "Jar of Pennies" is remembering a traumatic period of his life when his mother would come home from work and smell like blood.

The poem is dramatizing that dreadful a year in the speaker's life that held disgust and fear for him because of his mother's job and her ex-boyfriend. In nineteen couplets, the poem moves its drama through eerie images.

In particular focus is the speaker’s describing the blood's smell as resembling the smell of a "Jar of pennies."

Jar of Pennies

The year my mother worked
the slaughterhouse,

she came home smelling of blood:
a jar of pennies smell.

I squeezed her pant leg
and felt the dried blood

itching like wool.
She pushed me

away, not wanting any more
smells on her.

She told me about
the cows collapsing

in the slaughter room,
the pigs tugging and tugging

their bodies from her grip,
and how the blood washed

from her hands.
We only ate chicken

for that year.
Her ex-boyfriend knocked

on the door. The last time
he was in the house,

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he pulled and pulled
at her arms, then pinned her

on the couch.
I sat at the dinner table,

fumbling with dinnerware.
She washed the blood

off her lips. We only needed steak
for her black eyes.

For a long year, my hands
smelled of pennies,

and my face was red with rashes
from wool. We ate chicken

and ignored the knocking
at the door. Locked it,

bolted it, made sure
we didn’t make noise.

For a reading of this poem, please visit Sean Karns' "Jar of Pennies" at Rattle.

Commentary on Sean Karns’ "Jar of Pennies"

The speaker is remembering his mother's clothes smelling like blood from her work at a slaughterhouse; he likens that smell of blood to the smell of a jar of pennies.

First Movement: A Year of Smelling Blood

The year my mother worked
the slaughterhouse,

she came home smelling of blood:
a jar of pennies smell.

I squeezed her pant leg
and felt the dried blood

itching like wool.
She pushed me

away, not wanting any more
smells on her.

The speaker reveals his observation from his childhood that his mother came home "smelling of blood" after her shift of work at the slaughterhouse. Luckily for the mother and the speaker, she worked at that distressing facility only a year.

The speaker likens that smell of blood to a jar of pennies. The smell of blood does, in fact, remind most people of a metallic smell, probably because blood contains iron.

The jar of pennies functions here to describe the smell of blood, but it also implies that the speaker's family probably lived at the poverty level. Instead of a jar of change with nickels, dimes, quarters, he places only pennies in his jar.

And the impoverished circumstances do not stop at finance but continue into the very relationship between mother and child.

When as a child, he would run to hug his mother and "squeeze[ ] her pant leg," she would rebuff him, "not wanting any more / smells on her," a reaction that perhaps reveals selfishness on the part of the mother.

She seems concerned only about having smells on herself and not the fact that she might impart that smell of blood to her child. While the child wanted only to show affection for his mother and that he was glad she had returned to him.

Although one might consider the opposite: she might not have wanted the slaughterhouse smells to be transferred to her child. The reader can interpret only from the child's point of view.

Second Movement: Animals Facing Death

She told me about
the cows collapsing

in the slaughter room,
the pigs tugging and tugging

their bodies from her grip,
and how the blood washed

from her hands.
We only ate chicken

for that year.

The speaker reports that his mother would tell him about the animals reactions to their impending deaths at the slaughterhouse, how the cows would collapse, probably after being battered in the head by hammers. She told him how the pigs would be "tugging and tugging / / their bodies from her grip."

This poor woman had the unpleasant task of killing animals to draw a paycheck. She also reported how she had to keep washing the blood off her hands. It is little wonder that the family only "ate chicken / / for that year."

With a little imagination, they might have converted to vegetarianism. However, the mother apparently did not consider that chicken slaughterhouses would provide the same disgusting scenario.

Third Movement: The Abusive Boyfriend

Her ex-boyfriend knocked

on the door. The last time
he was in the house,

he pulled and pulled
at her arms, then pinned her

on the couch.

The speaker then moves his attention from the repugnance of the slaughterhouse to his own home where he resides with his mother. The ex-boyfriend of his mother would show up and pound on their door.

The speaker says that the last time that boyfriend came to their home he "pulled and pulled" the mother's arms and "pinned her / / on the couch."

Fourth Movement: Parallel Blood

I sat at the dinner table,

fumbling with dinnerware.
She washed the blood

off her lips. We only needed steak
for her black eyes.

For a long year, my hands

The speaker sat dumbfounded "at the dinner table / fumbling with dinnerware." Being but a child, he knew he could not do anything to help her, so he sat and fumbled.

The mother then "washed blood / / off her lips"—an act that parallels her washing the blood of her hands at work. And she used steak on black eyes because they could no longer eat steak, owing to the nausea of the mother's slaughterhouse activities.

