I was born in the plankhouse on The Hill
I was born in the plankhouse on The Hill and I believed the hill and the house together
And I became the things there, the big oak the teacher told me to use for dusting erasers,
The red-brick school now a Retirement Home,
The clearing-throat humph my principal, Mr. Woodlief.
The hunts on Thanksgiving, the rabbits on the run,
The blue-tail never returning where he was jumped,
The cotton-tail always coming back to his squat,
The boy himself never settling down.
Years fold up like throw-rugs.
And an aching in my chest sleep does not assuage, that deep, wide other I search for,
The flight of the martins, the one bluebird egg, a mid-June discovery in the box,
A second one, tomorrow?
No mere odor surprises me more than the smell of dried manure.
I sink my pitchfork in deep and turn the bottom fluid, foul-streaming wings on the prongs
And sling the stuff into my wagon.
O Earth so full of it and more.
Barefooted, dodging the chicken-manures, I skip to the barn to do the chores,
The oaktree roots grimaces of my neighbors, one saying to me,
“An adverb is the white part of chicken shit.”
Grammar, as far as I know, bubbles.
A field covered with fertilizer-manure!
Rising in that smell from the ten-acre field over the neighborhood,
Scrolling puffs from some gigantic pipe, rooting around Mama’s butterbeans and melons.
Do you think vanquishing your beloved is great?
To be bettered is just as grand and perhaps sweeter.
It’s a leveler, like vacuuming occasionally, shaking the dust-mop over the railing.
The terrace reminds you that the world waits for sunrise.
With all my soul, now, among bluebird eggs and martin gourds,
The fledging, spreading, pressing entrances and exits, with Purple Martins
Teaching me how to worship the grass beneath my feet, I yell as far as I can − Hellooooo!
So much for staring at the stars.
They’re there, at the end of words.
Feel love available in the bottom line where the dollar lies.
Faith tears away division.
Pain gestures the down-and-out Nothing everything courts.
May the ride not leave me in the provinces alone.
The ocean waves an understanding smile,
Lifting mother and child, the grains of sand, tight.
The moon over the docks, seabirds feather the shoreline.
Who makes the weeds among the periwinkle?
Venus wings midnight .
Who made the two swallows in their mud-hut on the light-fixture over the Miata?
The purple martins pursue the vanishing mosquitoes.
One blade in my hand, another waiting, I hunch into the corner of the table,
Holding a far-away look, pressing the grinder to the blade.
The shower begins, goggles secure over my face.
My mother washes clothes by hand and wrings them and hangs them out to dry.
I pick up depression-glass, pink-light.
Always the world’s just outside, waiting.
“Paul, you spend more money on these dogs than you do on your family.”
My father cut the logs in Beaver Dam and took them to the saw-mill,
The blueprints on the kitchen table.
There was once a man, tall, dark-complected, he’d say, as a Croatan,
A western Johnstonian out of North Carolina ’s Coastal Plain.
He never had even a drawer assigned to him,
His trinkets − a Bible he inherited and some shotgun shells ready
Lying in a baby’s basket interlaced with light blue ribbon atop a chifforobe in that room.
The living room did not look “funny” with the bed in it any more than the morning
I saw a floppy rubber stuck to the molding on the wall-side of their bed,
The pink bedspread, its bobbed dots fluffy, though no cover at all.
I had seen Jerry Surles blow one up at school.
Not a day goes by I don’t think of Mama.
And sometimes I wonder if she ever thinks of me,
If she could, my father, too, smiling into his partial-gold tooth,
Pride singing in his eyes − the girls always took to me.
Rising heat around the crepe myrtles, boughs nearly on the ground,
Wire-grass edges toward the new dogwood’s base,
The proud barn-swallows flitting fur from their little adobe,
The trip to Central America a whizz nobody knows, not the federales,
Not any other source outside this place, this hill
Proud with mourning doves.
The hounds bark constantly.
The hummers emerald August’s dominion over the pink petals.
The black nuthatch walks down the oak and the wobbling finch lands on the stick.
My mother’s feet pad the linoleum.
The old house she wanted to leave we have restored.
So let me love you this much and let me tune the cracks between the ivories.
Bring on the bass, including the near misses of fingertips on the strings.
New storms appear, as the bird-clock marks a different song.
The blues, lovesick, harbors you.
A morning glory, pink as the inside of a beautiful and lovely cavity of clay,
Climbs onto a lilac and runs through a maze of hearts, a satisfying majesty,
A piano clinging to the melody, the well-drilling memory of a man riding a bucket
Down a mule-lot well for a mutt, my mother’s Brownie.
My sister, Rose, appears, chasing the pigs in the sweet-potato patch.
September’s the mistress in me, buddy in a cycle’s seat.
The piss in the cow-pen smells a little different in the morning.
The dew turns my nose up to a breeze in definite reach.
Collards cook on the woodstove.
The night’s real over Paul’s Hill, cupped in an egg my mother breaks,
Leaving the shells halved, perfectly.
What happened to the whippoorwill in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,”
The fields, their browning tendrils tending everything?
What happened to the streams I fished?
The paths I walked and tangled my lines in?
Once the plankhouse sat rocking away.
The dogwood petals crinkled over each leaf a scarred and scored symphony.
I said This is a love poem, with levels and prairies of harmonies,
Flutes, pennywhistles, recorders, snares,
Bridges to rags and reels, our band as much a part of living as breathing.
I’m right back where I started from, loving you from this red clay
The sun lays over cotton-fields, films of heat-pocked leaves blessing summer’s longing.
“I love you once again.”
The eyes of migrants, larger than Carolina , hummer-hubs, shape-drifters, packer-whirrs,
I know when imperfection slinks into a room.
I smell the cantaloupes on the plant that volunteered in the dogwood mulch.
Praise trial and error! Let hills and valleys residue.
A sign outside Vander: “Buy a cock and pullet!”
I stop and speak to the maiden and she is clueless of my state of mind.
Near Mount Olive, North Carolina , in a cornfield’s edge,
A plank on a stob, been there since static: “Our hens lay eggs to FM Music.”
Laughter and crying − we start from scratch and go busted.
After the dirt and the pavement: Governor W. Kerr Scott’s epitaph:
He plowed to the end of the row.
His furrow was deep.
Time will not erase his indelible imprint.
A woman arrives at The Egg Place, asking for some cracked eggs:
“They are cheaper, aren’t’ they?”
Egg Man: “I don’t have none today, mam, but I can crack you some.”
I do not know where to turn.
Things are not clear anymore.
Morning’s a hit-the-floor without socks.
Birds cheep and bloob.
I brush the matter out of my eyes.
My dreamer’s in her white pajamas.
She loves laps in a pool.
I pray I may remember all this.
O for no trouble in her thoughts.
Manly must make a living as a farmer, veteran, husband, father.
Martha’s eyes wander.
She’s happy her man came home.
Something about the smell of anything makes her sick and out of place.
My mother took me down near New Zealand Church to visit her people
And her cousin, a scraggly, beautiful woman, Lessy.
She showed us where she slept, her bureau turned to the wall.
She said she had to get her wagon and pick up the acorns off the ground.
Saved them, she said, for the woodpeckers.
They’d hammer holes in a dead oak and store food for winter.
Then she looked away.
I never saw her again.
Among women, picking cotton, Lessy said such things −
“Ain’t that a pretty cotton blossom, all yellow, pink, and blue
And look at that dragonfly making love to anothern.”
I remember the times I sat under the overhang at the cow-stable.
During a drizzle I would get goose-pimples.
The final call could be made on a turkey-yelper.
Shelby Stephenson's Playing Dead is from Finishing Line Press.
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