Feeding the Fish
My father woke before dawn to feed the fish
fed me if I rose early enough and caught him
runny eggs, coffee, under-done bacon
while he sat reading westerns at the kitchen table
so quiet Death would’ve tiptoed
The morning washed over the dirty white curtains
watched me stand just behind his back
working towards the courage
to ask for more toast
Then into his truck the sun so bright through the dust
of the morning I closed my eyes to all things
sat in the cab while he stacked 50 pound bags of fish feed
strong like the arc
of a sledgehammer
Later I climbed
scared / tired / cold into the aluminum boat
watched his hard arms move
all around us till it looked best
everything blue / warming / his slit bag
dribbling food over the side like sand pouring
through his rusted hands
Fish trailed us like children
when they lay fat from our food
and we dragged our nets
(Originally published in Blue Collar Review, 2004, I think)
Notes: This poem was heavily influenced by Besmilr Brigham, though more narrative than she tends to be. Of course, you can't really see the form, here. This is one of my favorites from Riceland. I keep coming back to it. I love the images from my childhood--Dad loading bags of fish feed, dawn rising over the Lake (our name for the overgrown stock pond) the smell and taste of water in the air.
I found them in the shade
of an old oak. The cow moaned
on its belly, tried to lift
its weight on one leg, but slipped
in the mud, the leaves,
and its own blood which stained
the valley floor. My father, alone, red
skinned as that blood, too focused to even
cuss anymore, murmured
soothing words as he struggled
to secure a harness impossibly
around the shoulders of the calf still
halfway inside its mother. An old
rust-colored tractor idled on the other end
of the harness. He pulled, one foot
on the cow's rump, the calf
struggling, my father frantic
until he saw me. "Tractor!"
he yelled. I moved, never mind the fear,
the blood, never mind that I couldn't drive it.
He barked orders, steered me as though I were
an engine, my arms, the gear-shift,
my feet, the peddles. I eased
forward, watched him hang,
both feet on the cow, his whole body pulling
as I kept the wheel straight. The calf
moved; the cow lowered its head
as though concentrating on a difficult thought. The calf
squeezed out and, suddenly free, landed
on my father, who fell to the ground, laughing,
dragged by the harness which jerked forward
as the tractor lurched
into the oak and stalled out.
(Originally appeared in Barnwood, 2008 I believe)
Notes: I wrote this probably in 2007 or 2008. It is one of the newest poems in the collection. I felt I needed more portraits of farm life for the collection.
James Earl Ray
We didn't mind the day off
from school, but we refused solemnity, refused
to let them think they'd been proven right
by martyrdom we were ashamed
We joked in the halls—
It's James Earl Ray Day, no school Monday!
And smiled when we saw the black kids
I'm thinking about this years
later, in an ATM drive through—a sign says Closed
For Lee King Day. Who's he? I wonder
before I realize they've buried
Dr. King's name behind Southern
I'm older, now, but that dumb and mean
kid I used to be still has his friends
to hide behind. I consider moving
my account, but the bank is closed until tomorrow.
I have to wait
and sit with this.
(Originally appeared in The Arkansas Review, 2007 or 2008)
Notes: All true. The language in this poem is somewhat awkward, but I think the message is important.
When I was 15
Summer was hanging around our necks like a noose
when Karen and I decided to run away.
We sat on her bed, watching
her little brother watch us. She'd mouth,
"Save me," and I'd nod.
“Dad paid me ten bucks so you
don’t fuck,” her brother said every few seconds.
“Call him Dan, Dad lives across
town,” she would say.
“If you want to make out,
I won’t tell,” he’d say and we'd kiss like fugitives.
Thirty seconds would pass, and he'd settle
his brown eyes on us like a vulture.
“Take me to the store to get some candy,
or I’ll tell Dad you were fucking in here.”
All we needed was a ride somewhere
they’d be too lazy to follow.
When her brother got off work, we went
over to his place and sat on his couch
while he talked about his tats. He had a chain
from his ears to his nose, his nose to his nipples,
and down to his dick. I stood
while she went to use the bathroom,
like I’d seen them do in old movies.
“You must really love her,” her brother said
and I sat back down to the quiet of her absence.
