Four Poemsby Kate Daniels
Photo by William Christenberry
Akron, Alabama, circa 1960
This is what it was like to grow up
down there, then. A pretty place
but desolate. The signs that are supposed
to tell you what to do, or be, or buy
are faded to the point of inarticulation.
You surmise people used to talk
about everything you need to know
but have grown silent for some reason.
A black man sat down in a soda shop
to eat a bite, and terrified, it seemed, the patrons.
I was there in that tense silence,
licking my strawberry cone, and it was
just like this picture of kudzu in winter,
the prettiness all covered over
with something growing too fast,
enshrouding the landscape with a sinewy
fabric that lives off the lives of others.
Or this next one of the house and car
in Akron, Alabama. The house is beat-up
and rusty, but habitable. You could live there
fine until something happens – a cross
flaming on the uncut lawn, or your housegirl’s husband
with his foot shot off. That blue car’s
been in the yard forever just waiting
for you to need it, and now you do.
So you head out, past the washer on the porch
and down the walk. You get in and realize
you’re not going anywhere: it’s up on blocks,
overrun by families of mice and birds. Why
did you never notice that before? How stuck here
you are with the blank sky and the fallen fences, the awful
unexplained silences of the South.
The planes carrying us stateside after our tour had to ascend at a really steep angle to avoid anti-aircraft fire from the North Vietnamese. So, leaving, like everything else there, was really tense. When we took off, it was overcast. But then we broke through 35,000 feet and the cloud cover at the same time. The sun stabbed us through the windows it was so bright. Then the pilot came on the P.A. and said, ‘Welcome home, gentlemen.’ And he put in a tape – Richie Havens singing, ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ and everyone – I mean everyone – was crying.– a veteran of the Vietnam War
He almost had to growl to say his own name,
Greggie Grzinsky, “that Polack kid from Buffalo,”
a big boy, always fighting, growing into the shape
of his father’s despisal – the best part of you, kid,
ran down my leg – and hulking down, ashamed
inside his own body as if something essential
had been carved out of him and carried away,
and was moldering now, undiscovered,
in the decomposing garbage at the junkyard
or the dump. So when he went to war, it wasn’t
really all that different, and he discovered himself
a superb soldier, a battalion commander who kept
a clear head and never lost a man, and killed, he supposed,
dozens, even hundreds, of the enemy, foreign people
he never saw and couldn’t care about, blowing them up
from ten miles back. Still, war was war,
and even a hard man, even a growling dog of a man
with no soft center, found himself counting
the days until he was sprung from that humid
garden where fields were shallow pools of fecund
water alive with delicate sprouts of rice and buried
hand grenades. Where the sky could be a canopy
of tendrilling trees or fragile ringlets of tropical flowers,
but other times exploded into psychedelic blossoms
of missle fire and ate itself up. The darkness and the feminine
odor of the lowering heat forced him to ponder his lost
best part, his father’s ancient pleasure in the dark,
and how he must have turned away, sticky and separate,
after the act. Around him, the jungle steamed fragrantly, indifferent
as a whore rising to bathe in the quonset brothel outside Da Nang.
So when the plane carrying him home at last
banked sharply in the sky, roaring, it seemed, almost
straight up, he suddenly jettisoned his father’s life –
the immigrant child in Buffalo, New York, stumbling
over the syllables of his own name in a new language,
sponging his jacket of the rotten oranges and balls of mud
flung at his back as he walked to school, stopping his ears
to the incessant cawing of the wiry little Poles
fortunate enough to be born in America – dirty Polack,
stinking Polack – the two room tenement thick
with the smells of boiling cabbage and stuffed pirogi,
his mother’s babushka, her blood-cracked hands
and terrified tongue. And then there was his father
all grown up at the center of a new life, a belt
in his hand, his shirt stained with beef blood
where he’d wiped the cleaver dawn to dusk,
the old syllables cracking cleanly in his mouth.
And there he was, too, laboring on into the night
hunched above the body of the boy’s own mother,
and pulling out, the son realized now, to confound
conception, and rolling off and over in the dark
just a few feet distant from the body of his boy, curled
like a dog on a folded blanket spread thinly on the floor.