Fifth Movement: A Horrid Year

smelled of pennies,

and my face was red with rashes
from wool. We ate chicken

and ignored the knocking
at the door. Locked it,

bolted it, made sure
we didn’t make noise.

The speaker then offers a summary of that horrid year: his hands smelled like pennies, implying that he continued to hug his mother's legs when she returned home. The wool from her pants gave him a rash, but that image might also indicate that his skin merely took on some the blood from that hug.

The family ate only chicken; they secured their door with locks and bolts and remained quiet when the ex-boyfriend came pounding on their door. The juxtaposition of the bloody slaughterhouse reality and the bloody lips the mother endured offers a sorrowful drama in the life of a young child.

The parallel of blood on the mother's clothes and blood on her lips implies a karmic connection that would not be grasped by a child but would remain as a powerful image in his mind.

Images without Ideological Screeching

This marvelous poem offers a unique view of domestic violence without ideological and politically partisan screeching. It simply provides the images experienced by a child and allows readers/listeners to draw their own conclusions.

Kitty Carpenter's "Farm Sonnet"

The title of this piece disappoints because it is deceptive: its subject is not a farm nor a sonnet but the speaker’s mother; the farm simply serves as a setting for the sonnet. Although the piece offers a pleasant read, it does suffer some other technical difficulties

Kitty Carpenter - Winner of the 2020 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award

Kitty Carpenter - Winner of the 2020 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award

Introduction and Text of Kitty Carpenter’s "Farm Sonnet"

In Kitty Carpenter’s "Farm Sonnet," the speaker moves from a sagging barn roof quickly to the onset of her mother’s dementia. The speed of this motion in the limited space of a sonnet is somewhat jarring.

The subject of the sonnet is not actually the farm but the speaker’s mother; the farm remains only the setting. The sonnet surprisingly follows the form of an Elizabethan sonnet; it offers the three rimed quatrains and then the couplet.

Even though it does feature the traditional rime scheme, ABABCECEEFEFGG, each quatrain and the couplet all sport near rimes: in the first quatrain, back/sacks; in the second, axe/crack; in the third quatrain, slipped/dip, and then in the couplet, master/after.

Another interpretation of the rime scheme is possible, ABABACACDEDEFF. Relying on only sight rime, the traditional Elizabethan scheme still holds; however, "axe" in the first line of the second quatrain provides a perfect sound rime with "sacks" and then a near/slant rime with "crack."

Because of the profundity of the subject it is dramatizing, the confusion of the rime scheme becomes problematic, especially the dissonant effect produced by the near/slant rime, "master" and "after" in the concluding lines.

This kind of poetic confusion foisted on the reader by the poet’s likely descent into experimentation simply puts a distracting blemish on the sonnet. A sonnet is a tight, traditional form that loses some of its heft every time a poet engages an experiment that does not work.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Farm Sonnet

The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back.
The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh
where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks
of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh
winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe,
trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow,
balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack
the ice so horses could drink. With each blow
I feared she would fall, but she never slipped.
Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray
eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip
my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say?
The time we have’s still too short to master
love, and then, the hollow that comes after.

Reading of "Farm Sonnet"

Commentary on Killy Carpenter’s "Farm Sonnet"

Despite its sorrowful depiction of an aged woman’s descent into fragility and its several technical flaws, this sonnet does not offer an unpleasant experience. The speaker is able to garner both sympathy and empathy from any discerning reader of the piece because the experience described seems genuine.

First Quatrain: Rustic Simplicity

The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back.
The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh
where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks
of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh

The speaker promises with the title to address the subject of a farm in her sonnet, and her opening line does just that, giving us a sagging barn roof that looks like the sway-back of a mule.

The use of the word "ancient," which simply indicates "old" in this context, seems somewhat gratuitous. The speaker has promised a farm scene; thus, the use of an extreme time element instead of a plain old "old" remains ill-suited.

The sagging roof has alerted the reader that this farm has been neglected, and the next image supports that notion with a field that has not been mowed and likely has lain fallow for quite some time.

But then the speaker describes part of the field as swamp-like because the pond "spills over" onto it. Perhaps a working farm would constantly remedy that situation but upon first encountering that image, it seems that it departs from the description of a run-down farm; the marshland seems more like a natural occurrence.

However, the final image of "no hay or sacks / of grain" being stored for the winter again returns to the topic of run-down farm, which is not farmed any longer. The quatrain’s final phrase, "[i]n the harsh," has to wait for completion in the second quatrain.

The rime scheme could have been kept a perfect ABAB, if the speaker had simply opted to keep "sack" singular to rime perfectly with "back."

