Blood on the Chrysanthemums
Consider how they say boys will be boys.
Consider that some boys have a moral sense
of rage that other boys draw on for inspiration,
though most hold stores of their own sufficient
to whatever task or adventure. I wake to a memory
of my cousin Bob holding a fallen tree limb, saying,
No, you first and handing it over, that fat tree branch,
as if metaphorically baptizing me in the facts of rain
and locked doors. We’d arrived home from school
to an empty house. It began to rain as we waited.
Did I mention he liked going first—to ride a bike
or ask a girl to go steady—though he was younger?
I recall it was May. I remember taking one step
and ramming that limb through the back door
so that one of us might reach through the glass.
And I remember we got in but that I cut myself.
Not deep, a slice across the top of my fingers—
my hand must have slid along the jagged glass
like a human creature with a mind of its own.
I recall there wasn’t much of a flow. But what
there was, flew from whichever hand. Droplets
fell onto my aunt’s flowerbed of chrysanthemums,
the spatter bright against the white flowers, flashing
boyish insubordination as—what else—the color red.
Part of me wishes there had been applause. Because
we got in big trouble, Bob going first to the paddle
for seeing the world as the door that should open.
Bob’s dead. And I feel the failures of language
and the shock of existence in the word dead or
I want to feel it. I want his going before me to be
that serviceable limb he handed over. Smiling,
knowing there was nothing else to do or say.
Herons, in April in Ohio
These wade the development lake, stirring
sleepy banks of reeds like revelatory winds.
Thieving sustenance, they move like a hand
on an abacus, the click-click of bird mouths
keeping track in the calculus of the shallows.
Backyard orioles materialize as if last light
were cause to feast. They harass the herons,
wheeling in the frayed sleeve of air. Trespass
and theft are a postcard from US 23 in April.
In spite of downpours of agricultural toxins,
noise levels equivalent to carousels in endless
revolution, these build the unbuilt world. Nests
are the archival threadwork of the ground litter
and ephemera of ordinary days. Grocery sacks
are gorgeous, at least this once, with new use.
But not even the beautiful answers for the racket,
the hanging veil of semi-truck exhaust by the road,
though the birds do seem to have become American
in their capacity to coexist with the lack of respect
for everything. In the golds of sunset, I go down
and walk and wish for the healing to come soon
so we can review the state of things and go on.
If this were your last hour, wouldn’t you want
what you want?—for a heron to stand upright
in light like this. To feel the wind of wings.
Her name was Susan, and I recall she wore the look
men wear after going to war and returning. My father had it—
like he had seen more than one thing worth turning away from.
Not to mention, his mother staring at nothing in a sanitarium
where they took her after she shot at a man she did her best
to kill but somehow didn’t. To be animated and sentient
is sometimes a matter of sitting for hours in a rocker
and thumbing the low hills of flesh of one hand.
That was what she was doing when I asked her
and spat out the name of my grandfather Bob Beach,
my father’s DNA-donor-only father, our blood relative.
Why she was where she was and had been for many years.
“Who?” she shot back through her hard mouth, the first sound,
the only sound, she had made since we’d entered the room.
I reached for the water near her. Handed her the glass.
A blue tumbler that beaded droplets of a darker blue.
She took it, the glass. Sat it back down where it had been.
They had brought me to see her. Had no idea I might speak.
And I’m sure they were afraid of what she might say back.
Some lives are irretrievably ruined. Hers was one of those.
Mostly she sat in her rocker. All day, every day. The boy
I was reached for her hands. To stop her hurting herself.
She brushed me aside with the gesture they translated
to say we could leave and not be missed. And then
my father called her “Mother”. He leaned down—
to stop the incessant rubbing. I can’t say why she
didn’t knock his hands away, only that she didn’t.
If there is a God and justice, it’s for those like her.
I was five. I wasn’t thinking about God or justice.
And when she did look up, it was into a shadow
on an opposite wall, the blue-on-blue eternity
she may have imagined answers to a name.
Nettie Dolores Potter Discovers Scarlett O’Hara
The librarian, Miss Webb, tells her she’s got a book for her.
Miss Webb does this every day or two. Just hands them over.
It’s 1950. Neon, Kentucky. And she offers Gone With the Wind.
I can see my mother as a young woman, not yet a wife or mother,
assume a place at a table in the library of Fleming High School.
I can’t make out words on the page, but I’m watching her read.
The radiant look on her face says she found someone like her.
Of course she’s seen the movie. Could be Vivien Leigh’s sister.
Russet hair aglow with rain. A wasp-waisted, long-legged waif.
