Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Return

Seagulls line up on shore
attend the breaking waves
until I approach.

They take flight
one by one
glide over white caps
and settle again
when I’m gone.

How I longed to be a gull
to travel beyond
my father’s reach

as he tossed shoes and brooms
with the same intent he threw a football.

I feared his hand
more than the belt.

Even now
when someone near me
gestures suddenly
I jump
afraid of his blow

aching to fly away
until the coast clears
for me to return.

Sunday, July 24, 2005


Mama bird dive-bombs me
pecks my scalp and teases my hair
as though to carry it off for nesting.

I knock her away.
She nips my hand enough to draw blood
enough to move me inside.

If someone threatens my baby
I too draw blood.

Tattooed my drunk ex
with a kitchen knife
for hitting my boy
one too many times.

Something cracked in me.
I heard branches snap in an ice storm
as I shoved that blade into his shoulder
dragged it down his back.

His scream white noise
white like the calloused knuckles
that pummeled me and my boy.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Pond Heron

The dead don’t write.
But my cousin’s letter
comes three days after he’s blown away
by some kid in his own platoon.

Maybe another Georgia boy
who’s never been so far from home
and is scared out of his mind

so scared he shoots at anything
that moves in the shadows.

The letter feels thin
light for my cousin’s voice.
He describes water lilies

sheer petals that rise
from muddy fields and spread
before the sun.

He speaks of a Chinese pond heron
that hovers on hinged legs

at the water’s edge.
Never mentions the horror

screams from seared bodies
stench of napalm and burning flesh.

I weep
clutch the letter for what
it can not give.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Literary Relationships

“When Raylene came to me, I let her touch my shoulder, let my head tilt to lean against her, trusting her arm and her love. I was who I was going to be, someone like her, like Mama, a Boatwright woman. I wrapped my fingers in Raylene's and watched the night close in around us.” Dorothy Allison, _Bastard out of Carolina_.

Born and raised on the southern tip of the Appalachians in North Alabama, in a place called Sand Mountain, I come from a family of storytellers. Not a weekend night would go by that Daddy didn’t tell me stories after supper. Sometimes about his winning a Ford Pickup in a game of poker or skinning rattlesnakes in Florala. His voice charmed me, lifting me above tomato plants and pecan trees.

Miss Davis, my sixth-grade English teacher, told stories like I heard at home, but she also carried me new places through books--the garden of Kubla Khan and other kingdoms by the sea. When she read “Annabel Lee,” I hung on every word. She sent writers home with me: Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Bronte and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The romance began.

In high school I read James Dickey, Flannery O'Connor, Harper Lee and Tennessee Williams--all Southern writers grappling with what it means to live and love in a region slit by bigotry. Then I discovered Dorothy Allison, specifically _Bastard Out of Carolina_, and felt she wrote just for me.

The novel's narrator, a twelve-year-old girl called Bone, led me to a familiar world of abuse, poverty, racism and sexism where families were warm and turbulent, loving and violent. Allison's language was tough, sparse and sensual. It mixed the languid rhythms of the South with raw emotion and physical violence and portrayed a lush world of betrayal and redemption. _Bastard_ gave body and voice to Southern outcasts-lesbians, working class, and incest survivors.

Allison provided hope as she offered a way to understand my own experience of growing up in Appalachia. She taught me how to write honestly and with affection about people and places that rip us apart. She taught me that writing is an act of courage and survival.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

What makes poetry work?

Two points struck me: writing in concrete images and asking “what if.” This question leads us on an imaginative journey: What if Hamlet was a quarterback? What if Blanche Du Bois was a checkout girl? What if Elvis isn't dead and lives in Montana? I love to play in speculation. But it should be grounded, giving us concrete images and tangible objects to hold on to. One of my favorite comments about the nature of poetry comes from Marianne Moore: “Poetry is an imaginary garden with real toads in it.”

Monday, July 18, 2005

Another Lyrical Memoir

Poet Eleni Sikelianos has written a wonderful memoir entitled _The Book of Jon_. She weaves letters, memories, poems, journal entries and speculations into a loving portrait of a father she also indicts. Jon is a talented musician who drops out of high school and, for much of his life, is a drug addict. After three years of homelessness in Albuquerque, he died in 2001 from an overdose. Within Skikelianos' work, he emerges as a brilliant, albeit tragic, visionary.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Lyrical Memoirs

dear reader, if you haven't read nick flynn's _another bullshit night in suck city_, run to your nearest lending library or bookstore and seize a copy. a wonderful, lyrical memoir about an uncoventional reunion between father and son. flynn was a caseworker in a homeless shelter in boston when he was reunited with his homeless father who came to the shelter. a lyrical meditation full of heartache and hope.

another recent memoir of note is _letters to virginia woolf_ by lisa williams. like flynn, williams is a poet whose language is lyrical. williams faces the complexity of adolescence, divorce, childbirth, death and war with heartfelt intelligence, reminding us that struggle and loss often lead to an appreciation of life’s wonder. like woolf who grappled with “the angel in the house” almost a century ago, williams continues to wrestle with the luminous presence of the past as she peels back “layers of selves we outgrow but never discard.” _letters to virginia woolf_ guides us through this world of contradiction and offers hope for the dangerous time in which we live.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Jesus Loves Me

I fantasize about making love to Jesus
the one with golden locks, blue eyes,
so different from farm boys I know.

