Spring 2013 Poems »
||a Shelby Lee Adams photograph
Steam and the scent of lavender rise
from the enameled basin, a cloud hovering
as I work castile soap into my hair, wring
cool rinse water into the bucket at my feet.
Wet, my hair weighs double, winds
my wrists—serpentine, I think, knowing
how a snake will coil the preacher’s arms like spools.
Into a towel I twist it, the nape of my neck
suddenly bared. I steady the beehive
with one hand and watch the photographer through
the thick window. He has told my blind brother
to put on dark glasses, button his vest,
hold forth the rattler which twines his arms,
its tongue flicking red through the morning mist.
Elegy: Peace River
You canoed south—Wachula to Arcadia, boat
laden with hand-napped points and knives, tin coffee cups,
cast iron skillet, deck of cards. Back home, in Virginia, I imagined
your brother, wearing his deerskin jacket despite the late-May heat,
atlatl tucked between his legs. Both of you ready
to eat armadillo for a week if the fish weren’t biting.
I knew how when the trestle loomed, you’d anchor, drag
the canoe over cypress knees. Sleep
on sunburned backs under moss-framed stars. Today, home,
after a hot shower, a shave, steak and eggs, you tell me
how, hiking across a cow pasture—after a week of rain,
tractors had peeled up long strips of mud
nearly knee-high, the small gullies filled with water
tea-colored as the river—you smelled before you saw
a small black bear’s carcass, belly distended with rot.
Thought: no hunter, even through sheets of rain, could mistake
the bear for legal game. At first your brother wanted to bury
it, but instead you spent two hours staking wet wood
around the body in a tepee. Finally, a few flickers, its fur
steaming, much popping and hissing:
soaked wood releasing water and that bloated stomach
leaking the gases—how many days’ worth?—that continue
to build after death. Later, you each carried a handful of ash
back to the swollen river, knelt on sandy banks
once scarred by phosphate mining, now thicketted with palmetto,
blackberry, cabbage palm, where you say it melted into the water
like something weightless, sugar dissolving in coffee,
charred dust coating your palms.
Letter to Imagined Daughter
Any luck, you’ll see the world
through eyes blue as your father’s—
more cobalt than glacier. Something
swirls like silver halides
suspended in gelatin, the mixture
floating over glass until light
freezes it to shadow. You can stare
through accordioned tunnels and whorls
of lavender oil varnish, find
the butterfly in a pelvis, how
a sunken stomach
becomes a swaying footbridge.
But I will warn you:
The river blurs where it rushes
round your ankles, mixtures
of sunlight and dust always blinding,
your waving hand in a photo
will become a ghost, a skin-colored cloud.
By now you may already know how
one stray hair left on the plate
changes everything, and your father
wants me to remind: a scratched
or mildewed lens can heal
the landscape, unglue fixed lines—
stone wall, iron gate, rain-warped dock.
Leak a little light onto these grains
of silver salt, and you’ll see your likeness
take metallic shape. Even when the emulsion
dries, the print fades, dulls
these looping mangrove roots,
thick braids swinging at your back.
Pastor Jimmy Morrow at Harvest:
1968, Del Rio, Tennessee
Sweat. Tobacco barn thick with yellow leaves,
peppered scent burning nose and coating lungs.
Threaded and bound, wilted
clusters the height of a man, who carries
each heavy stick behind his neck, the way an ox
bears its yoke, chest draped in limp ovate
blades until he hoists his burley cape
into the rafters. In eight weeks
other men will smoke the cured leaves, sweet
musk coiling their necks. He thinks of the snake
Oscar Pelfrey held, cool weight
wrapping his wrists, rattle ticking across his shoulders—
glory: another kind of yoke. Not hard
to imagine Pelfrey sweating, too,
damp with ecstasy as the timberback
traveled his arms, hung in a loose stirrup above
his head as he raised it up to heaven.
The tent meeting a wave of frenzy, cool mountain-top
dark held back by a ring of kerosene lanterns.
Hands lift, flutter. The swell of song and tongue.
Then Pelfrey on the ground, the serpent’s
unhinged jaw yoked to his temple,
skin instantly purpled, weltering.
Here, shirtless, sweat-shined young men march in
from the fields, just-strung tobacco sheaves
slung over their backs like veined shields. Staking
bundle after bundle to thin pine yokes, he can
barely breathe in the barn’s stifled air. Fevered,
drenched. Dizzy. How might it feel to be abandoned
of the Spirit, the tiled skin of a yellow rattler
rigid beneath your fingers? A sea of drying leaf
suddenly frozen in the August afternoon, its
feathered layers gone brittle, solid. Quick
as the scythe severs the petiole, arced
sweep of blade through stalk.
Avery Beckendorf ~