Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shelby Stephenson- from Paul's Hill: Homage to Whitman


“Slow Barbour kicks the stand of his scooter down”

Slow Barbour kicks the stand of his scooter down
And throws the monkey-ball yet to fall into my glove

Where Rose catches the pig in the Pasture’s periphery.
Brown kills the one squirrel, Daddy daring to pay him a dollar, if he could “hit one”:
“Here’s your squirrel, he was snickering at me, now gimme my dollar.”
Daddy:  “You’re mine and the squirrel’s mine.”
He would say also to Rose, “You and the pig’s mine,”
“Mine,” the farm intact, an attitude,
The fields fallow mostly, the farmers, gone,
The Hands, Whites and Blacks, who swapped work.

The old house I was born in, restored, here on this hill!
Ashley Langdon:  master-builder, the creek’s cabin-boy.
The beaver’s damned huts, the sourwood of Cow Mire, and the branch itself
Run the history of the place, going back into the 18th century
When Solomon Stephenson II settled on Middle Creek,
Leaving his greatgrandfather, grandfather, and father in Isle of Wight −
John I and John II and Solomon I − who started the Ste(v)ensons out in America, 
The line coming on down to me through Solomon I’s son,
This Solomon II, acquiring land in 1767 by land-grant, Johnston County, right here −
And fathering David I, who begat my greatreatgrandpap George, who begat Manly,
Who begat George William, who begat Paul, S R, who fathered me −

The birds − eastern king, cowbird, buzzard, crow, bluebird, downy, hairy, Carolina wren,
Hermit thrush, starling, martin, great-crested flycatcher, titmouse, house-sparrow,
Field-sparrow, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, house finch, purple finch,
Chipping sparrow, snowbird, butcher-bird (loggerhead shrike), mockingbird,
Orchard oriole, catbird (don’t see hardly any anymore),
Cedar waxwing (my father called the “rice” bird), jaybird, redbird, summer tanager,
Goldfinch, flicker, pileated woodpecker, meadowlark.

Dogs grace the logs of Paul’s Hill, barking and chasing the horn, the fox alone.
In the Preserves taped voices of dogs jump the gray or red and the race is on −
Jayboy, Butler, Tony, Blue, Atlas, Sing, Boogie, Slobber Mouth, Fancy, Fanny,
Suzie, Rock, Ginger (for Rogers), Bette (Davis), Bing (Crosby), Bob (Hope).

My 1950’s childhood drifts under the chainey-tree while Mama’s suds
Crawl up her arm and come on her elbows in hums
The trees themselves (sourwood and southern oak, red oak and maple)
Lean toward rivers (Neuse, Pamlico, Cape Fear).
Crops?  Cotton, corn, tobacco (of that six-weeks hell),
Peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, collards, turnips − peas.

O to make a life a poem on a Christmas not yet come!
To see the big tree in the living room one more time:
Mama makes snow out of corn-starch.
She gets bulbs and the big cords out of the box.
The star itself scrapes the ceiling.
I peek sideways through a crack and see a real one.
Sweetgum balls we wrap in tin-foil, ornaments out of the woods:  holly branches.

My father rests the axe on his right shoulder.
His hunting-jacket smells like a fresh-caught rabbit.
I see the red blobs in the field-pouch, the dried blood.

I am scared Jesus might come, really appear, in my sleep.
One night in a scream I tell Mama
I see Him (my sister Rose brings home a veil of His face hidden somewhere in the cloth).
I see it in the middle room from my brother’s and my doublebed.
And I am afraid the sermons my grandfather preaches come true.

The poem warms the stars
And scatters pieces around my sleep, my arm across my forehead
The way my mother slept with hers across her head.
My school comes together from one through twelve.
The grades blur in chalk on the tree.
Called it the “eraser-tree” and the “vaccination-tree”
(We lined up there for our shots).

