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Melissa Range

Melissa Range was born and raised in East Tennessee. She received a BA from the University of Tennessee–Knoxville in 1995, an MFA from Old Dominion University in 1998, and an MTS from Emory University in 2005. She is the author of Scriptorium (Beacon Press, 2016), selected for the National Poetry Series by Tracy K. Smith, and Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press, 2010). She has received awards and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation, among others. She currently teaches at Lawrence University and lives in Wisconsin.

By This Poet

5

Negative Theology

I get the call about my grandmother. Maybe it is nothing.
A dark spot on a screen: someone says, “Pray that it is nothing.”

On the surgeon’s gurney, swaddled in blue—
she’s lost how much blood? Like you, she weighs nothing.

Pseudo-Denys says to cast off all images, all qualities of you.
So the sculptor chips marble away into nothing.

The preacher speaks over my grandmother,
half her colon gone, where? He lays hands on nothing.

Unlight, Undark, Unfather, Unson,
Unholy of Unholies—all your names stray into nothing.

In the ICU, she vomits everything but the ice.
Unknowing I know her, a body on its way to nothing.

The star points on the monitor collapse to a line,
Ray of Divine Darkness, ray searing all light to nothing.

Cast off all images, even those that seem flesh, seem true.
“Jesus paid it all,” says the preacher. Did he pay it for nothing?

Unmother, Unlover, Undoer, Undone—
like you, she won’t have a name. Two can play at nothing.

My mother calls my name, asks me to pray.
When you’ve got nothing to say, better to say nothing.

Kermes Red

Called crimson, called vermilion—“little worm”
in both the Persian and the Latin, red
eggs for the carmine dye, the insect’s brood
crushed stillborn from her dried body, a-swarm
in a bath of oak ash lye and alum to form
the pigment the Germans called Saint John’s Blood—
the saint who picked brittle locusts for food,
whose blood became the germ of a crimson storm.
Christ of the pierced thorax and worm-red cloak,
I read your death was once for all, but it’s not true:
your kings and bishops command a book,
a beheading, blood for blood, the perfect hue;
thus I, the worm, the Baptist, and the scarlet oak
see all things on God’s earth must die for you.

Crooked as a Dog's Hind Leg

Yanking my lank hair into dog-ears,
my granny frowned at my cowlick’s
revolt against the comb, my part

looking like a dog’s shank
no matter what she did, crooked
as the dogtrot path

out the mountain county I left
with no ambitions to return,
rover-minded as my no-count granddaddy, crooking

down switchbacks that crack the earth
like the hard set of the mouth
women are born with where I’m from.

Their faces have a hundred ways to say
“Don’t go off,” “Your place is here,”
“Why won’t you settle down?”—

and I ignored them all like I was one
of their ingrate sons (jobless, thankless,
drugged up, petted to death), meandering

like a scapegrace in a ballad,
as a woman with no children likes to do,
as a woman with crooked roots knows she can.

“When you coming home?” my granny
would ask when I called, meaning “to visit”
but meaning more “to stay,”

and how could I tell her
that the creeks crisscrossing
our tumbledown ridges

are ropes trying to pull my heart straight
when it’s a crooked muscle,
its blood crashing in circles?

Why should I tell her
that since I was a mop-headed infant
and leapt out of my baby bed,

I’ve been bent on skipping
the country, glad as a chained-up hound
until I slipped my rigging?

What could I say but “I’ll be home Christmas,”
what could I hear but “That’s a long time,”
what could I do but bless

the crooked teeth in my head
and dog the roads that lead all ways
but one?