I. Genesis: Animal Planet

I rose up first in a big vacant state with an x in its middle
to mark the place I was born into dying
surrounded by oil refinery towers with flames
like giant birthday candles you could never
get big enough to blow out. Before I was
they were, and before them, reptiles and mammals
died and rotted and were crushed into carbon
then coal, then oil in the earth
whose deep core held bigger burning.

My daddy labored here, at The Gulf,
Which meant oil refinery, but also
a distance he drowned in,
caged inside this high hurricane fence.
In steel-toed boots for forty-two years, he walked.
The gold hatpin he got at retirement
had four diamond chips
for a smile and two rubies like eyes,
and he passed it to me
because it was a holy relic
of suffering and sacrifice,
so I wanted it most.
He breathed in this chemical stink
some sixteen hours or days on end
in a storm, and it perfumed his overalls.

The catalyst he pumped on the cracking unit
burst through with enormous pressure to break down
the black crude’s chemical bonds
into layers, into products,
and many ignorant men did twist the spigots
and unplug the clogs and keep it all
rivering so the buried pipes
could carry out so many flammables north—

North! Where books are written and read.
The sunset down here glows green and hard-washed
denim blue and the scalded pink of flesh.

“I. Genesis: Animal Planet” from Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr. Copyright © 2018 by Mary Karr. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.