Memorial Day 2010
The Gulf of Mexico is dying, drowned
by our last gusher, smothered
by the crude that fuels our internal combustion,
and I am burning up
the two-lane blacktop back-country roads.
Come home to honor my dead, I am
firing on six cylinders through tunnels
of trees. mile-long curving descents
from ridge to valley, I hit the straight-stretch
between cliff and river, guardrail streaming.
When my father was alive and could
barely walk from bedroom to kitchen,
heâ€™d ask my mother to take him for drives,
so he could see the creeks heâ€™d fished,
the roads heâ€™d built, the barns
and milkhouses standing square.
Now I burn through the past, drunk
on nostalgia, while sludge and tarballs
drift on the tides, bound for the Gulf shore.
Kitty Sings the Hymn of her Life in Six Stanzas
After my third child
I told Howard time had come
to leave his folksâ€™ house,
set up our own housekeeping.
One time, I put my foot down.
We rented a shack,
slept on the screen porch. One night
a great moan woke me.
I screamed, jumped out of bed, found
a cow, head stuck through the door.
Howardâ€™s Aunt Fanny
give him her old store building
if heâ€™d tear it down.
So we built these first two rooms,
using the wood and fittings.
Howard spent the war
building for the army. He
lived in tent cities.
Once I went along but most
times I stayed, three kids, no car.
I could raise a barn
with a Ford pickup. Howard
taught me that, how to
ease out on the clutch and pull
smooth, slow til the frame came square.
That kitchen closet
door screeches when the wind blows
down the chimney. Itâ€™s
out of the old store at Breck.
I say itâ€™s Aunt Fannyâ€™s ghost.
Aunt Fanny Thompson Speaks of her Nephews
My little sister Liza, she died rising
twenty-seven and left three little boys.
Friendless, the oldest, he were just nine
year old and Thurston, the baby, werenâ€™t but four.
John Morgan Chandler, their daddy, he married that Susie
King pretty quick and took them boys
to live down around No-Headed Holler.
He lived about nine more year and had two boys
more by Susie, but then up and died hisself
and Lizaâ€™s boys, they couldnâ€™t stay with Susie.
Friendless was sick. He had the consumption,
and I.J., the middle boy, he just hated Susie.
She werenâ€™t his mother, you know. So them two boys,
eighteen and fifteen, they went to live with their
Aunt Becky. She was their grandmother really,
but their granddaddy was dead and she was married
to his brother, so everbody called them
Aunt Becky and Uncle Doc.Â But Thurston, the baby,
he come to live with me. I didnâ€™t have no childrens
but I always tried to look after Lizaâ€™s boys.
Thurston was thirteen when he come to live
with me at Breck. He were a restless boy.
Not like I.J. After Friendless died,
I.J. married Lizzie Shupert, took
up farming the little bit of land Liza
left him. Maybe losing all those loved ones
unsettled Thurston. He were always after
some new play-pretty. He put aside his banjer
for a fiddle, his taterbug for a trumpet.
Once he learned a thing, he lost all interest in it.
He joined the army in the Big War, after that
it were the merchant marine, both times
he went to Panama. He bought hisself
a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to go
roaring into the sunset like a cowboy
in one of them movies. But he took sick
with malaria or crashed into a Model T.
Always he came back here to mend, to drink
homebrew on my front porch. Iâ€™d drink a cup
with him, listen to the music he played.
Howard Speaks, Seated at the Kitchen Table,
a Burning Cigarette in his Fingers
I tried to enlist but the draft board said
I was more important here,
and I had the three kids. So I was
a builderâ€”for the armyâ€” ran a crew
of local boys. One of my men,
Virgil, wanted me to get
a deferment forÂ him, say I had
to have his work. He was
a pretty good hand. I had
to bail him out sometimes on Mondays,
but he could drive a nail straight
and cut a miter. He wasnâ€™t afraid
to climb. But he was able-bodied,
and I had other, older men
to do the work. He just wanted
me to get him out of it,
and I couldnâ€™t see my way
to that, so I wouldnâ€™t sign
his papers. He was killed on Guam.
I did the right thing, but itâ€™s always
weighed on me. So yes, I would
have faced that fire for myself.
The word is traced to 1849,
a street beggar, arm out like the handle of a panâ€”
a stretchâ€”but itâ€™s beyond me to divine
the world they saw in 1849.
I donâ€™t remember how the man
on Mill Street that night held his hand.
There we stood, a perfect April night,
engaged in quiet talk, letting go,
saying a slow goodbye to our good time.
The man looked ordinary, wore no sign,
Nothing to mark him out, to let us know.
We moved apart to let him pass, but he
did not. Instead he saidâ€”a little meekâ€”
a little bite to eat? some change to spare?
We clutched our laptops, stared down at our feet,
or at our neighborâ€™s shoulder. We looked anywhere
but in each otherâ€™s eyes. No one could speak.
In Praise Of My Old Cotton Flannel Shirt
after Robert Pinsky
Would it comfort us all, I wonder,
to know that I have worn this shirt
to hug my children, when we cried
and when we laughed, have huddled
in this shirt against the cold
of my old house writing
demands for social justice?
Would the Dollar Store clerk with
no retirement fund, no health insurance,
care that I have worn this shirt
nappy ,soft as suede,
that I close the left cuff
with a safety pin, that threads
hang from holes at the elbow?
Its nondescript plaid, blue on brown
on beige, doesnâ€™t match my flannel pants,
hunter on mint with a tiny red stripe.
Those I bought out of a cardboard dump
at Kroger three days before Christmas 2004.
So I cannot really say I wear pajamas.
Just those pants and this shirt.
Would the Guatemalan woman,
stitching another and another
to pay for her tin roof,
smile to know that I
have worn her handiwork
laughing with poets in pajamas,
drunk on wine and words?
Daddy used an ivory-handled cutthroat,
soap in a mug, red ship full sail
around its glass-white sea,
on the screened-in porch each morning
at the washstand, as much a relic
as the pitcher pump. the steaming towel
wrap, the badger bristle brush, the strop.
The cutthroat, delicate honed with deft wrist,
flipped, up, down, on leather, flashed
in slant morning sun. The brush swirled wet
in the cup to raise up astringent lather
thick as seven-minute frosting.
Wiping beard-peppered mounds of foam
on Sears and Roebuck pages, Bible flimsy
so they would not bend the edge,
face contorted into a taut plane,
he slalomed the blade along his cheek,
his upper lip and chin, his Adamâ€™s apple,
and his soft white throat,
My Grandfather Plays the Mandolin
A small thing
he holds it like a play pretty
moves work-swollen fingers
quick between the frets
cocks his head
draws lips tight over gums
Over the Waves
Hard Time Courting
My definition of rebel changed with time
from Tony the punk, DA, pegged jeans, and sneer,
to Tom the poet, sideburns and Lennon glasses,
with a few permutations between, like blond
wan Rul or Bobby and his Impala convertible.
Not one lived up to the model, the blond brother
with the crooked smile who could lay his 49 Ford
into Smithâ€™s curve at a flat hundred miles
per or pop a donut in the gravel drive
of El Bethel Baptist to the drop-jawed
awe of the Girlâ€™s Auxiliary gathered on the steps.
Theyâ€™ll let you down, these rebels. A girl soon learns
to sort bravados from the brave. The ones
I tried paled beside the homegrown hero,
my very own rebel with a cause,
tormented youth against hard-fisted father.
Those lovers never had quite the same line
of smart-mouthed backtalk. Waddya got?
The brother himself one day turned patriarch,
deacon on those same Baptist steps.
Lonely to be old and the last rebel standing
Last Day at Hindman Settlement School
(An Occasional Poem)
I round the hairpin turn,
enter the stretch up to Preece cabin,
my heart clattering like the radiator fan
of a 1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
in the last five minutes of a demolition derby.
My hip is gimpy as a cracked leaf spring.
I have eaten too much fat, drunk
too much coffee, had too little sleep.
Though I did my prebends,
tucked my trunk lid, wedged it
into the pan of the trunk itself,
though I notched my frame
and welded my doors shut,
I am stove in,
and no amount of nine-gauge wire
can keep my sowbelly from dragging.
I gasp like a bad carburetor.
But I have strategy. My vehicle has two ends
and I have used them both,.
In the collision of sitting
and talking, I have held my own.
And I have stayed to the finish.
Say about a 1959,
gone sort of dusty turquoise from waxless years,
a sunny day in summer, gravel road
that winds across a razor-backed ridge,
then down to the fishing docks, the man-made beach,
a girl just turned 16 at the wheel.
Running ahead, Sandra, red coupe, top down,
wind-whipped auburn hair, all high school glamour
and Detroit glitz. Our girl is competitive,
and the truckâ€™s V8 is not as faded as its paint.
What our girl is about to learn â€“ a pickup,
running fast and empty, is light in the back.
Mother curls, hands clawed.
She is warm, but shrunk,
dry as a thing
hang on each chest fall,
not sad yet, but holding
each our own breath.
Then she is still.
My sister, eldest,
and we stood, four
every last measuring spoon,
packed up, picked over,
onto my brotherâ€™s goose-necked trailer.
â€œto claim what you want.â€
I break a branch,
from the hard winter pear.
Say the word
and I see a July hayfield,
smell the sweat
and dung of horses mixed
with sun-dried grass,
hear the four four beat
of surly hooves,
the harness creak,
as my uncle rides the rake
in diminishing circles
behind his team of grays,
The fly lights,
the horse sends a ripple
through that patch of skin,
the fly rises,
to land again a few inches away.
Light, ripple, rise,
round and round,
fly, horses, uncle, and rake
creating whitecaps of grass
in a sea of stubble,
long slow summer days
for a child
to plait chains of white clover
and wild sweet potato vines,
to lie in a cool dust patch
under a sycamore and draw
cloud castles, to watch
a horsefly circle.