Dictionary for a New Century

By Kimberly Blaeser

What would housework mean

to women who haul water from springs,

use lye soap and scrub boards,

who hang flypaper on ceilings

and sew cloth cupboard curtains

on the family treadle machine?

What does kitchen appliance mean

to those toasting bread in ovens

of old wood stoves,

or bathroom appliance

to those donning snow boots

to walk to the outhouse?

Somewhere between microwave pancakes

and the state-of-the-art mixmaster

I trip over the kitchen slop pail

retch at the smell of lard rendering.

Just as my fingers settle on the dvd remote

I remember to empty the ash can.

At three my daughter kisses and releases her fish

at four she asks if chicken is a dead bird.

At forty like Billy Pilgrim I come unstuck in time

still wait to take my turn in a three-foot washtub,

then light candles and soak in a warm whirlpool

now camped uneasily between progress and nostalgia.

With a heavy duty vacuum and a lightweight canister

I cruise the air-conditioned floors of my house

sweep away unearned guilt or hire a cleaning lady.

With electric everything and my computer whirring

I work my way through memories and philosophies

Try to recollect that proverb about idle hands.

What does convenience mean in a country of prosperity?

Should we use or release our histories?

Can education repay old debts?

If science and technology are the answers

who have we hired to ask the questions?

And what was it you said about women’s work?

Kimberly Blaeser is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she teaches Creative Writing, Native American Literature and American Nature Writing. She has published three books of poems, including Apprenticed to Justice (Great Wilbraham, Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing Ltd., 2007), where this poem appears; a scholarly study, Gerald Vizenor: Writing in the Oral Tradition; and numerous articles and book chapters. Blaeser is of Anishinaabe ancestry and an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe who grew up on the White Earth Reservation.


11 thoughts on “Dictionary for a New Century

  1. Diana Rivera

    Camped uneasily between progress and nostalgia…

    Blaeser’s poem, it speaks to me. To my familiarity, my history, of migrating from Texas to Michigan to follow crops at the age of 8. Her poem may speak of non-migrating peoples experiences, then again, it speaks to the experiences of families on the move; many times setting up a household for as little as two weeks at a time.

    I had a Chicana feminism class at MSU with Professor Sheila Contreras and read Gabrielle Meagher’s article “Is it wrong to pay for housework?” and digging deep, I knew that my moral integrity was not compromised if I chose to do so, pay for housework that is. Why? Because I was that 8 year old that hauled water from springs, did laundry on scrub boards (talladores) and burned the dinner frijoles on old wood stoves at the camp while caring for four younger siblings. I was never so glad to work in the fields with the rest of the family as when we hit Michigan’s strawberry fields.

    The uneasiness the nostalgia invokes is not wanting to iron with cinders in the old metal plancha or having to make tortillas that I would be teased about their shape, but rather, it invokes a bluesy ire that makes me continue asking the question about the equity of it all and how we got to having flypaper hanging on ceilings instead of screens on windows in air-conditioned homes; of having to use treadle machines in the mid-1970’s instead of the latest electric Kenmore; of having slop buckets instead of the garbage disposals; of having “state-of-the-art mixmaster[’s]” instead of having to always amasar la masa [which by the way I love my KitchenAid Artisan mixer and the olive oil tortilla recipe I found on the internet because I was too embarrassed to ask my sisters yet once again the portions of sal, espauda, harina, water and Manteca…now replaced by olive oil…but I digress]. That uneasiness is part of my daily life when I see northside Lansing and southwest Detroit and similar communities throughout the country that still are plagued by almost as dire living conditions.

    [Would I pay for housework? Yes I would, if I could afford it; and the lesson taught by Meagher’s article and the discussion of Contreras’ class would always inform the ethics of those transactions.]

  2. Theresa Delgadillo

    What particular words or terms signify often change over time given the emergence of new knowledge or simply the critical questioning of existing knowledge. This poem calls our attention to this, wants us to engage in meaning-making in a different way, conscious of inequalities that we live with as it also contrasts experiences, explores the the inequalities indigenous peoples face. The poem asks us good questions. Taking a cue from the poem, I want to read “Mujeres” in our title not in an exclusive way but rather in an inclusive way, as a signal of a site that foregrounds attention to gender equality and invites those who share this desire to join in sharing your work and words here. Similarly, our Spanglish title — a combination of Spanish and English — cannot account for all the languages we want to recognize but it conveys a sense of respect and admiration for the multiple languages we speak and use as well as the ways we change these in our use. Finally, I like the poem’s sentiment that who we “hire” to ask and answer our questions matters because the variety of lived experiences among us matters. Thank you, Kim, for sharing poetry with us, for kicking off our new year with poetry.

  3. Norma Cantu

    Great to see MujeresTalk is back….YES! I am always very grateful to the mujeres who have helped me with the house….I love the poem …”camped uneasily between progress and nostalgia.” that’s me! I love to make tortillas from scratch the way i learned 60 years ago, but it’s so much more convenient to pick up a package at the local Price Chopper.

  4. Ines Hernandez-Avila

    I appreciate Kim Blaeser’s “Dictionary for a New Century” and the question “should we use or release our histories?” The poem made me think of my mom who passed away on April 19, 2012. January 14 is her birthday, and I spent much of these past holidays (finally) going through her things, deciding what to keep, what to share, what to give away. I feel such tenderness for her still, it will only become more intense I believe. She was a riveter during World War II, Janice the Riveter, in Seattle at the Boeing Aircraft Factory. She met my father there and then went to Galveston to marry him. He did not want his wife to “work” once they were married. But of course she did, she took care of our home, of him, of me, and she kept the accounts for him, meticulously, to the penny. He would give her his paycheck and she would give him 10% of his earnings to do with as he pleased. She paid the bills, always on time, established a savings account, kept everything on track. She was not much for keeping things exactly in their place, in fact, she was not that kind of “housekeeper.” She preferred a “lived in” home, although I don’t know that she would have said it that way. When she was younger, on the reservation, she did have to use an outhouse, and baths were in a round metal tub that was brought inside, water heated on the wood stove. She picked crops with her family, hops, apples, she said she was terrible at it, very slow. She got rheumatoid arthritis as a young girl, it took hold of her, harmed her all her life, and eventually, when she was 91, defeated her small body, but she was lucid to the end, her spirit strong and awesomely beautiful. She knew the meaning of independence, and she framed a saying that spoke of how a couple should not gaze longingly into each other’s eyes, but look ahead together. The is what she and my father did. She was in her own way an intellectual, though she never finished seventh grade. She listened to the news and read the newspapers front to back. She knew what was going on the world, locally and more broadly, in politics, sports, cultural events. And she was a writer, thus “Dictionary” also made me think of her. She knew language, loved to write letters to her sisters, brother, and other members of the family. Her sisters, especially two of them, were as keen as she was on writing–their letters to each other were full, graceful, caring (I used to get to read them). “Dictionary.” My mom is the one who gave me my love of language, she was my first proof-reader, my first muse. When I think of her I remember she would help with housework even as she got into her eighties–she would take charge of doing much of the laundry for the family (she lived with my oldest son and his family), putting things in the washer, drying them, folding them, because she insisted on “being useful.” But I also remember her sitting, reading, the newspaper, a National Geographic (for which she had a subscription) or some other magazine, writing her letters, and sometimes watching TV, her game shows, music shows (country western), and of course, the news, at midday, in the evening, and at night. There were some hurtful moments between my mom and me (some caused by me, some by her)–I release those–her spirit doesn’t want me to hold on to them, and neither do I. What I will use, as in remember, cherish, to give me strength and inspiration is our history together, her history with my father, and their history with all of us.

    On another note, Kimberly’s poemquestion “what does convenience mean in a land of prosperity?” makes me think of the expression in Spanish, “hace lo que le conviene”–he or she does what suits him or her, what serves his or her interest, and this is, indeed, the mantra of capitalism.

    thanks, Kimberly, for the poem!

