Three Poems

by Jennifer Horne


An Ubi Sunt for Certain Aunts




Those enervated, hypothyroidal, smoking southern ladies
clad in crisply ironed men’s shirts, slacks, canvas shoes,
never without a certain amount of frustration, life being
never as beautiful or perfect as they had been led to expect—

their wry humor, dry laugh, yet nothing but praise and charm
for the children: “Oh honey, oh sweetness, oh darlin’,”
as though we were the loveliest confections, too pretty to eat—
saved for themselves the scathing insults:

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” at little mistakes—spilled sugar,
a bad marriage, teaching us young to be infinitely generous
with others. I decided to retrieve their softly dropped r’s:
dinner party, otherwise, suppertime, motherhood,

their language the patois of defeat, a desuetude I rejected.
They mostly died before seventy, their permanent disappointments
turned inward, though nothing as showy as cancer, heart attack,
stroke. Just a gradual shrinkage, the slow flaking of paint

on an old house, its imperceptibly liquid panes.
Oh ladies, I would like to clasp you to my grown-up bosom
(a word you used freely, it used to embarrass me no end),
smooth the puzzlement from the cracked glaze of your faces,

and soothe, “Not stupid. Honey. Sweetness. Beautiful aunts,
aunts of my youth.” I see you, in mind’s eye, sighing back at me,
a chorus wreathed in smoke, languid movements of the wrist:
“Oh darlin’,” you begin, “Let me tell you about the time . . . ”

Lost. Unsalvageable. Lovely.








NOON ON WEDNESDAY


I.
Three years old in ’63,
I think the firemen blow the siren
to help us mark the time: mid-day,
mid-way through the week.
I’m eighteen when I learn
what it’s for, a defense so civil
I haven’t known its name.

The first time my mother cries,
she says, “The President’s been shot.”
She cries again at the funeral
on TV. The next morning,
she warms herself by the gas fire
in the living room. I look up
to see her nightgown flame.

Tennessee Ernie Ford
keeps talking to Minnie Pearl
as my mother wraps herself
in the brown braided rug.
Her nightgown is ruined,
but she’s unhurt. We agree
not to tell my father.

Noon on Wednesday:
lunch in the yellow kitchen,
red and white soup can,
blue and white box of crackers.
In Arkansas, we don’t expect
to be hit. No air raid drills.
All our shining silos fill with grain.

At home, we’re warm.
The Cold War’s chill
can’t touch us. We don’t worry.
Our parents make us safe.
On family trips, my sister and I
sign Peace from the back of the Chevy Impala,
count roadside hippies like white horses.

I am not prepared for the world
to split open, wrapped as I am
in my cocoon of unknowing.
Death is only the cat
who gulps down whole a goldfish
we carry from the dimestore
in a plastic bag of water.


II.
The body bags begin their long
procession through the nightly news.
My friend and I argue How to End the War
as we walk from school.
We wrestle in my front yard
until she gives up. Regardless,
I believe I am a pacifist.

1968: danger calls at our house.
“Daddy works for the governor,
and they’ve made some people mad.”
A man on the phone
says he’s coming to shoot that bastard.
Another one—the same?—
takes Polaroid shots of the house.

His leisure suggests
he has plenty of time for violence,
and though this is only Arkansas,
only a minor government post,
it’s now a risky one
under our Rockefeller, cleaning up corruption
in his newly adopted state.

Nothing is funny now,
especially not our neighbor,
a jokester who sticks smoke bombs
under the hood of our car,
his laughter from across the street
a cackle, like the Maaaaad Butcher,
whose cut-rate ads give me nightmares.

One autumn afternoon, we arrive home
to find the front door standing open
like a gaping mouth, surprised.
Mom steps in first.
But that’s all. It’s only open.
The white house on the quiet street
holds only what we own.

Something is missing, though:
we all know what it is.
Safety has wandered out
and gotten lost, where we can’t find it.
Later, as we play outside,
a helicopter flies over, low,
and we don’t know whether we should hide or wave.








WPA


Hey Walker, hey Jim, you did good,
you did what you could in the time
you had to say what had to be said.
Tell me, was that God walking barefoot down the road?
We went by so fast I hardly saw him.

Some of us here
don’t know whether
to save it
or let it go.
We want
a history
and it’s the only one
we’ve got.

Why look back? It’s over.

Where do we go from here?

Sometimes I think I’ll have to leave.

Old Joe Clark he had a house,
forty stories high,
and every story in that house
was filled with chicken pie.
Fare thee well, Old Joe Clark,
Fare thee well, I say.
Fare thee well, Old Joe Clark,
Better be on my way.