After a couple hours we realized he
was a dead end. Her Dad lived next door, though.
He sat on the sofa, drank Jack Daniels and told me
about how his new wife
was like fucking a jar of mayo.
"Don’t get married, boy,” he said. “Biggest
mistake you’ll ever make,“ then a drink.
When the bottle was empty, he left.
“There’s a room back here,” Karen said.
“The lights don’t work but it’s private.” Then inside,
holding hands and no one could see. “You’re
so sweet, I’ll do anything to keep you,” she said.
She told me about the scar on her arm where she’d stabbed
herself with an ice pick, about her step father’s ex-cop
hands, about how her mother had never seen him
naked because he weighed over five hundred
pounds, but she had, and I strained her blond hair
through fingers I knew couldn’t save her and listened.
(Originally appeared in Thunder Sandwich, 2004 I think)
Notes: Pretty much says it all.
You wrapped the night around you like a shawl
and said that I never remember.
I watched your lips dance through the words
and didn’t hear a thing.
The wind brushed thin strands of hay colored hair
across your shoulders. You turned away
saying something about the way the lake
captured the light of the moon and held it.
I watched your nipples poke at the cloth of your shirt
as you said, "Love is like the moon and the lake,
two things forever separate
that sink into each other at night."
I nodded slowly.
You said, “love is the greatest teacher in life,
we learn not to share, that's economics,
we learn that the lesser of two evils is still evil, that's politics.”
You said, “all the evils of the world
have been caused by unrealized expectation.”
And I tried to think of something clever,
but all that came to mind
was the time in the back of Stephen’s car
when you asked me to spank you.
I put my arm around your shoulder
and considered my chances of getting oral.
Then you said, “She isn’t even pretty, really.”
"What do you mean," I started to say, but you cut me off.
“I could have you to myself, if I wanted.
You’re like a cat playing with a mouse,
and not letting it die.”
"It's not like that," I said. "Let me explain."
But you leaned in close
and slipped something in my pocket with a,
“Happy anniversary.” I stood dumb
as you drew the moonlight into your eyes like a breath
and said that I never remember.
(Originally appeared in A Little Poetry, 2005)
Notes: This is a very old poem that I've reworked several times. I submitted a version of this to the first workshop I ever took--at the U of Arkansas in 1999 or 2000, but even then, the poem was several years old. I remember one of the other students, a maybe 40 year old guy, said he didn't believe I wrote the first/last lines, but he googled it and couldn't find it so either I got it from something really obscure, or maybe I actually wrote it. This blew my mind. Later, I spent about five minutes talking about a line "darken my doorway" in his poem--how original, however did you come up with that phrase? It was a poem about his dog, by the way. This is something I noticed many times in workshops--seemingly out of nowhere, classmates (and professors) would dump truckloads of vitriol on me. It took several years before I realized why. I'm not saying I was always caring and considerate towards others' work, but I always applauded honest effort.
My Sister's Hair in 3 Decades
I have a picture– me, baby brother; inverted as a little blond girl,
my sister who could swing a bat, climb a tree, punch
like any boy, holding me safe in her lap.
Her missing front tooth, hair
brown, down to her shoulders
because Mom wouldn't let her cut it shorter.
She spent years trying to pet dad's cows,
gave up and planted flowers in the yard
until the cows found them and nipped off their heads.
The name "Menudo" written on the carport
in shoe polish. The smell
of ozone dying in big sticky curls that will not move.
My sister, Little Mini-ha-ha (Dad's nickname), her hair
no longer tangled with brambles, turned black
as a raven's coat. Room full of noise
and friends I don't like. Boys
who haven't done as much as they'd like to think,
making jokes everyone understands, but no one wants
to. One of them went to prison for beating another boy
to death with a baseball bat. Another died
of a drug overdose. Me, interloper, curious,
lingering outside her door.
"Go away," she says. "I'm busy."
The day I get my first apartment, my sister
comes over with bags of cleaning supplies, soap,
"Stuff you'll forget you need," she says, all
generic brands costing more
than she can afford, working poor with three kids.
Her hair straight, smart, deep black
with grey lines appearing like moonlight
reflected on water.
