When I was a boy, I heard roaches sing.
It happened after Mom got sick.
Dad worked long hours and stayed drunk. Everyday,
I came in from the rice fields,
too sweaty to sleep but too tired not to,
pressed my cheek to the wall beside the bed
where it was cool,
and they were in there, singing.
This was different from in the fields; I’d heard mosquitoes,
but never roaches, sing. I’d felt water moccasins
stroke my leg like fingers as they swam past,
felt the shovel dribble mud down my back
like a heavy breeze seen the dull gray levies
that stretched out before me that day
and would the next,
felt the weight of my father’s tired muscles
as we dragged him from his truck to bed;
but I forgot it all and listened to them sing.
In the mornings, I woke staggered
into the dusty light of my father’s truck,
and tucked the memory of my nights away,
under the hard slap of the sun on my back,
and the drunken jokes of farmers that didn’t make any sense.
I sank into the mud of those fields
and into myself, waiting
until night came;
when I could crawl into bed,
press my face against the wall
(Originally appeared in Nimrod and Story South (2003) due to the fact that Nimrod rejected it and then, a year later, inexplicably published it after it had already appeared in Story South)
Notes: I wrote this in an undergrad. Poetry Workshop taught by Miller Williams at the U. of Arkansas. This is when I became a poet. I felt that a lot of my classmates were more talented than me, but at the same time, they were writing about really inconsequential topics ('One time I went to Paris...', 'I'm independant, now, even though my parents pay my rent,' etc.) But so was I. I was writing about myself as a 20-something, that most boring of ages to someone who isn't 20-something. Even I was bored by my writing. So I decided to write about the farm on which I was raised and certain things from my childhood, which, frankly, I'd avoided writing about before for various reasons. This poem was really my first FUCK YOU (politely as possible) to everyone in that class, including myself. I had never been to Paris, but I had been to the rice fields. It's still self-absorbed, but at least it's not about patchouli. It's true, by the way.
The Pig Farmer
The old black man who came for fish guts
wouldn’t step in the door of my father‘s fish shop.
He parked his tattered truck, faded
to that gray color Death’s old clothes must be,
stood outside and waited while my father hefted
the gut tubs on his shoulder one at a time,
and handed them out.
Then the old man dumped them in the back of his truck
with a look on his face like we were living wrong.
It shamed me.
When my father passed the second tub out to him,
I followed and took a good look at the truck and the mass
of fish bones, heads, and fins. There was no tailgate;
he had to pile the guts up right behind the cab or they’d fall out.
Even then, I bet he had to drive real slow.
Inside the fish shop, there was blood. The floor was worn
a dirty lavender, broken up by yellow dots of fly poison,
except for two perfect circles of clean concrete
where the gut tubs had been.
The old man set the empty tub down. My father
handed him the third one. After he’d emptied it,
the old man threw a nod at my father
and had to crank his truck four times
before it started. I stood outside while my father
washed blood off the floor with a hose,
letting the water drain outside in a dirty stream.
He scrubbed until the concrete shone like river mud,
and brought the tubs in, the first two at once, then the third.
Pig-smell hung in the air from the old man
like Absalom in a tree. Soon, it would be supplanted by the stink
of fish. I imagined it stuck to my clothes and would linger
no matter how often they were washed.
Inside, my father sat down to read the paper.
(Originally appeared in Nimrod, 2003)
I think this poem also came from a workshop. I was trying to capture a scene, but also something about race relations that I'm not totally sure survived the subsequent drafts. The joke, here, as that to an outsider, the Pig Man and my father & I would've all appeared poor, dirty, etc., which we were. There's no real difference. Originally, the poem ended with the lines:
I wonder if my father knew the Pig-Man looked down on us.
I wonder if it mattered in the slightest.
I cut them because they seemed to labor the point.
We sat in line,
a dozen trucks
in front, a dozen behind,
all grey or faded
red, the colors
of dust, rust, time.
Rice chaff filled our lungs,
covered our clothes, our faces;
we could hardly tell brown
from pink. All of us swarthy,
My brother's arm, thick
as oak, thrown
over the window
sill of the truck door, his
cap pushed back.
I reached up, lifted
my new Riceland cap
my father had given me the day
before and smoothed
my hair, as I'd seen him do,
trying to look
beyond us, the sky
stretched blue, the land
stretched green, all rice
fields, all flooded with color.
My brother fiddled
with the radio, found only
country, switched it off, tapped
his fingers twice and turned it back on.
"Old piece of shit," he said.
"Piece of crap," I said.
We pulled up,
got out. My brother went in. I stood
aside, seeing for the first time
the dryers towering,
concrete colored, the tallest
things in the world.
My brother came out, ash faced,
a wad in his hand he hid
quickly like he was ashamed.
"Wait all fucking day for four and a half,"
he said and pulled
up to dump the load
while I practiced
On the ride back
to the field, we topped out
at a rumbling forty, listened to more
watched the land slide
by like clouds. I was learning
to complain, learning
impatience with the enthusiasm
of a dog chasing a stick.
My uncle in the combine
met us and we waited
while the radio twanged.
"Come on, now," I said, pleased
to be the first to complain.
My brother scowled
and said nothing.
(Originally appeared in The Arkansas Review, 2008, I think)
Notes: Much like the Beatles' song, "A Hard Days Night," I wrote this poem after naming the project. Jillian named the collection, actually. It worked perfectly. The poem is mugh lighter than pretty much anything in Riceland.
The Old Ways
When I got home from school,
the calf was already hanging
by its tendons from an old single-tree hitch.
My father held a Budweiser in one hand,
a butcher knife in the other.
He tossed my backpack to the side,
like things were about to happen.
I tried to nod on cue as he explained
the hanging job, the right way to cut the meat.
He talked about the good old days when he was a boy,
how they made shoes out of the hide
and wasted nothing
And I watched, brother; I drank in every drop
of blood, sweat, and BS he threw out.
I painted my father‘s sure hands
somewhere permanent inside me,
the way his knife slid through the calf’s flesh
like it was smoke.
And when he passed the blade to me,
I did my best not to chew the meat up too badly.
He nodded, acting satisfied
as I worried the hide off the thing,
glancing at him to call me off
before I made a mess of it.
After a while, he stepped up and slid its coat off.
I stepped back, sweaty.
Then I ran to get the water hose
and cleared the guts off the grass
after he’d finished. I tried to stand
in the same top-heavy lean as my father
and admire an afternoon’s work,
like a man would.
He walked over to the cooler,
got out a Budweiser and handed it to me,
like I was finally his son.
I pulled the tab and metal tongue out
and drank it down.
When we went inside–
my father shining like a knife blade–
I went into the bathroom, locked the door
and puked it all out.
(Originally appeared in Apalachee Review and later in the Bottom Dog Press Anthology Family Matters: Poems of Our Families)
Notes: Another workshop poem from Miller William's class. I wasn't actually coming from school when this happened, but I thought it was a nice juxtaposition. Also, beer was never a hard thing to acquire around my father.