Jesus meets me in the barn.
The hay smells new, feels soft,
not straw that tears my skin, reeks of urine.

I am his first and he is mine,
unclothing each other just enough
to taste the sweetness of fruit
ready to shed its skin.

I take his hands, kiss each palm
press my lips to scars above his heart.
He strokes my hair, my shoulders,
whispers something I can’t understand.

I have no urge to scream.
He won’t shove me to the ground
turn me over like a yard animal
spit on me when done.

He holds me close
You know I love you
leads me to the back stall
lays a blanket just for us.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Just As I Am

Just As I Am

Brother Chitwood calls me to the altar
lays his hands on me.

“Just as I am
without one plea.”

Leans down
hand on my shoulder
as his lips brush my ear

Do you know Jesus pretty girl?

I am flushed by his glory.
Tony Price made me feel like that once
but Mama said no boys till I turn fifteen.

So we go to church to be saved
sit on hard pews and wait
till Brother Chitwood calls us down.

Mama loves Brother Chitwood
he washes away her sins every Sunday
every Wednesday, sometimes even on Saturday.

“But that thy blood
was shed for me.”

One night after prayer meeting
when mama has choir practice
he calls me to his office.

Are you saved pretty girl?

He pulls up a chair next to his
just for me.

Let’s bow our heads and pray together.

I close my eyes.
His honey words are smooth
steady like his caress of my thigh.

Jesus show us the way home.

He prays long, plies his hands like an artisan
tapered fingers spark my flesh.

“And that Thou bidst me
come to Thee.”

My ears ring loud and louder.
My head throbs
loins tingle.

“O Lamb of God
I come I come.”

My spirit escapes that sinful body
and Brother Chitwood
in a trail of blood.

*The hymn, “Just As I Am,” was published by Charlotte Elliott in1835.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Anna claire

Anna Claire

I adore Anna Claire.
She has soft brown hair, deeply violet eyes.
I ask Jesus to make mine just like hers.

We seal a pact in blood--
best friends forever--
prick our index fingers,
press them so tight
the tips turn white.

September we bury photos
taken in a booth where we played hooky.
We grin, hug, kiss, and wave.

We share Saturday night basement parties.
Mostly girls dance with girls
but some boys, like Billy Frank, break in.

Anna Claire calls him a clod with two left feet.
When he walks away to put on Johnny Mathis,
she grabs my hand, drags me to the side.
"Chances Are" is our song.

He calls Anna Claire a downright bitch,
sometimes to her face, more often to mine.
He usually sounds full of himself
like the time he asks me to the drive-in,
says I better go or he’ll nab a real girl.
Anna Claire laughs,
"ugly jackass."

He’s okay, not a dreamy Troy Donahue
but other girls want him.
I don’t turn him down.
Anna Claire flies into me,
says not to do anything I don’t want to.
You’re just a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

She’s right.
I want to dance, sing, talk away the days with her.
At fourteen I desert Anna Claire,
move to another world
where real girls do exactly as they want.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Dumping the Alias

Dear Reader,

It's time to dump the alias and write under my own illustrious name--Chella. Don't really understand the pseudonym either. Rhoda's the name of my youngest and plumpest cat: she of silken plumpitude. Rhoda is also a character in Woolf's _The Waves_ as well as Mary's best friend on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show." There are lots of reasons to choose to be a Rhoda but I've decided to do a Toto and pull away the curtain. Here's another poem from my chapbook.

Ciao, Chella

My Turn to Watch Granddaddy’s Body

He’d sit in a cane rocker on his dirt yard
shirt cuffs flapping yell to mama
girl bring me some tea.

Lucky for him she adored her daddy
otherwise that old goat
would’ve died a lot sooner.

A mining doctor he bled the sick
for money they never had called them
stupid animals.

When they couldn’t pay he bartered
for crops coal corn liquor
loved devil’s brew more than himself.

I thought some angry miner might
kill him with a bad batch instead
he died in his sleep at ninety.

I didn’t like him alive don’t care
what happens to him now but in respect
to all the dead I’ll stay my time.