The Knitting Lesson: Sestina on Knitting

People keep coming to my blog looking for knitting poems, and there’s part of me that has wanted to keep this poem in reserve for some reason.  It’s dumb to hide it; it’s a good poem, and worth sharing, and a great way to show off my skill as a poet, yadda yadda blah blah blah.  There are other poems about knitting that I’ve written, but this is the best one.

Mom and my cousin come from the store
With balls of yarn and knitting needles.
Mom intends to teach a little lore
And some women’s secrets held in store
Like some giant and luminous pearl
Passed down from the wise women of yore,
Part of that knowledge that women store.
Today, cousin Claire will learn to knit
And somewhere the two of them will sit,
To wind loops of string around a core.

Matron teaches maiden a new art,
Beginning as one should, at the start.
And Claire gets off to a rocky start.
She counts to five where she should count four
And her first loops are too far apart.
Her fingers have no feel for the art,
No dexterity with the needles.
Mom undoes her loops and makes her start
Over again, learning from the start
The correct method to knit and purl,

And get the red yarn to twist and curl
Just as it should, onto the needles.
At last she gets the tricky first bit,
And row by row she begins to knit.
Soon she and mom are exchanging wit
As Claire grasps the basics of the art:
Thirty-two stitches of purl and knit
With each single loop designed to fit
On bamboo shafts she got from the store.
In the kitchen she chooses to sit,

Content quite simply to talk and knit
A red scarf on number eight needles.
Two inches hang down from the needles:
Claire really seems to have gotten it.
She holds on her pinkie a red curl
Of woolen yarn that waits for a purl.
“Wait, does a knit come next, or a purl?”
Mom glances from her work and sees it
Is time to go the other way — “purl,”
She says crisply, “a whole role of purl,

And that will bring you back to the start.
Then a row of knit and one of purl.”
Mom brushes from her face a gray curl
Of hair I had not noticed before.
When did she become a crone of yore,
With her hair turned the color of pearl,
With its wayward opalescent curl
And a face full of laughing wrinkles?
She helps Claire through her many muddles,
Wondering whether to knit or purl.

We get lost in the clack of needles,
The tiny clack of bamboo needles
As in the quiet kitchen we sit —
Claire with her yarn and knitting needles
And mom with all her women’s riddles,
Her wit as fast as her needles that dart.
Mom talks as she works the ancient art,
Speaks her mind to metronome needles,
Giving practical advice and lore
Just like the women in days of yore….

And I sense that I stand on the shore
Beside one of those seaside puddles
Watching the tide of womanhood curl
Around my cousin, learning to knit.
She is gathered to the ancient art.

There’s some things which are wrong with the poem.  It’s not exclusively women that knit.  I’m a knitter, for one, and for another, men used to do most of the knitting in the world until relatively recently; the Industrial Revolution moved knitting from an activity done at home to an activity done in the factory to work done by a machine.  It’s not an exclusively female art, etc., and maybe it was wrong to structure the poem around that. But at the time, I didn’t know very much about knitting other than that my mother was teaching my cousin, and that it seemed like a powerful way to knit two generations together.

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