Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Cross Stitch,’ by Angela Narciso Torres

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I chose this week’s poem, “Cross Stitch,” because it seemed so precisely to fit my feelings at this time of year, simultaneous brimming and yearning, summer ending and steps taken towards winter’s diminishment, but also the satisfaction of my garden’s mature fruits. The season is ripe like a ripe peach eaten warm from the sun, but it’s the last peach from the tree.

“Cross Stitch” is free verse, unrhymed and not adhering to a strict metric pattern. As stated before in this column, free verse is not actually “free” but is its own form creating its own set of expectations. The poem does not employ a rhyme pattern, but one carefully placed instance of end rhyme (“square” and “pear” in lines 14-15) stands out, and internal repetitions of sound like rhyme, assonance, and consonance help carry the poem’s momentum. By way of example, “hat” at the end of line 2 anticipates “patch” in line 3, and the hard “c” sounds of “crossed,” “cloth,” and “calendar” help knit and advance the lines. Meter is irregular, with either three or four beats per line and varying between rising (iambic) and falling (trochaic) like the pattern of ordinary speech. Lines are organized into three eight-line stanzas (octets) of roughly equal length, although with the longest lines occurring in the second (middle) stanza, you could make the argument that the shape of the poem mimics its subject by swelling in the middle and shrinking at beginning and end. The way lines have been guided into eight-line stanzas reminds me of the imposition of pattern on blankness that happens when one drives a needle into plain cloth to make French knots, chain stitches, and of course, cross stitches. Diction is plain, with mostly one-syllable words and nary a one that will drive readers to dictionary.com. Each stanza contains two (stanza 1) or three (stanzas 2 and 3) complete sentences, and punctuation and capitalization are regular. It’s an accessible poem and means to be, as sturdy and unfanciful as the homely embroidery stitch that inspired its name.

It was the poem’s title that first drew me to it; I like poems that remind me of something I’d forgotten. I loved doing embroidery as a child, enchanted by the promise in those loops of shiny floss banded by tiny, stiff paper cuffs reminiscent of my father’s rare cigars. There was promise, too in the pattern waiting to be filled in, those faint blue lines traced out on cheap muslin. Cross stitch was one of the few stitches I ever mastered. Remembering all that enhanced the poem for me; I could feel the needle’s cool steel between finger and thumb, the satisfying give when it pokes through the fabric’s stretched surface, the wonder of color, shape, and meaning blooming in my hands. And, as with any form, there was room for creativity even within the confines of a given template, one leg of an X made thicker than its partner, the substitution of a different color than the one called for in the instructions.

Stanza 1 introduces us to the poem’s speaker, a woman doing a cross-stitch piece while watching her son’s baseball game, a project started just before his birth seven years before. The image of crosses filling the fabric like X’s on rows of a calendar is simple and just right, and it sets up the idea of marking time that becomes important near the poem’s end. In the first stanza, the days being marked off are in anticipation of a child’s birth. Those days are “long” for any expectant mother, but there are hints here of a difficult pregnancy; for more than one afternoon, anyway, the speaker had to stop stitching because “the pains shook her moist hands.”

Stanza 2 tells us that the needlework has lain idle since before the son’s birth. Perhaps, with a new baby growing fast into a toddler and then a 7-year-old boy, things just got busy. Reading my own difficult and dangerous pregnancy life experience into the poem, I did wonder if the speaker found it painful to go back to a difficult time. But no, the poem tells us, the “return” of the needle to the fabric was “long-awaited” and the speaker seems happy to be picking up the work again. “Return” is one of several sewing puns in the poem, referring not just to getting back to the project but also to what a needle does at the end of each row of stitching. Taking up the needle, the speaker remembers what it was like the last time she held it, and a whole memory of that time unfolds before us.

Next Page: Rebecca Foust continues her commentary on “Cross Stitch.”

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