North Carolina

In 1935, North Carolina established a state poet laureate position, which is currently held by Jaki Shelton Green. Green is the author of several books of poetry, including I Want to Undie You (Jacar Press, 2017).

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Help Me to Salt, Help Me to Sorrow

In the moon-fade and the sun’s puppy breath,
  in the crow’s plummeting cry,
in my broken foot and arthritic joints,
                                       memory calls me
to the earth’s opening, the graves dug, again, and again 
I, always I am left
                   to turn away
into a bat’s wing-brush of air.

That never changes . . .
  not this morning, not here

where I’ve just found
in the back of my truck, under the rubber mat, 
in a teacup’s worth of dirt, 
where it seems no seed could possibly be 
a corn kernel split to pale leaves and string-roots.

It’s a strange leap but I make it
and bend to these small harvests

because somewhere in North Carolina there was a house
  and in it, my room and my bed,
bare boards and the blood stains of a man
that in each slant rain’s worried whispers puddles to the cries of a slave, 
murdered in 1863 trying to escape.

Somewhere there was a child who slept
on the living room’s red-vinyl couch

who still matters

especially now that I can’t remember when the creek
  that bounded our family farm led to an ocean
or when a boxcar’s weather-wasted letters spelling Illinois
  meant somewhere there was an Illinois.

It’s still 1976--
the day after I’ve been seen playing tennis
  with a black boy, and it seems I will always
be held at gunpoint and beaten
as if the right punch would chunk out his name.

             --------

No, it’s 1969--
The year my mother becomes a wax paste, 
or so she looks to the child I was,

and she drips into the pink satin 
and I learned the funereal smell of carnations.
That year the moon was still made of green cheese. 
That year men first bagged and labeled that moon.

There are no years, only the past
and I still don’t know why Odell Horne 
  pulled a shotgun on my brother 
  or how the body contains so much blood.
I still don’t know why Donna Hill went to Myrtle Beach 
and three days later came back dead.

For ten years I lived with Louise Stegall,
the lover of my father, one of her four men, all buried--
  suicide, murder, drink, again murder.
It was after the second one that she sat stock still 
and silent, four years in the asylum.
Now she walks the road all day, 
picking up Cracker Jack trinkets 
  to give to children
                     brave enough to approach her.

When I was nine, the starling pecked outside her window  a whole week. 
Somebody’s gonna die, she said
and made me hug Uncle Robert’s neck 
as if I couldn’t know he’d be gone in two hours, 
as if I hadn’t learned anything about people
                                        and their vanishing.
The last time I saw her she wouldn’t look at me, 
  jerked her sweatshirt’s hood across 
her face and stepped into the ditch, 
as though there are some things even she won’t tell, 
as though I’ve never known it’s dirt and dust after all--
the earth’s sink and the worms’ castings.

                 --------

With the wet leaves thick on my steps,
the evening sky bruised dull gray to black,

when I’ve spilt salt and as the saying goes the sorrow and tears, 
and the stove is cold so salt won’t burn, 
tell me my pocket of charms can counter any spell.

Tell me again the reason for my grandfather’s fingers 
afloat in the Mason jar on the fireplace mantel 
between the snuff tin and the bowl of circus peanuts. 
What about the teeth in the dresser bureau,
the sliver of back bone I wear around my neck?

Again the washed-out photo in the family album, 
Pacific wind lifting the small waves onto Coral Beach,
clicking the palm trees’ fronds.
Again my father’s rakish grin,
  his bayonet catching a scratch of sun,
his left foot propped on the stripped and bloodied body.

                            Behind him, a stack of Japanese.

                  --------

Let me believe in anything.
Doesn’t the grizzled chicken dig up hoodoo hands?
Won’t the blue door frame, the basket of acorns protect me;
what about the knife in a pail of water?

When giving me the dead’s slippered feet
                                        room to room,
why not also synchronicity’s proof, 
  a wish and the tilted ears of angels?

I want to believe in the power of rosemary 
knuckled along the fence
even as the stars order themselves 
  to an unalterable and essential law.
I want the wind-whipped leaves to settle 
  and the flattened scrub to right itself,
want the loose tin in the neighbor’s shed
                                         to finish its message.

When this season in its scoured exactitude shifts closer, 
give me Devil’s Blue Boletus through the piled leaves, 
the slender green of Earth Tongue, 
phosphorescent Honey Tuft dispatched by the dead.

Their voices coming nearer, almost deciphered.

Whatever lies you have
there in that nail-clipping of time,
                                    give them to me.

Summer at Blue Creek, North Carolina

There was no water at my grandfather's
when I was a kid and would go for it
with two zinc buckets. Down the path,
past the cow by the foundation where
the fine people's house was before
they arranged to have it burned down.
To the neighbor's cool well. Would
come back with pails too heavy,
so my mouth pulled out of shape.
I see myself, but from the outside.
I keep trying to feel who I was,
and cannot. Hear clearly the sound
the bucket made hitting the sides
of the stone well going down,
but never the sound of me.

Black Laws

Fuss, fight, and cutting the huckley-buck—Dear Malindy, 
Underground, must I always return to the country of the dead,

To the coons catting about in the trees, the North Carolina pines 
Chattering about sweetening bodies in their green whirring?

Do these letters predict my death—some sound of a twig 
Breaking then a constant drowning—a butter bean drying

Beneath my nails? Casket, rascal, and corn bread cooling board. 
Dear Malindy, when the muskrats fight in the swamp I knows

It’s you causing my skull to rattle. You predicted my death 
With my own baby teeth and a rancid moon beneath our legs.

No girl, my arm still here. The antlers on the mantle yet quiet. 
All the ocean’s water without me and yet in me. Never mind,

Malindy. They already shot the black boy on the road for dying 
Without their permission. Yes, gal, I put on my nice suit. And wait.