Black Snakes and Happy complete

Black Snakes and Happy

Black snakes Mama cover

a long poem

A Note about these “poems.”

A few years ago, I would not have considered them poems, nor would have considered writing a long poem, nor would I have considered these segmented little pieces all one poem. So, if you think they aren’t, my apologies, and I half understand and agree with you.

Being who I am, several months ago, due to the good fortune of many people’s influence on me, which, which of course starts way back with my mom and dad at Connells Point, Arkansas, and leading up through Mark Heyne, Al Filreis, and George Bowering, and Ron Silliman. I made a dumb remark on Facebook about not reading long poems without realizing who I was talking to. This set me on the path to write this collection. So whether it is poetry at all, one poem, or many poems, I hope you enjoy it

 

I Connell’s Point, Arkansas

i

Mama’s green dress

and hair in a tight bun

holding me on the old wooden porch of the tiny parsonage, while daddy and my big brother bring Happy and her twelve puppies around the corner of the house, looking for all the world like an unspotted version of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and me, a two-year old sitting on the porch amazed, transfixed and a little horrified, only now realizing

this is my first

memory of life.

 

ii

Daddy and my big brother

rush into the house where

I am eating my biscuit with syrup and butter

“Come see, come see, Daddy killed a black snake!” my brother yelled. Biscuit in one sticky hand and mama holding the other I tumble out on the front porch to see a long black snake at the base of the steps neatly chopped into twelve bloody pieces. I peer over the edge down

the three feet to the dirt

and finish my biscuit.

 

iii

Across the way stood

an old school house

once painted, now gray clapboard rotted and sagging and a poor family squatted there for a while. Twelve children, more boys than girls and the older boys would walk the top of the schoolyard swing sets like balance beams

until they fell

and moaned in the dirt.

 

iv

My father the preacher,

late for his own service

with a washcloth spit washing our dirty faces and hands and walking us across the dirt road to the church where we all sang a capela hymns and spirituals until daddy would get up

and tell us stories.

 

v

Old men, to me,

at age three,

though much younger than I am now sitting after Sunday dinner with the preacher and his family, telling tales while the women cleaned up and all I remember is the smell of a house

too many years heated

by wood smoke

 

vi

Red round taillights

new 1962 Galaxy 500,

shining in my imagination of a Sunday afternoon. Aunt Nona Crisp kept it parked in an open car port on a dusty road, but Uncle Johnny wiped the dust off at least once a day. My brother said don’t get finger prints on it, but I had to swirl my fingers in the round glass lens

and dream about

driving it to the moon

 

vii

Two little boys

in a stall shower,

in a bathroom built onto the back porch, as an afterthought when indoor plumbing came, leaning out the back screen door to holler at mama, picking strawberries in the little strip between the house and the cotton field, “mama where are the towels?” Mama in her yellow rubber gloves and straw hat wiping her brow with her arm, straightening,

then peeling the gloves

and coming in to dry us off.

 

 

viii

Vickie Moore where have you gone?

Behind the parsonage with the weeping willow tree that shaded our window, behind the cotton field, lived Macleod Moore and his wife and daughter. On nice days all four of us would walk back the dirt road, chasing grasshoppers and missing mud puddles and we brothers would play with Vickie, who had a nice toy box and whose age fell half way in between ours but I was only three when we moved away.

I never saw Vickie again until my 14th summer when we were visiting and I saw this pretty girl in pigtails bouncing down the freshly graded road driving her daddy’s pickup truck. This past year when I called my old friend Donna Ray to tell my mama had died, I asked about Vickie. “She, and her husband both died,

a few years ago.

Cancer.”

 

II Jasper, Alabama

 

i

Coal trucks

rumble up and down

mountain sides while I eat moon pies in the back seat under the moonlight and wonder at the oddly shaped TV tower. I don’t know why I know it is one, unless I asked daddy.

He knows everything.

 

ii

Metal peddle cars

that look like real cars

from the 1940s, giant orange leaves make patterns on the older brown ones and older cousins tell terrifying stories of boogie men in the woods and how they cut off my brother’s head with a butcher knife. My brother pops out from the shed

when I begin to cry.

 

iii

Chicken houses

and a dusty dark attic

because the parsonage is in no condition for habitation. We weren’t allowed into the chicken houses, but the smell came into ours. The stairway led up to a closed door until my brother snuck up and beckoned me to see when mama was out.

Cobwebs, boxes and dirty dormer windows

and I never went

up there again.

 

iv

Three houses in two years,

I never moved so much.

This a little brick house and no chickens. My brother went to school and I played all day with a big red barrel full of plastic bricks from the American Brick Company but I liked it most when daddy would

sit on the floor after supper

and build with me.

 

v

Aunt Shirley,

daddy’s pretty redheaded younger sister

came to visit me. She and her English professor husband came to visit us all, but Aunt Shirley always made me feel like she came to see just me. And we doodled for doodle bugs in the holes in the sandy yard out back, but found none and I told her the tall grass in the adjoining pasture was Johnson grass and told her I guessed they named it for President Johnson

which she thought was cute

and shared with everyone at supper.