Oh, it’s not just
the white neoclassical columns,
the black jockey hitching post in the front yard,
not the Confederate battle flag bumper sticker,
or boys in the bar singing “Sweet Home Alabama,”
or even the way the “did-you-hear-about-the-gentleman-of-the-colored-persuasion-who” jokes get brought out
as soon as it’s just us white folks.
       “Oh shit, I just forgot she was in the room.”
       “I forgot she was black.”
       “Do you think she—?”
       “No, I don’t think so.”
It’s not the apart it’s the together,
not the separate it’s the connect.
It was working side by side in the field,
it’s playing softball on a hot July day,
and if all our sweat isn’t the same,
salt and water, just like our tears,
well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

Meat & three,
meat & three,
meat & three
at the City Cafe.

In the evenin’ by the moonlight,
you could hear the darkies singin’.
In the evenin’ by the moonlight,
you could hear their banjoes ringin’.
How the old folks would enjoy it,
they would sit all night and listen,
as they sang in the evenin’ by the moonlight.
Ladidoodah, Ladidoodah,
ladidoodee, ladidoodee, ladidoodah.

This is clear:
pure hate is easy,
pure heat, pure hate is clarifying,
even dressed up in a David Duke suit
like a hot knife through butter
wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

As if poison ivy, chiggers, ticks,
water moccasins, fire ants,
rattlesnakes and a hundred degrees
at 6 a.m. in the shade weren’t enough.

I love the South.
I love the South not.
And so on until the ground is littered with petals

A dogtrot is both the cabin
and the passage down its center,
a breezeway to past and future,
the one hard, the other uncertain.
Some evenings it’s a cool haven,
the loud hum of cicadas,
one lone frog piping hopefully into the night
fit accompaniment for a quiet mind.

June slid by like a dream
       of dripping trees,
       something that slips your mind
       upon waking,
       though its mood remains,
       sleep-suffused, shaded,
       a bit warm for comfort.

This piney woods clearing,
this green heaven
where we lay down together,
sun filtering through the leaves—
we could have been the only two people on earth,
Adam and Eve all over,
but without the sinning.
If that was sin,
let’s do it again.

Down in the valley,
valley so low,
hang your head over,
hear the wind blow.
Hear the wind blow, dear,
hear the wind blow.
Hang your head over,
hear the wind blow.

Jim wrote:
“Pinned all along the edge of this mantel, a broad fringe of white tissue paper which Mrs. Gudger folded many times on itself and scissored into pierced geometrics of lace, and of which she speaks as her last effort to make this house pretty.”

A dead pine with hollow gourds hanging
against a clouded sky
is what? A warning,
a metaphor, a minor collage,
a habit? Or what it is:
a home for martins,
an invitation to nest
from people who know something about migration.

Sometimes on Sundays at my grandmother’s house
after church, still wearing our starched dresses,
our patent leather shoes,
we’d beg to drive past the crazyman’s house
on the outskirts of town,
his yard and home a kaleidoscope
of hubcaps and blue bottles,
old tires painted white,
crazy-quilt paths lined with rocks.
Each time, seeing him sitting on his porch
as we drove slowly past,
I’d feel a sudden flush of shame,
his creation on display for gaping children.

On the way home:
Well, it rained all night the day I left,
the weather it was dry,
the sun so hot I froze to death,
Susannah, don’t you cry.


In 1936, Bill’s father
worked for the Sunshine Bakery
and had to borrow money
to pay for his son’s birth.
I’d say he was worth it,
wouldn’t you, Mr. Christenberry?

Nowhere have I seen them.
Like Citizens Councils and swastikas,
they are stories in a book,
pictures caught by flashbulbs,
an old bad smell, an obscene wink.
I sense them as echoes, smoke from a doused fire:
here on Highway 11 is where the sign was,
this was the restaurant they met in,
this the courthouse where Christenberry
saw the masked face.
And here in Mobile is where the young man was lynched,
and here is the judge who made them bankrupt.
Would you want to see a cross burning
in someone’s front yard, if you could?
I wonder, from my peaceful room,
if I would have been brave in those wars.

Harper’s: “By 1859 northern manufacture provided an annual return of $1.9 billion, while southern agriculture yielded only $204 million; all that remained to be discussed was whether the political revolution evident in the arithmetic would find expression as a treaty of peace or an act of war.”

Well, I fight
against being polemical.
Still, where else
did all that wealth
come from
but free labor?

You can drive down roads
for miles on end, interrupted only
by a deer leaping ahead of the car,
legs outstretched
as in a woodland frieze.
Here, in summer,
are seasonal cathedrals
green transepts,
tumbling buttresses
contrived of heart-shaped leaves
that die to rise again
and hide, deep-shadowed,
a secret clustered purple flower.
On a lucky day you see
a kingfisher dive into still water,
dead pines poking up like fingers,
hear the low repeated cry of a bittern.
The trees have seen it all,
have even been implicated in death,
but sunlight slants equally through their branches
on evil or beauty,
and this is some kind of consolation.