I picture Mammie cinching a corset around her skinny middle.
I hear my angry mother, Nettie Dolores, telling her to piss off.
Pages turn. She moves a second chair around. Props herself up.
She’s taking advantage of a privilege afforded basketball stars.
This isn’t Tara, the plantation world she will dream of tonight
and for the rest of her long life. This is Neon. And her mother
won’t let her read at the house. She will want her to hoe beans.
Slop a sow she’s yet to name that has to feed them this winter.
For an afternoon her world is her own. Thanks to the librarian
who’s sure Nettie Potter will never sit in a college classroom.
She’s working a strand of hair as Rhett makes an appearance.
Maybe she imagines Bobby, her boyfriend, in a moustache
or dodging some antebellum heirloom she’s tossed at him.
Maybe her Rhett is mocking her Oh Ashley! and smiling.
The rogue-arrogant smile the Old South never conceded.
Not to subjugation nor the years of hunger after the war.
What she knows of brutality isn’t in Margaret Mitchell.
It’s in the mud-dirt roads of hollows she calls hollers.
In the fists of those she knows as father and brother.
Kentucky Love Story
One need not weep romantic tears for them,
But when the last moonshiner buys his radio,
And the last, lost wild-rabbit of a girl
Is civilized with a mail-order dress,
Something will pass that was American,
And all the movies will not bring it back.
—Stephen Vincent Benet, “John Brown’s Body”
When she is nude, barring a stretch mark or two
and her tendency to eschew black gartered stockings,
his lust for his wife Blanche is like a swallow of moonshine—
impossible to down without loving the reviving nature of it.
These days, any thoughts of her with that Belcher boy, Johnny,
can push him over the edge. The rumors are a taunt. Nothing
that Blanche will admit to. Except to say, Never happened.
He was away in the South Pacific. Serving in the Seabees.
Rumors are why Bill Barnett and Blanche’s brother Bill Potter
are lying on their bellies with TNT pilfered from stockpiles
of some eastern Kentucky coalfield. Like more than a few
who stayed behind during the war, Johnny has it coming.
And Bill sees his duty as making sure that Johnny gets his.
With four kids, Bill Barnett volunteered for the Army. Blanche,
newly shorn of all hope of a helpmate, was left to fend for herself.
It’s a story of a woman sleeping with a man after a dance and whose
child is whose become very much in doubt. So there are two Bills
on a hillside and Johnny Belcher needing blown to smithereens.
Between pulls on a fifth of bourbon whiskey, J.T.S. Brown,
Bill says, “I’ll duck-walk my dumb ass down this-here slope.
I’ll light this and toss it. And run like hell. You wait here.”
He pats the TNT in a pocket of his long black coat. Smiles.
The other Bill seems about to open his mouth and complain.
He doesn’t. He points to the silhouette of Johnny’s oldest
waltzing onto the porch. Which means that no one named
Belcher will be killed or die tonight in an eerie hollow
in a region named from a mispronunciation of a Cherokee
word for the land that lies south of the Ohio River. It seems
mistakes are as good as you make them if you’re waiting for the world
to answer for the lies it tells you about itself, on the way to truth.
Where I grew up in Ohio, a mortician’s daughter
once told me how a dead man can get an erection.
We’re talking, soon after death. She said, Daddy
says he’s seen some raise a sheet, then laughed.
She had a wild and ungovernable laugh. Told me
her father did small favors for the Dayton mob.
Said he’d embalmed a Don shot through one eye.
We giggled. Guffawed. I could tell you her name,
but I won’t. Since her family still runs the business
in that town known for the Wright Brothers circling
Huffman’s Prairie, performing loops. Figure-eights.
She and I were rescuing the unextraordinary hour
with stories of stiffs sprouting stiffies. Kid stuff.
Of course these were souls enduring the indignities
and nonsensical quirks of Being and blood flow,
without the aid or benefit of a single trumpet blast
or harp-note from celestial sheet music, without
the flash of a spruce-sparred Wright Flyer tipping
its Pride of the West muslin in salute to the fallen,
the whoosh of wings a one-eyed wink at the world.
It isn’t blasphemy to want to laugh out loud at death,
especially in Ohio where everything melts into grey
and we fail to glimpse our just-dead raising a flag
of self, lifting that flag to the status of blessing.
Roy Bentley has earned fellowships from the NEA, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Arts Council. He has published four books: Boy in a Boat, from University of Alabama Press, Any One Man, from Bottom Dog Books, The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana, from White Pine, and Starlight Taxi, from Lynx House Press. These days he teaches for Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey.