Text by Leon Wing
Poem by Cecilia Woloch
I watched him swinging the pick in the sun,
breaking the concrete steps into chunks of rock,
and the rocks into dust,
and the dust into earth again.
I must have sat for a very long time on the split rail fence,
just watching him.
My father’s body glistened with sweat,
his arms flew like dark wings over his head.
He was turning the backyard into terraces,
breaking the hill into two flat plains.
I took for granted the power of him,
though it frightened me, too.
I watched as he swung the pick into the air
and brought it down hard
and changed the shape of the world,
and changed the shape of the world again.
Within the first line itself this poem is utilizing poetic rhythm judiciously. Just observe the rising and regular rhythm in ‘I watched him swing ...’. This shows us the point just prior to the swinging of the pick, where the continuing rising rhythm now grows swifter with ‘..ing the pick in the sun’. Here, the pairs of non-stresses accelerate the action.
The second line uses r and k sounds to give us the sense of solid concrete breaking into smaller chunks of rock. Also, observe the similar construct of the words ‘break’, ‘chunks’ and ‘rock’, and lesser so of ‘concrete’; but the it’s still there.
More fast breaking of rocks: in lines 3 and 4, where in 4 the swift rhythm is maintained till the first two-thirds of the line. Thereafter, the rhythm slows down as the concrete has broken into rocks, the rocks into dust and, finally, the dust into the earth.
Line 5 is the longest line because it identifies the protracted time the poet sat watching the action. This line breaks down – just like the rock-breaking – into line 6, into smaller components, of just three words. Contrastingly the shortest – or smallest – line, it reflects the breaking down of larger elements into smaller ones.
This shortest line also marks the change from the breaking-rock action into a more observing mode. The child here sees the father as something as slick as a snake and as dark as a bat: she is a little afraid of him, of the power he can wield. But that passes, when she realizes how she has taken such power for granted, how someone could change a hill into plains, or change the world.
The last four lines repeat the action of the swinging of the pick, one last time. The last two lines repeat, like a mirroring or rhyming action, with a final addendum, ‘again’. This line also parallels line 4: ‘and the dust into earth again’
This says much about how all things change inevitably, and can break down into dust, like our bodies after we die and go under the ground. Going back to the first four lines, we can now see how the repeating of ‘rock’ and ‘dust’ is emblematic of the final send-off: dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
This might be a bit far-fetched, but when you take in the significance of the ‘dark wings’ to hint at an evil, like Satan, you could imagine the small-lettered ‘he’ as the big-lettered one, of the Almighty, who can wield the power to change the world, or who has done it as His creation.
About the poet Cecilia Woloch