I confess I’m uneasy
in these mansion-museums,
monuments to gracious living,
the style of which—
someone is saying
this is her “idea of Heaven”
and it’s true the view
over these sloping fields is magnificent
until the docent tells us
how it helped the master
keep an eye on his slaves.
Ah, the uses of beauty.
Here is the very telescope with which—

From the raised and crumbling porch
of Saunders Hall, it’s cotton fields
stretching flat as a coverlet
and descendants of sharecroppers
in the decaying big house
who overlook them.
“I grew up in this house,”
he says. “And one day some men
from the Saunders family came
and took the headstones
out of the family graveyard.
One of ’em left his glasses
lyin’ on the ground,
and me and daddy jumped in the truck
and caught up with ’em.
I remember that.”
Let’s have another bloody Mary
from the cocktail tables set up in the yard
and try to ignore the woman
with her head wrapped in a bandage
as though just returned from battle.
It was she who planted the flowers by the steps.
See, the dirt’s still freshly turned.

No matter how long I live here
I don’t think I’ll understand it all
so why keep banging my head against it?
Go to Wal-mart
and see, there, how a bargain
breaks down barriers to integration.
E pluribus unum, y’all.

Mr. Frog went a’courtin’, he did ride, umhmmm, umhmm.
Mr. Frog went a’courtin’, he did ride, umhmmm, umhmm.
Mr. Frog went a’courtin’, he did ride, sword and a pistol by his side,
Mr. Frog went a’courtin’, he did ride, umhmmm.

Sometimes on the porch late at night,
everybody tired from the day’s work,
talking about how it might be a good year, this time,
this time we might get ahead, for once,
she’d sit in her momma’s lap,
too big for it now but allowed,
on a night like this,
and dream her way into a future
where she’d be a nurse, or maybe a teacher,
and live in a nice house with curtains,
and maybe a good stove,
and there would be a man
much like her daddy but dressed in a suit,
and he would love her.

I see the moon and the moon sees me,
the moon sees somebody I’d like to see.
God bless the moon and God bless me,
God bless somebody I’d like to see.

If everyone falls silent
at twenty minutes before or after the hour,
an angel is passing over the house.

Itchy nose: company coming.
Dropped spoon: the same.
Set an extra place.

Shiver down your spine:
Rabbit ran over your grave.
Rabbit ran over your grave.

The black man on the riverwalk
asks for spare change.
People are afraid.
They have their wallets to protect,
their sense of safety.
“Spare change? For a cup of coffee?
Hey. Hey! This ain’t the wind talkin’.”

So often we misunderstand:
Anne Sexton wrote she was “on tender hooks.”
The woman with the magic magnets in her shoes
says, “These are in the form of insults,
but they come in all kinds.”
And those three families
Jim and Walker befriended
believed their lives would be changed
because, because how could they not?
This was momentous
for someone to pay them this kind of attention.
For the better?

She’ll be comin’ round the mountain
when she comes.
She’ll be comin’ round the mountain
when she comes.
She’ll be comin’ round the mountain,
she’ll be comin’ round the mountain,
she’ll be comin’ round the mountain,
when she comes.

At the roadside stand:
“Hot Jumbo Boiled Peanuts—
Regular or Cajun.”

And I remember
stopping beside the highway
to pick a boll of cotton
and how far we’d come
from my father’s boyhood,
his skin itchy from picking peaches all day,
his overalls—the symbol of their poverty—
heavy with sweat.
What a curiosity to us:
cotton in its raw form,
ragged white puff on a brown stem,
long before it became
the Buster Brown t-shirts and shorts and socks
we picked out at the Heights Variety dime store.

A partial reading list:
All God’s Dangers
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Absalom, Absalom!
Gone With the Wind
Jubilee
A Childhood
To Kill a Mockingbird

And if I read all the books,
then will it all make sense?

Come with me.
We’ll start in the chalky loam
of the Black Belt
and follow the ocean’s path
down to the gulf.
You bring the beer,
I’ll bring the salt-and-vinegar chips
and we’ll play hookey together
on the first day of spring.
I can feel the sand now,
gritty and cool
on the soles of my feet,
and if the water’s too chilly
to immerse ourselves just yet,
we’ll walk awhile,
maybe as far as Perdido Pass.

Here, in this open book of sea and sand,
I can imagine a change of heart—
in the old tradition, sudden and lasting.
This is what I, who don’t pray, pray for:
something new, out of the clear blue sky.