And then resting on his back, his dark grunt of satisfaction
filling the room with a kind of cloud, his hands
cupped on his groin to form a little sacramental space
devoted to the only place in life that gave him any pleasure.
And so, all those years later, to remember those words –
the best part – as the plane surges through the atmosphere
carrying him, finally, away from war, he sees himself
alive at last, a swimmer in a clear tear of human hope,
a globule of desire rising from the old life at the same time
that it falls, disconnecting from the site of his entire history
and burning in its tracks both painfulness and pleasure.
Homage to Calvin Spotswood
Yet not for those,Because I couldn’t bear to go back to the southside
Nor what the potent victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though changed in outward luster…
—Paradise Lost, Bk. I
of Richmond and the life I had led there – the blaring
televisions, the chained up hounds, the cigarettes hissing
in ceramic saucers, the not never’s, I’m fixin’ to’s,
the ain’ts — because anything at all was better than that,
I took the job. The four bucks an hour, the zip-front,
teal-colored, polyester uniform, the hairnets and latex gloves,
the intimate odors of piss and sweat, the eight hour
nighttime shifts of vomitus and shit, of death and death,
and then more death. Each day, I pinned on the badge that assigned me
to hell: nurse’s aide on an oncology ward for terminal patients.
Calvin Spotswood was my first patient. His metal chart
proclaimed him: “Non-ambulatory, terminal C.A..” A Goner,
the docs called him, a non-compliant asshole they wheeled
like a dying plant, out of the sun, out of the way,
so he could wither and perish at his own speed distant from those
with a happier prognosis.
They parked him in a dim back room so he could go unheard
when pain peeled him down to his disappearing center.
Calvin had dropped down through a chute in the day to day,
and skidded in for a landing on the flaming shores
of Stage III colo-rectal cancer. Nightly, he cooked there,
flipping back and forth on the grainy, cloroxed sheets
like a grilling fish. Timidly at first, I bathed the hot grate
of his ribs with tepid water, the cloth I dipped
almost sizzling dry on his heaving chest. I hated the feel
of his skin, the intimacy of my hands on his body. I hated
the smell beneath his sheets, the odor of his mouth. I hated
to touch him – a dying man, a devil, trapped, alive, in hell.
uncomfortable now, because he was black, imagining
Calvin as Milton’s Satan, as if I am demonizing him unfairly,
or engaging in a stereotype based on race. But I had read the poem
and I recognized immediately the one who was “hurled headlong flaming”
from the gates of heaven, and “chained” for infinity “on the burning lake”
of his hospital bed. Like Lucifier, Calvin
was a troublingly complex anti-hero — a horrible person in many ways, stubborn
and stupid, had abused his nurses and cursed the doctors,
refusing the colostomy that might have prolonged — or saved — his life.
He wouldn’t be unmanned, he said, shitting in a bag. No f-ing way.
He said “f-ing,” instead of the full blown word,
a kind of delicacy I found peculiar, and then endearing.
And though the tumor, inexorably, day by day, shut him down, he wouldn’t pray, or console himself in any of the usual ways. Each afternoon,
he turned away from the Pentacostal preacher who stood with his Bible
at the foot of his bed, and said his name kindly and asked to say
a prayer or lay his hands upon the burning body. No f-ing way.
The tumor grew until it bound itself into his stomach wall
Each move he made extracted a fiery arrow of flaming pain
from his rotten gut. And when the house staff figured
they had him beat, and organized a betting pool on how soon old Calvin
would entrust himself to the surgeon’s knife so he could eat
again, he still declined, still whined for pussy, porno mags,
and chicken fried in bacon grease. A third year resident,
Harvard M.D., wrote an order for the supper Calvin thought
he craved: mashed potatoes and buttered bread, a chicken-battered,
deep-fried steak. Beaming, our man consumed it while his doctor lingered
outside his door to await the inevitable result of the natural process
of human digestion… Here is where I need to remind you that this
was back when the old U.Va. hospital still stood, on the brick-curbed rim
of Hospital Drive, where the sign saying Private really meant white, a reminder
of what passed for health care in the segregated South.