  5. Miranda Martinez

    This wonderful poem by Kim Blaeser made me think of work – the why and for whom of what we do…
    At one point during my graduate school career I considered leaving my program, to pursue work at a community development nonprofit, in part because I thought it would be a better way to give back to my community. I asked my father, who was a well known Puerto Rican community activist in New York, if this was a good idea, and he urged me to finish my degree. He told me that yes, I had to make a meaningful contribution, but he said not to let anyone tell me how to be useful. It was up to me to discover what my contributions would be, and continuing my education was part of that.
    That advice was wonderfully liberating because it gave me permission to make choices that took me in a nontraditional direction, and to trust that I would find a fulfilling way to be a useful person. Through the years, I’ve shared and discussed my father’s advice with students who haven’t been sure what they were supposed to gain from their educations, or how to combine their aspirations with their felt commitments to the families and other communities they belong to.
    But Blaeser’s poem reminds me of how hard it can be maintain a sense of purpose for the work I’ve chosen, and how easy it is to go one without remembering the why and what of our women’s work. Are my hands idle if I am typing these words instead of cleaning the house? Are they idle if they don’t comfort and sustain as the hands of other women have? Or if I struggle to remember why writing matters?
    Perhaps at Mujeres Talk, we can continue to discuss how to balance our aspirations and callings in a way that helps us pay our debts. Here’s to our new conversations and shared experiences, as we re-launch this site!

  6. Irma Mireles

    Like Ines and others the poem was nostalgic. Bringing back memories of fetching water with a small pail, I was only 5, from a well to wash dishes and standing on a tree stump while water ran down my arms. As well as the outhouse and at night using the borcelana, which had to be emptied in the morning and taking the once-a-week bath en el bano with water from well. No we were not migrants I was raised in Monterrey, MX. What really struck me was that we (Ines and others) were part of a generation that, Gracias a Dios, have done better but this poem made me think about some of the women I meet where I work–I work in a non-profit for homeless mothers with children, Some of these young women because of bad choices end up on the street with their children and don’t know how to clean or cook and some have little to no parenting skills, We had it bad but very often we had our mothers or grandmothers to show us. Some how these young mothers in this age of conveniences have lost out on the many lessons we learned early. And yes paying (if you can afford it) for someone to do your house work is good–it gives other women a livelihood for their families. And by the way, I still wash dishes by hand.

      1. Kim Blaeser

        Dear Friends,
        Miigwech for your comments on my poem and for sharing your memories. We don’t always find ourselves among others who know intimately the same kinds of pasts we experienced, or who have fingered those memories with something other than gratitude for having “escaped” the poverty and domestic struggles, who have fingered them instead with loving remembrance of the people who labored, journeyed with us, and guided us. Some part of our resiliency grew from the day-to-day experiences of those times and places. And, too, some part of our race and class consciousness. Haunted with the gritty reality of slop buckets or scrub boards, we may always live uneasily with our contemporary conveniences, may always see ourselves and our families when we encounter others in similar circumstances (as Diana Rivera suggests about those in northside Lansing & southwest Detroit), and therefore, will more readily find ways to offer help.
        How shall we do this is the question Miranda Martinez raises. I, too, think we can do it with many kinds of labor including writing, teaching, and organizing. But I admit I also worry it is easy to distance ourselves. Over the years, I have taken my children with me to work at the local meal site, to help with projects at the Transitional Living Center, etc. But you pop in, do your thing, and leave. Not until we traveled to Africa do I think they realized (and I was reminded again) of the relentlessness of day-to-day poverty. There children walk miles to carry water several times a day. Women bend at the streams and wash their clothes on rocks. Meals cannot be taken for granted.
        And so the fingering of the past. The feeling again the weight of history. And the reexamination of how we may have accommodated.

        1. Kim Blaeser

          Hello again,
          I somehow posted before I was done.
          I wanted to mention Linda Hogan’s comment about writing “for those who come after us, for those who will see our experience as a part of their own historical struggle.”
          Also, I have been preparing for a class in “Life Writing” and found an that the Oxford Centre for Life Writing will focus this year on the “lives of objects” and the relation of those objects to human lives. I’m going to look into that. Perhaps it would be timely to collect such object recollections from an-other perspective–ours.
          Will be thinking of Janice the Riveter and all your stories as I continue to ponder these things!

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