In the closet, racked in line for picking, belts
molder and shed in leather scabs; in hand,
they crack like reins. On their legs and backs, the brand
of a coachman shows itself as the tallied welts
my grandfather counted out. Every pelt
is really punctuation, pauses that land
between the beats—I ain’t gon tell you again.
My mother got it worse than I did, felt
the uncoiling of strap and breath at once, the hissed
release of pain between her father’s teeth.
And this was love—to mark his words on skin.
Now, those reluctant joints retire, yet his
body commits the motion to memory
as he swats a fly and kills it, yanks the weeds again.
The body commits a motion to memory;
the way to strike a child, to shoot a gun.
Framed on the wall above his bed, a young
Robert salutes like a G.I. Joe, forest green
fatigues now washed to pastels. Now, I can see
the evidence of carelessness, ink undone
by a dried-up ring from years of drinking glasses. Hung
up now, the photo only hints at a story
my grandfather hates to tell.
I wasn’t in
no war—nobody to fight back then. But I
could shoot a gun, I sho’ was sharp. The sound?
The sound of a shot was comfort. Felt it in
my bones. Maybe because I thought I’d die
hearing it, thought I’d hear it going into the ground.
Morgan Springs, Alabama by William Christenberry, 1984
They bury the dead on Sundays, lug
the toy bin out onto the porch,
and place the newer dolls and action
figures in line to mourn her headless
Barbies, their father’s G.I. Joes
with amputated arms and broken ankles.
So who’s gon’ say the eulogy?
The younger sister renders Taps
on her plastic clarinet, her brother
unearthing hard-packed clay with their father’s
old spade, a head stone cut from cardboard
pressed down into the hollow grave,
the epitaph, a crayoned quote
from Doctor Seuss—all people are people
no matter how small—all lowercase.
Today, we honor those who fought
the good ole’ fight,
his voice unfurling like the preacher’s
over the hill as he drawls off names.
She ladles handfuls of dirt into
the hole, levels it with the toe
of her flip-flop, asks,
You think it’s gonna rain?
On the way inside, the heavy bin
swaying between them—action figures
and Legos rumbling together like
the distant thunder—he tells her what
he always does.
They brave. They’ll be alright.
by William Christenberry, 1974
A dress floats like a child’s sheet-ghost in a storefront’s
window, its thin metal hanger nearly invisible in the sun’s
glare. On the glass, the owner’s youngest child practiced
writing Sale in yellow paint, each “s” resembling the number
2 instead. At six, the owner closes shop, flips the open sign
to closed, his back-door slam unsettling dust from forgotten
mannequin heads and dressmaker forms with pins still stuck
in the hips, quaking this cotton to life. And these neck-lines—
these scoops turned cowls from stretching the elastic—become
the rounded lips of kitchen mason jars, the once upon a time
for every snag and unraveled strand, the mud stains, grass streaks,
scrubbed-out blood spots dotting the moments a woman lost
or regained some part of herself, sites of rememory.
Risa Denenberg says
Such wonderful work! Thank you for rendering the past so exactingly and with love.