Our Christmas-tree stand (two narrow planks nailed in a cross)
And the pasteboard box tied up with one of Mama’s holey stockings
We store on a shelf in the packhouse.

I put out buttermilk, cookies, too, and cake Mama makes.
I fall asleep, my brother and me,
And we get up once and see a body rolled-up in a blanket.
Oh just a tent!
We lived in the woods:  I know not why we would want to camp out.
How my body ached for Christmas!
Jesus never came and the preachers preached on and the people cried as relatives died.
The graves opened final journeys.
The stars brightened for promises the season would shoot the moon,
My 12-gauge Iver-Johnson blasting my ears.
I thought my father would not want Uncle Reuben to give me the money to buy that gun.
I swear I saw fluffs of cloth where Santa went up the chimney!

I taste the vanilla flavoring,
Hear farmers come by for a nog.
The drunk appears, musses Daddy’s hair and says O Paul O Paul
And Daddy says, “Go on home.”

The blade curves slightly from chopping hills and hills of cotton, the helve smooth,
The past propped away in the arms of the hoers resting
Momentarily in the sun, the cotton-sprouts, little clover-looking, green things.
The choppers and weeders, loitering, ogle skyward,
The young corn-tassels, not curled yet.

Tobacco-plants green and fuzz the fields:  Five-Acre, Ten, Potato-Patch,
Old Place Front, Gnat Field, The Rocky Hillside-bottom.
Truck-farm crops:  potatoes, peanuts, peas, collards, turnips, cukes,
Squash, cabbage, okra, butterbeans, watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes.

Hands sweat and cure the handles,
The women in their hats tied rakishly on with rags, the babies on pallets,
The conversation, vulgar and serious, too,
The carrying-on to get through, the hoe, king and queen,
The goose-necked tip curved from the helve’s working end.

The wheelbarrow’s filled with mud at the chimney for the plankhouse.
The hoe’s like a tongue in a groove, cement hardening around the thin, flat blade,
The long handle set to cut through the mud before it sets.
Mortar for the bricks Ashley and I have picked from an old homestead.

Darkness sends the grassers and weeders home.
Birds find their roosts.
The frost, tentative, brings out the insects.
Tomorrow the blue birds will clean them up.
Sedge serves the pasture.
The Angus announce.
My brother washes Lady’s bag, squeezes her pinkish tits.
The white stream squirts and pings the side of the bucket,
Lady’s nose in the tub, the bottom pooched out from her tongue’s
Hunger, her tail twitching like mini-whips, noises flying buzzes round an odor
Unmistakably like molasses on a table laden with buttermilk biscuits made with lard.
She’s tied to a chain on a stake she’ll circle, the links, taut.

That man at the gallows, masked in black, eyes, coal-chunks, seizes the blade.
One more dead.

Whose blood drips first to turn to this?
The sharpened weapons the ministers disgrace.
In soft garments piped with roses kings and queens lie in graves.
Dictators tumble like cats in the weeds.
Tufts of grass spring outside Dachau.
A man clasps a lever.
A cramped hand bleeds.

There is a new stream in Cow Mire.
I think it is the heart of the forest.
I do not want to leave.
Each little trickle reminds me of the swish of the hoe
Or the women with freshly-washed hair, throwing strands from side to side in the sun.
That look in their eyes I like the most.
I throw the hoe across my shoulder and we walk the path
Down under the southern oak, its muscles outspread,
Through the hollies and cedars into the deeper woods.
The sun needles shadows.
A grape-vine in a fence-corner stops the choppers.
The helves become stakes for tomato-plants.                                    

My mother celebrates the hoe.
Her shape bends in my eyes.
She could be a hoe with special lights that see into things,
Poking and patting there among the okra.
She stands her hoe up straight, a clump of dirt holding it.
Spirit weeds what she’s done all her life,
Saying, “Don’t you think it’s time for some singing.”

Shelby Stephenson's Play My Music Anyhow is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.                     

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