Nurses still wore bobby-pinned, absurd white hats that looked
as if they were about to levitate off of their heads..
The R.N.’s were white, the practicals, black.
And none of the docs, of course, were black.
But Calvin was, and the Civil Rights Act was a decade old,
so it was the New South, instead of the Old, where Calvin consumed
his last good meal, deluded into thinking a black man in the South
had finally won. An hour later, he knew he’d lost, and patients
two floors down could hear him screaming from the mouth
of the flaming crater he filled with curses.
Night after night, wrist deep in the tepid water I bathed him with,
I stood at his beside and tried to change him from hot to cool
and listened to him discourse maniacally on the mysteries of gender:
Born again, he’d be a woman in slick red panties, a streetwalking
whore in high-heeled sandals and torn, black hose, opening his legs
for paper money, filling his purse with bucks to spend.
How anyone was granted a life like that he could never comprehend:
getting paid to fuck. His greatest treasure had been a dark red Pontiac with bucket seats
he’d drive to D.C.’s 14th Street to look for whores and a game of cards.
He’d been a lumberjack, he revealed one night. A quelling job,
and measured with his hands sphered into a circle, the muscles
jettisoned to illness. His strength had been his pride.
Now, he was a wiry and diminutive, sick stick of a man,
shriveled by a tumor. The image of his former power resided
in the two huge wives who guarded his door, one white, one black.
Passing between the corporeal portals of their womanly flesh,
my pale-toned puniness frightened me. But even in the final stages
of a violently invasive terminal carcinoma, nothing daunted Calvin —
not even the quarter ton of dominating, loud-mouthed women
with whom he had conceived six children. I marveled
at the unrancorous way they held each other, their cheap clothing
crinkling noisily, releasing that funky odor big people carry.
Their decalled fingernails, their huge, flopping breasts, their ornate hairdos –
the one teased up and lacquered high in place, the other cornrowed
flat with beads – their flamboyance so obvious I couldn’t help
but apprehend what Calvin Spotswood thought was hot in women.
Not me, of course, skinny college girl with straight brown hair,
and wire rimmed glasses, dog-ear-ing Book I of Paradise Lost….
What Calvin adored were the superfluous extras I tried to delete –
fat and loudness, clandestine odors of secreted musk.
At the end, cupping his withered, hairless testicles
in my cool, white palm because he asked me to, it wasn’t anything
like witnessing a death. More like the birth of a new world, really,
he was entering alone. The little universe of sperm that twirled
beneath my hand, he was taking with him. On the burning bed,
his mouth lolled open in forgotten, wasted pleasure,
and I saw in my mind images of the South’s strange fruit, the old photos
bound into books of black men who’d transgressed early in the century,
swinging heavily from trees -- their demeaned postures and living deaths.
But Calvin was uncatalogued there. His name was written
in the dramatis personae of a slimmer text, an epic poem about the fall
from grace of a defiant, finger-flipping Beezelbub who dared
to challenge the creator of a world where black men swung
from the limbs of trees for admiring the backside of fair-skinned girls.
Calvin was the one kicking holes in the floor of that so-called heaven to hasten
his eviction. And so I cupped his balls. I did, and stroked his dick, marveling,
at the force of life even at the end, and the inscrutability of a God
who would keep alive a man who claimed to hate his f-ing guts
and nail into my mind forever, Calvin Spotswood in his final hours,
undiminished, unredeemed, unrepentant, his poor black body burning and burning.
for Philip Levine
Around the time I first read the poetry of Philip Levine,
my teeth were fixed. Two or three hundred bucks
(I’ve forgotten now) purchased a brand new me,
two porcelain crowns. In the dentist’s chair, my midget
canines were filed down to sharp, bright points
hardly larger than the bronzed end of a Bic
pen, then crammed in the black-backed caps
of two hardened, china fakes. No more
covering my mouth to obscure the evidence
of faulty genes. No more tears at images
embezzled from graduation picnics
when Darrell Dodson picked me up and slung me
in the pool, and someone took a picture
of my lips slacking back to reveal my gums
in what appeared to be a scream. No more breezes
winding through the gappy pickets of my ill-grown
teeth and down my throat. No more worrying
some boy would snag his tongue in the zigzagged bulkhead
of my upper row, and bring us both to blood.
