When Doris the hen
ceased summoning eggs,
Uncle Griffin announced,
“She’s ready for the pot,”
but his wiser wife Dillie
conjured from the pantry’s
deal dresser a white
sphere smooth and cool
as the moon, an egg
of china she called cymling.
“We’ll set it in her nest
feathers to prime the pump
and turn the bird fertile.
Say it: cymling. The word
does half the work.”
Born in the throat,
it thrilled strange
on my tongue, nearly
a singing, a homely sorcery.
“It’s no trick to fool
a chicken into being
herself again,” said Dillie.
“It’s just a rousing –
cymling.” And sure
enough, the ruse worked:
the hen cackled, clucked,
eggs came regular all winter.
Even now when I fall or
fail, in need of revival,
I can’t disremember
cymling and whisper it till
the foolish fowl in my
mind gives in and need
weaves with dream.
Egg, nest, feather, moon,
cymling – my spirit stirs,
steadies, comes alive again.
Some sweaty farrier
took great care to hammer
an owl face on the back
of Meemaw’s flat iron,
and when I asked Why?,
she rested the anvil shape
in its cradle and wiped
her brow with a towel.
Honey, I’d love to say
J. P. was pulling a night
shift, and his mind visioned
me bent over the board
in my laundry corner,
like common work made us
joined tighter and more
deeply married, so he
bought me this as a gift.
She paused for breath. Fact
is, I bid it up at auction
when Miz Collin down
Roanoke Pike passed on,
and as anybody’d guess,
no rust on the edges,
wood handle oiled, base
shaped to save heat. She’d
been a duty-bound wife
and went at her labors
with a cheer in her heart.
Good servant, steady soul.
Besides, owls favor quiet
and the weather cold. This
old iron bird’s a mite heavy,
but I like thinking how
real feathers open light
on a nighttime hunter.
See that beak? Smiling,
I’d argue. Her wide eyes
never sleep. Working late
hours she earns her keep.
Pass that sprinkle bottle, hon.
I’ve got four more shirts
for the bird to press,
then those winter sheets.
Besides, that auction was
closing. Yellow tag time.
The iron came cheap.
Steam clouded, hissed,
unfurled its heat.
Like most lasting things,
you know, it’s bittersweet.
From the moment I slipped
her black glasses into my
pocket she began changing back
to the girl I’d seen in a college
scrapbook – modest perm, genial
face, a fearless stare,
but that August afternoon
in her bedroom, draped and safe
from the feathered stares of Argos
in the yard, her blush was a reminder
of Susannah in the elders’ eyes.
Heels, a sleeveless lily-print dress,
pearls – she was ready for company
and giggled as I uncinched the sash
and fumbled the first button.
Regina was off arguing real estate
with the bishop. We’d already cuddled.
Sweaty as a freshman, I slid the soft
slip down her hips, watched it pool
on the floor. She crossed her arms. Her
skin was freckled, goose-pimpled,
smile savvy. “Be gentle, sir,” she cooed
mellow as mourning doves on the sill.
“I am not known hereabouts as
a forward girl.” Did I catch a hint
of Miss Jezebel? I swore I was myself
salt of the earth, a simple Christian
working in service of the Hidden Jesus.
The oaks, magnolias and dogwoods
stood perfectly still. The red selvedge
of lace on her scanties almost
struck me blind with forbidden silk.
My fingers trembled. She shivered
and licked my ear. Outside, the last
white iris were wilting. I thought
what a demon disease lupus was
to waste such a lovely young
girl. Those ugly crutches leaned
against her peach crate desk. Would
she ever need them again? I circled
her to inspect the Maker’s handiwork
but was stunned to find, tattooed
on her back, a flaming angel, gold
wings open in fury. Her hair was red,
her eyes green glory. She nipped
my collarbone and nape, then kicked
her shoes across the room. She was
all dewy skin and seed pearls. Wind
kissed the curtains. She said, “Maybe
I’m Salome.” In the cow barn’s loft
an owl’s apple face held the whole farm
in a spell. I stripped, all a-quiver,
unable, alas, to attain the manly state.
“What,” she said, “with that withered
old gizmo? Surely, Sugar
Pudding, you’re pulling my leg.”
A flourishing peacock screamed:
I was wide awake, this not my dream.
Last I saw her framed in the Mercury’s
mirror, she was riding the porch glider,
smirking impish, waving like
a homecoming queen. She shouted,
“Come again, Honey. Don’t be
a stranger.” It sounded so much
like, “So long, sucker” I opened my
Bible and whispered a verse, pressed
my foot heavy on the gas, bound,
Sweet Jesus, back to the wilderness
and taking Dixie’s dirt curves fast.
Sugar House (Upstate, Ante Bellum)
In morning mist the bailiff’s boy, apple of his mother’s
eye, has strayed from the kitchen bacon and biscuits,
the soothing hymn-humming of Aunt Jacinta
and scent of molasses simmering on the stove.
Now he wanders beyond the pigs and kindling shack,
the hollyhocks, foxgloves and morning glory meadow,
beyond which he has long been forbidden to go,
and there he finds a slanted cabin with cedar posts
before the iron door, and he notices a moan, thinks
he hears the shed whimper, till he catches behind hin
the familiar rasp, a whispery tenor: “Boy, you come where
you ought not to go. Your daddy skin you quick.”
Despite his spine’s shiver and his legs’ instinct to flee,
he holds his ground and sniffs and says, “What is it, Mr.
Pert? I don’t know.” So the bully boss hisses, “I never
showed you this, rabbit. Just you remember. Ever tell
a soul and my family ghosts come creeping to your bed,
they teeth sharp as arrowheads, they eyes like owls.
Just one peek now, then off you go.” Key and lock,
rattle of the hasp, hinges grieving, and as the heavy door
swings, Pert’s whisper: “This the sugar house where
they drag the uppity bucks for teaching they tongues
to sing a sweeter tune. Sequester, your daddy say,
and strict correction,” and from within – blood, funk,
redberry coals in a brazier, the whiff of heated copper,
then vague, bird-like motion, the shuffle of dragged
shackles, shapes of men bent over in the smoke, broken
and far from the eye of God, no minion grins or
pridey struts, no bojangle or blissful fiddling, no hymn.
Then he feels the air hold like frozen lightning,
the slashing crack of quirt and blacksnake whip.
“Smell like skunk, the goldbrick and sass, lollygagger,
sneak thief. Done felt every knot on the bluejay’s lash.
Don’t you lean in. It’s fever in there and stench, sweat
of the demon imps. And don’t you disremember:
you never seen it, place we make the crooked straight,
bray mule to pull and bite cur to heel, the loosest tongue
hush. Your sweet mama don’t know herself, my rabbit,
so you can keep a secret, no? Now, get you on back
to the kittens in they basket. Taste that milk fresh white
from the crock, slip old Pert a twist of tobacco you see
a chance. Get now, go.” Said he ran, my daddy’s daddy’s
great granddaddy. Dead possum in the ditch, its empty
eyes dark, was all the proof he asked, swore he never
looked back where no boy yearns to roam but wanders
anyway in sweat dreams that shake you, twist and torture
till they wake you to owl eye and talon or thunder
and your own scream, which can never quicken the dawn,
and not even a loving mother cooing “hush, my sweet
pup” can soothe you to forget, as it is yours forever –
shackle clatter, sob, dread and pain – “sugar house” –
the story bitter as whisky to the tongue as you ink it
blue in the margins of the family tree, as you pass it on.
Even on her deathbed
Granny Abbie said
she’d ask no favors,
didn’t wish for flowers
nor trifles, candles, frivols
or a send-off dress
fit for heaven. I’m plain
as pudding, she always
claimed, never craved
a fancy, bauble nor
gee-gaw, not fringe
on a table cloth, no frill,
no fuss. An honest woman,
homespun, made from
scratch. Harmon was
forever giving pretties,
a Spanish silver comb
to bind her silver hair.
She insisted a simple tune
delivered in a minor key
was ample to mark
a birthday, white cake
for anniversary, at Christmas
holly wreaths. She pined
for none but the routine
and a smiling word,
and when she was gone,
we fought not to weep,
sad she never saw the French
River nor owned a device
like the music box of cedar
that played a waltz
in the viewing room
as we circled her coffin.
Here’s the secret Harmon
kept hushed for years.
On that trip to Asheville
for some frolic after
the wedding, she asked
one gift, a black gown,
silk and edged with a riddle
of lace, to wear nightly,
briefly, between the mended
sheets because, Abbie
whispered, it would glimmer
in morning light on the oak
bedpost, a private flag,
she said, to say, “I was here.”