 

vi

Somewhere we lived

next door to a nice lady

with a ball chime with string you could pull and it would play the song about mistletoe and she would always give me a kiss when I pulled it. She smoked a lot and in my four-year old way I told she needed to quit because it was a sin. I knew about sin because my daddy was a holiness preacher and he knew everything. She said she knew it and tried hard to quit and I suggested she hold her breath like you do to quit the hiccups and she kissed me

and I hadn’t even

pulled the string.

 

vii

The nice lady

had a TV

and we didn’t. Movies and TVs were sinful, but we had a radio and record player built a long wooden cabinet with a top that opened a sewing machine table. I mostly listened to Firestone Christmas LPs all year long.

But when JFK was assassinated, I went down to her house to watch little John-John salute the coffin. Later I realized he and I were the same age. I was so glad nobody assassinated my daddy and I went back across the yard

and climbed up

in my daddy’s lap.

 

 

viii

To the east

of our house

lived a little girl who was adopted. She was the first person I ever knew of who was adopted. My brother said her parents were dead and so she had to go live with somebody else. My brother usually told the truth, but I don’t know about this story. Somehow I got it in my head they had been shot, and somehow, maybe because of the loud popping, I thought of my mama making canned biscuits every morning. I dreamed I had been shot and I turned into the empty foil backed paper wrapper the biscuits came in, gently rocking back and forth attached at both ends to the little silver discs. I woke up glad to be alive and so hopeful no one would

shoot me and turn me

into a paper wrapper.

 

ix

Kenny’s daddy

had been in the big one

even though Kenny and I were the same age and my daddy was a teenager following the war on maps in the newspaper. In the basement they had an old phone that you had to click and say “operator”, only there was no operator. And they had Nazi helmets and knives and stuff he took off dead Germans. We couldn’t touch it, but Kenny and I would go play in the vacant lot next door with its tall grass and crawl on our bellies and sneak up on the Germans and throw hand grenades

that looked like green pine cones.

We always won the war.

 

III Active, Alabama

 

i

I was five

when I learned

to hate Christmas. I still loved Jesus, but we had a fall Sears catalog and there were matching “wet-look” jackets, his and hers and I thought if I could give my mom and dad a set, they would be hip and cool like the people in the catalog. Mama was the best in the world and Daddy knew everything, but they were not so fancy. When I tried to tell Mama why I wanted to get the jackets, she just said it wasn’t the kind of thing they would wear, so we got her another box of Fabergé powder and some pink house slippers and Daddy some more long brown dress socks and they were happy. I got corduroy pants and blue blazer. And I hated Christmas for all the disappointments it was and all the disappointments to come.

I don’t love Jesus, anymore,

but I still hate Christmas.

 

ii

Mrs. Latham lived

across the road

and she played the piano at church and she was beautiful and her daughter, Regina was my best friend. I was in love with Mrs. Latham and she didn’t mind. Regina and Mrs. Latham and her husband lived in a nice brick house and we would go for Sunday dinners and for Regina’s birthday where we played “pin the tail on the donkey” and I won. And the Lawleys lived next door in an old wooden farm house with mules in the barn. They were Mrs. Latham’s parents and would come over sometimes when we came to visit. Somebody made macaroni with bacon on top and a thick layer of cheese over everything.

I liked macaroni like my Mamma made

Out of a blue box.

 

iii

Sometimes we would go

to Regina’s grandma’s house

to play and she had cedar bushes growing along her long, low front porch and we would find the caterpillar eggs hanging from the limbs and they were like silky Christmas ornaments and we would rip them open to see the bug inside. No one told us not to and Mrs. Lawley would bring us little green bottles of Dr. Pepper that said “10, 2 and 4.” Mrs. Lawley’ house had an iron stove in the middle of a dark kitchen with a tin flue going off at an angle out the roof and in the in the winter the room

was hot and smelled

of pine knots.

 

iv

Behind our house

but really more behind the church

a sandy path ran past Mamma’s garden and down to a little stream. My brother and I would go there to look for fish and tadpoles and build damns and other things. Mama took to resting a lot and she couldn’t see us where we played so sometimes we would walk up the creek through a large culvert under the federal highway and up onto the dirt parking lot of the truck stop. And the lady there would give us free candy and even though they came to Daddy’s church,

she never told our Mama we came

so we never got a whipping.

 

v

Henry was a little boy

about my age who came to church

with his grandma and one Sunday morning in the winter we got to watch old Mister Ellis vacuum wasps that came out from around the windows painted to look like stained glass. And one night during a revival meeting, he told me about his uncle who lived just across the tracks had tried to kill himself with a shotgun, but instead had blown his face off but was going to live. I tried to imagine why someone would do that and what it would be like

to live without a face.

vi

Byron Brush was

almost my cousin

and he lived in a nearby town were his daddy was the preacher. One time he got to spend the day with me and we played in the creek and the teepee Daddy built out of old burlap sacks and a pine tree. But the thing I remember most was racing across the harvested corn field with broken stalks all askew to get to the GM&O train as it raced through the darkening dusk. He won by a mile and I so wanted

to be Byron Brush.

