The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft 

Against the inside knee was levered firmly. 

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep 

To scatter new potatoes that we picked, 

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

In these lines (10-14), which constitute the poem’s fourth stanza, the speaker describes the physical labors of his father as he manipulates a spade while working a potato field. The description is notable in part for the way it demonstrates the speaker’s intimate knowledge about how to dig with a spade. He seems to recall with perfect clarity how his father maneuvered the different parts of his body to find just the right purchase required to sink the spade into the soil. The speaker’s description is also notable for the way it deploys a richly sonorous language. Consider, for example, the frequent use of alliteration in the passage quoted above. Phrases like “tall tops,” “buried the bright edge,” “potatoes that we picked,” and “hardness in our hands” all bring a measure of poetry to otherwise prosaic actions. The speaker’s capacity for wielding language mirrors his father’s capacity for wielding a spade.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap 

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge 

Through living roots awaken in my head. 

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

The speaker utters these lines (25-28), in the poem’s penultimate stanza. After having described his father’s labors in a potato field and his grandfather’s work cutting peat at Toner’s bog, the speaker retreats into his own mind. Here, he’s no longer focused on the action of the physical labor. Instead, he emphasizes specific sense memories associated with that labor. In the case of his father’s agricultural work, the speaker recalls “the cold smell of potato mould,” which is a description that notably mixes the senses of touch and smell. In the case of his grandfather’s turf cutting, the speaker uses onomatopoeic words to evoke “the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat” as well as “the curt cuts of an edge.” These sense memories, the speaker says, develop “living roots” and “awaken in [his] head.” That is, these scenes remain vivid in his mind, even though they happened long ago. He wants to honor the traditions of his forebears by keeping them alive, and though they’re alive in his memory, he laments having “no spade” to continue them in a more direct and physical way.

Between my finger and my thumb 

The squat pen rests. 

I’ll dig with it.

The speaker concludes the poem with these lines (29-31). Significantly, the words uttered here repeat the poem’s opening lines, but with a twist. The speaker opened the poem in the following way: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” (lines 1–2). Initially, the speaker regards the pen as a weapon. If the pen is a weapon, it’s because it has the capacity to change hearts and minds through the words it commits to the page. Hence the expression, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” By the poem’s end, however, the pen takes on a different significance. Although the speaker respects his forebears, he knows he isn’t a physical laborer, and he laments having “no spade to follow men like them” (line 28). Even so, he realizes he can situate himself within his family lineage by reimagining the pen as a metaphorical digging tool, one that allows him to excavate his own thoughts and memories. Hence, he concludes the poem with this revised version of the opening stanza. In this version, the pen’s capacity as a weapon is transformed into the capacity as an implement for digging.