Instead, 'sacks" actually causes a problem later on with interpreting the scheme in the second quatrain, which further changes the over-all rime scheme of the poem—even removing it from the Elizabethan traditional rime scheme.

Second Quatrain: Remembering Mother

winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe,
trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow,
balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack
the ice so horses could drink. With each blow

The speaker has now moved on to her mother by suggesting the mother’s stamina in trudging through snow down to the edge of the pond to break the ice to allow the horses the ability to drink.

Her mother’s energy was boundless as she maneuvered through "deep snow," balanced herself competently on the bank of the pond, and then brought the axe down on the ice.

The problematic rime scheme again intrudes. The near/slant rime of "axe" and "crack" could have easily been perfected by pluralizing "crack" to "cracks"—with something like "balanced on the steep bank, breaking cracks / in the ice . . . ."

Thus with "sacks" converted to "sack" and "crack" converted to "cracks" the rime scheme would have remained a perfectly traditional Elizabethan form.

Again, the quatrain finishes with a phrase, "[w]ith each blow," which has to wait for completion in the next quatrain.

Third Quatrain: A Dipping Head

I feared she would fall, but she never slipped.
Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray
eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip
my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say?

As the mother continues to bring the axe head down on the ice, breaking it up so the horses could drink, the speaker admits that she watched and remained fearful that her mother would slip and fall. But the strong, poised mother "never slipped."

Suddenly, the speaker moves from that strong, balanced woman, cracking ice with an axe, to the elderly individual who is now stifled with age in a body that no long stands straight and tall but is "bent and withered."

Worst of all is that the aged mother’s eyes are now vacant, and the speaker intuits that those eyes are drawn to some place or thing which remains invisible to the speaker.

These lines suggest the onset of dementia, with the mother’s physical body showing its age, and the mind likely remaining somewhere other than in the room with the speaker.

But then the speaker offers the most solid proof of dementia as she reports that her mother now mistakes her daughter for her own mother. The word "dip," however, destroys the poignancy of that revelation.

The act of "head dipping" has become a cliché, often associated with surfers as they cleave into a wave. The term "dip" seems to be used here to effect a rime. The term "nod" would have enriched the meaning although it would have eliminated the rime.

And her message becomes unintelligible as she claims to dip her head, after her mother calls the speaker "Mom." The italics on "Mom" remains puzzling, as a simple placement in quotation marks would have communicated more clearly.

The speaker then asks rhetorically what she (or anyone else) can say about this puzzling phenomenon that has resulted in her mother’s transformation from a vibrant, strong, farm woman to an aged individual who no longer cognizes the differences in the generations.

The Couplet: Philosophical Conundrum

The time we have’s still too short to master
love, and then, the hollow that comes after.

The couplet attempts to sum up a philosophical statement about the brevity of time, the issue of mastering love, and the emptiness that comes after the death of a loved one. But the confusion offered by the notion of mastering love diminishes the poem’s positive impact.

It seems that the speaker’s keen observation, celebration of the mother’s earlier strength, and crafting her musings into a sonnet belie the claim of time being too brief to allow such love mastering. The speaker seems to have mastered love for her mother far beyond her ability to express that mastery.

With another infusion of questionable usage of a term—"hollow"—for the emptiness that death carves into the life of bereaved loved ones, the poignancy of the sonnet is further limited. The ability to fill in the hollowness is sparked from the same impulse that creates a poem.

By leaving that hollowness unfilled with the implication that it cannot be filled, the speaker has lessened the poem’s positive impact that has been attempting to attract, delight, and enlighten. Although the piece may still attract and even delight, it ultimately fails to enlighten with its blank stare into the travails of death.

Because a sonnet’s tight construction of only 14 lines remains limited and brief, if only two words stand out as unfit, then the sonnet suffers, failing to work as well as it could have with more appropriate choices.

Added to those two unsuitable word usages, the malleable rime scheme, and the questionable philosophical summary in the couplet, the piece remains somewhat mediocre—a fairly good but not a great sonnet.

The sonnet has attempted to celebrate its subject with dignity and grace. That it has slightly missed its mark with a handful of imperfections does not detract from the valiant effort.

The poem remains a pleasant experience, well worth rereading, as well as deeply studying the technical aspects of the piece. The piece exemplifies the talent of a young poet still striving to perfect her art.

Source

Kitty Carpenter’s "Farm Sonnet" was featured as Column 839 in American Life in Poetry, the project established in 2005 by Ted Kooser, with support from the Library of Con­gress and the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion, as he served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006.

Kooser retired in 2020, and the new curator of the project is Kwame Dawes, poet, essayist, and current editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

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