 

IV Montgomery

 

i

Twenty-Thirty-Seven Mona Lisa Drive,

the first address I ever needed to know

so I could tell someone how to get me home if I was ever lost or if the school needed to know, and I knew it the first day mama drove us to school. We rode in the back of the brown Dodge pickup with the wooden toolboxes on the sides never thinking until today what the doctors’ and lawyers’ kids must have thought. Later we rode our hand-me-down bikes the mile to school past a barking dog and the bully at the end of the street, past the Episcopal church

with its low hanging eaves

I could touch from the ground.

 

ii

Bear School had rules

And wooden floors they oiled

once per week and we went barefoot until third grade and our feet were always black. And I lived in an all-white Montgomery except for my rich uncle’s maid and his construction workers who sometimes came by my aunt’s house to pick up a tool or something. Then in 1968 my fourth grade teacher was black and her name was Mrs. Bullard and I wonder what she thought teaching all us white kids who asked her rude questions without meaning harm. She survived and so did we and the next year they integrated the student body so my parents took us out

to go to a “Christian” school

one hundred miles away!

 

iii

279-8819

Is the number

to my rich uncle’s house,

though I almost never called to talk to him, but instead one of his five sons. Or it was, from the time they built the new house in a modern high end neighborhood called Eagle Pass at 120 Lookout Ridge and I memorized one evening at Wednesday night church over forty years ago. A few years ago I was sitting in the kitchen at their house. We had just buried my aunt, who died months after my uncle. We, being out of town relatives who spent the night in their home one last time. The beige wall phone rang and someone answered it. But I thought to myself right then, “I’ll never need to call that number again.” And now there are so many numbers and addresses, so many people and places I keep alive in my mind with their address and phone number who will finally be dead to me when I am dead, too and no one will keep those numbers in their head, but maybe someone

will keep me alive by holding the number

they will never call again.

 

 

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Two Recent Poems

Fetch, the Chain

I don’t think it happens

to younger people

at six I go to fetch

tomorrow’s work

but on my way

I remember my pills:

Two of one, one of another,

two more and another,

mornings are different

I replace one with half

a vitamin D.

But I had the day off

as it was our youngest’s

fourteenth birthday.

my wife worked

so, she took him shopping

after work.

I intended to load the dishes

so, I set the pills on the counter,

unload the machine,

reload it and wipe the counters

and remember the clothes

need to be moved to the dryer

take my pills and finally fetch.

I should be writing my literary

column as I often do,

I don’t know what I am

writing about

that never stops me

only I had to stop

and write this poem.

 

Three Silver Bowls

 

spin slowly as I search

for the blue cheese,

things I wonder now:

why did captains eat

those sort of wafers?

does anyone still

serve dressing that way?

how come we never ate

at a steak house

except Pell City, 1968?

When we stayed

at the Lee Motel

for twelve dollars:

window unit chilling the room,

dripping on the sidewalk

green sixty-six Belair, nosed over

under the low red brick building

except for their anniversary

when we had an adjoining room,

not connected,

though I always wanted

a connected room,

never got one.

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The Hand Wash

I used to think

it was an exercise in mutuality

as the saying goes,

“one hand washes the other.”

 

But no, I notice the left hand

busy taking charge

flipping the lever turning on warm water

grabbing the soap

with the flick of the thumb

rotating the bar, a time or two,

to get some softer soap

off into the hand.

 

The right hand washes the left

thoroughly, the left,

giving a bit of attention back,

but as a master would clean a servant,

sufficient and perfunctory.

 

While the left turns off the water

the right grabs the towel

carefully, completely dries the left,

the left passes at wiping off

the right an rehangs

towel on hook.

 

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All my Clients Are Liars

All my clients are children,

their dogs all have bones

they chew on.

 

Truthfully, so do we all.

 

All my clients are old folks,

they all have children

who long ago left home.

 

And have not returned.

 

All my clients are lawyers,

they all have bones

that left long ago.

 

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What John Ate for Supper

Boondoggle dragons play poker

with napkins and public transit

while new yorkers eat

hot dogs and each other.

 

Frank gets his watch fixed

and dies in the dark

on the beach

and John mourns him for fifty years

while they build

and blow up so many buildings,

sometimes with airplanes.

 

On the off chance

you have a half dollar

can I buy a token for skee ball

on the boardwalk

or for the bus to get there?

 

I do not have to go to – New York-

to Smell it

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Where am I going (Suzanne’s Poem)

to find the peace

and quiet to write my poetry?

 

That’s what I need,

not my teenaged son’s bedroom

not my couching with a boney

whining dog pressed against my leg.

 

So, I could just toss them

out, like that:

one, two, three.

 

Throw-away poems

you call them,

and I don’t even have one

I wish I had three,

I could throw

one away.

 

(Suzanne’s poem transcribed as she spoke)

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This Sunday

bookended by two long

weeks of rain, dreary

green leaves hang past

the water glazed screening

 

A Sunday morning, maybe

the happiest of all

times: most are not

working, a pure leisure.

 

Reading, cooking, even laundry

goes at casual speed.

Where would I go

in this green muck?

 

Sunday morning stillness except

for gentle to gusting

bands of rain dancing

on the metal roof.

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