She hands me the bag, and I'm
little again, playing the baker's man in her lap–
she dangles but doesn't drop me
on that old couch at Dad's house–
the one they threw out years ago.
(Originally appeared in Paper Street, 2008)
Notes: I wanted to write a poem for my sister. I wrote a couple that made it into Riceland, but this is her favorite.
Walking Through My Father’s Fields, Home
The windows creaked from the heat
the day they bundled my mother up
and hauled her off like an old Christmas tree,
taking only a couple of suitcases
and her sickness with her; this dying stranger
who hadn't left the house
since before I could remember, and whom I'd sat watch over
for more than my 15 years – watched her whither
like a lake bed, until I was sure there was nothing left of her but dust.
“We’re taking her to the hospital.”
I pulled on pants good enough for town, and shoes,
as my father and brother led her out the door,
half the time carrying her and her confused moans
to the old International truck. I climbed in the back.
My father drove faster than usual,
which still wasn't very fast,
past the barn, the sheds and tractors, the fields.
I heard my brother say that the silage looked sparse,
and my father, that it'd gotten scorched by the drought
and we'd be lucky if it lasted the cows through winter.
I scanned the yellow blighted field and nodded as we rattled
down the long gravel road
peopled by cows that'd jumped the fence
which we didn’t stop for. I watched them
grow small and quiet behind us
until the trees gave out, and the gravel
turned into asphalt with a bump.
The fields became houses.
The edge of our land bordered the county hospital.
We pulled into the cracked and ugly asphalt parking lot and waited
while Dad went to get an orderly.
Behind us stretched corn – I could barely make out the cows
grazing in the field – and beyond that the road, then the pasture,
and hills. Somewhere back there was the house,
just a mile or so away.
I turned back to the truck as they came for her.
My brother walked over to me
and pointed off to the south to the nursing home
they'd just built on a corner of layout ground
that used to be ours. That’s where they'd take her
when she was all checked in, he meant.
We'd brought her into town so she could die proper.
If she made it through the year, she'd be able to see
our winter wheat outside her window and maybe think of home.
“Dad’s finishing it all up,” my brother said, “we can go.”
I nodded and glanced at the truck.
Instead, we walked to the barbed wire fence,
which was overgrown with a wall of trees and weeds.
We scaled it and plodded through the still young corn,
not speaking, growing slowly separate
as we spread out to drive the cows
back to pasture.
(Originally appeared in Lifelines, 2004, I think)
Notes: Another one from Miller Williams' class. I was told, by my classmates, that this isn't a poem because it's too long. I was also told that narrative is dead in poetry. Maybe this is true. But artists can't be zebras--blending in is safe, but it dooms you to obscurity. I actually cut a page or so from it. My classmates asked me not to submit anything else in the class after this one. It was approaching finals time, and I'd made my required submissions for the class. I believe the next week I turned in two poems. Like I've said, I applauded honest effort in the work of others, but I've always abhored laziness.
Chris Fullerton, who was in the class, and I looked the other day to see if we could find any publications from anyone else from that class. We found a technical writer and one guy who wrote a fictional biography of an obscure musician. Kind of sad. I wonder if they even read anymore.
I learned a lot from Miller Williams and in spite of many of my classmates. By the following year I was getting work published in nationally recognized journals. I will never forget when I had poems picked up by Nimrod, my first real publication, and Skip Hays (the Creative Writing guru of U of A) shook my hand and started introducing me to the grad. students and faculty. I was on staff of the school's literary journal that year as well. This caused a couple of my old classmates to no longer speak to me. It was around this time I began to realize why they had such animosity towards me. My buddy Jake Swearingen summed it up best: "I try to avoid other writers," I believe was the line.
So I've been working on Riceland for around a decade, but only seriously for about half that time. Since I started writing these poems (and I pretty much always envisioned them as a collection) I've written and published two other collections, completed a third, and the bulk of a fourth, aside from all the fiction, nonfiction, etc. But I kept plugging away on Riceland. I'm nervous about it. I want it to be perfect. It's not and never will be. But I've sat on it long enough. It's scheduled to come out this fall.