I’ll love Levine forever for confessing his own struggles
with orthodontia, his rot-plagued “Depression mouth,”
a dentist called it, his cavities and root canals, his occipital pain,
for his photograph in Antaeus, the summer of ’78,
the stained and crooked slabs parked compellingly
behind his grin. Our teeth connected us before the poetry,
he, from the immigrant onion-eaters and temperate tipplers
of Manischiewtz. I, from a long line of tannin-stained
Irish Catholics who smoked themselves to fragile
states of calcium depletion, and a recent run of Carolina
gritballs, too poor to brush, too ignorant to care their teeth
retired in early middle age. I can see them now, perplexed
before an apple’s crispy rind, frustrated by a succulent, stringy rack
of pork ribs barbequed in the side lot of Earlene Worsham’s
gas station south of town. Levine would have understood my uncles,
enthroned on plastic-covered kitchen chairs patched with tape,
their work boots kicking up mucky clouds of chiggery dirt,
their pick ups parked nearby, shotguns in the rack,
sucking on cheap beers and harsh cigarettes,
their nails starved by nicotine to yellow curls, the car grease
embedded permanently in the creases of their hands.
When I met him, he was such a mensch, massive
in my mind, but in the flesh, something touching
about his shoulders in the worn tweed jacket, something
vulnerable in his feet in an ordinary pair of soiled, white sneakers.
He opened his mouth to laugh, one side rising up
like it does, in that derisive gesture that seems, at first, a sneer,
and I remembered my mother flexing back her lips to remove
delicately, with two stained fingers, just so, a fleck of tobacco
lodged between her teeth, and saw again my father flossing at the table
with the torn off cover of a paper book of matches,
then stubbing out his butt in the yellowed, oily pod of broken yolk
that was hemorrhaging across his breakfast plate.
I can face those images now without the shame
I carried in the days before the poetry of Phil Levine
liberated me. I can look at anything now, because I keep
his picture in my mind and his poems in my pocket.
I can stand my life because I wear the crown he constructed
for people like me — grocery checkers, lube jobbers, truck drivers,
waitresses — all of us crowned with the junkyard diadems
of shattered windshields and rusty chains, old pots
with spit tobacco congealing inside, torn screen doors
and gravestones in the front yard, just five short steps from life to death…
So there is my family with their broken beer bottles
and patched shoes, their mutts chained in a back yard
carved from a stingy pine woods, on cheap land
out near the county dump where the air swells with the perfume
of trash, a circle of them playing poker in a trailer somewhere
in the woods, or razoring the state decal from the windowshield
of a ransacked wreck to transfer to my brother’s car.
Or cleaning fish on the back porch and throwing the guts
to the tick-clogged dogs, or frying venison in a cast-iron pan
and stinking up the house with that heavy smell, showing
the buck’s big balls in a plastic cannister that once held salt.
Or burning tires in a field some autumn, scumming
the sky with a smoky, cursive black they can’t even read
but inhale poisonously again and again.
And there I am, walking along tolerantly now, with Phil Levine,
his poems in my pocket, his good rage gathered in my heart
and I can love them again, the way I did in the years before
I saw what they were and how the world would use them
and accepted the fact they were incapable of change.
We’re in a field I used to love, a redbone coonhound running ahead
her ears dragging the edges of the goldenrod till they are tipped
in pollen, like twin paintbrushes dipped in gilt. And the world
is hunting dogs and country music and unschooled voices
bending vowels and modest kitchen gardens where late tomatoes
are tied up with brownish streamers of old nylon hose.
The vast way your chest expands when the sun gradually sets
in mid-fall in central Virginia. The tobacco barns glimmering
in last light, the chinks darkening now, the slats solidifying at the close of day
and your mind opening up like the pine forest swishing fragrantly overhead
way up in the dark that is coming, but remains, for the moment, beautifully at bay.