By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“Biscuits” by Willa Schneberg
Mostly when I’m vacuuming the carpet
in Mr. Besdine’s office
I don’t worry, just do the work
and know I’ll be sleeping in my own bed
when all the desks in all them offices
will have people sitting around them.
Sometimes I don’t hear the vacuum cleaner
and I’m quiet like when I play
Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow
in the Mission Baptist Church.
There are other times I imagine fixing biscuits
unrolling my cloth from the coffee can,
flour still on it from the last time,
smoothing it out on the counter,
cloth white, flour white.
My mother’s biscuit cutter
made from an old Pet Milk can,
not a tack of rust on it
presses in easy as a body to a hammock.
Some like biscuits and gravy,
I myself fancy biscuits with my homemade
muscadine jelly that comes from the
muscadine grape that grows wild.
I first encountered this poem while driving along I–89 towards Burlington. It was 8:35 on some weekday morning and I was listening to Garrison Keillor’s ‘Writer’s Almanac’ on Vermont Public Radio. So taken by the poem, I pulled over when it was safe to jot down the name of the poem and its author. Poetry can truly move us, if we open our ears to just listen.
The speaker in the poem is a night shift cleaner, a custodian. Maybe my initial draw came from the fact that my dad’s final job was as a custodian. Custodians, to some, are invisible and undeserving of a “hello” or, God–forbid, a “thank you” as they empty someone’s trash. The poet accurately depicts the multifaceted, multitasking capacity of a person who earns her keep by picking up the detritus of others.
The poem depicts her meanderings and musings while working. She is, presumably, cleaning the offices of white–collared, professionals with 9–5 hours, 401Ks and private piano lessons for their children.
I can just imagine her pushing her cart loaded with Clorox and Comet or running a Kenmore vacuum as her mind wanders from making biscuits in her kitchen, to her church, to her southern roots.
I like the simple eloquence of her voice as in, “I don’t worry, just do the work,” and her Southern–infused semantics and reference to muscadine grapes which grow wild in the American South. She clues us in on her recipe for biscuits by referencing her biscuit cutter made from an old Pet Milk can. My mom uses Pet Milk evaporated milk when she makes pierogi, Polish dumplings.
The physical setting is an office building at night. Lights are dimmed. Phones are silent. Baskets wait to be emptied, overflowing with the remnants of the work–a–day life—scraps of paper, apple cores and emptied soda cans—unless this office has a recycling and composting program.
The social setting is one of class distinction: blue collar vs. white collar, 9–5 vs. the Dead Man’s Shift, salaried vs. hourly, educated vs. limited education.
The speaker seems at peace with the world and her place in it—albeit a lower social station. Her job allows her the pleasures of daydreams, which take her to some of her favorite places—her kitchen, church and among wild muscadine grapes.
The poem is a concentrated collection of evocative words, chock full of visual, auditory and tactile references. The poet’s use of these sensory images is subtle; she does not hit you over the head with the “snap, crackle, pop” of onomatopoeia.
This poem reads easily. Its diction is informal, representing a conversational tone.
I love the title for its simplicity and accessibility. Biscuits are easy to make and require basic ingredients—but they are very satisfying. This poem starts with seemingly simple words. When blended together, these words deliver a deeply satisfying experience.
April is National Poetry Month. It’s a gentle reminder to revisit a beloved poem or explore poetry with fresh eyes, ears and imaginations. Happy reading.
Source: Schnedberg, Willa. In the Margins of the World. Austin: Plain View Press, 2001.