Sean Karns' "Jar of Pennies"

Updated on September 28, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Sean Karns - Poet in Action


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,

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.


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 speaker describes the blood's smell as resembling the smell of a "Jar of pennies."

Sean Karns' "Jar of Pennies" is dramatizing that dreadful a year in his 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.

First Movement: "The year my mother worked"

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 that she was concerned only about having smells on herself and not the fact that she might impart that smell of blood to her child.

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: "She told me about"

The speaker reports that his mother would tell him about the animal 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: "Her ex-boyfriend knocked"

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: "I sat at the dinner table"

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: "For a long year, my hands"

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.

No Partisan Screeching, Simply a View

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

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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