My brothers would go there to shoot the rats
that ravaged the bodies of dead strays
laid out in trenches like those I'd seen before
in pictures of Auschwitz— deep ruts spanning
the property's width behind the small cinder
block building that housed the living,
waiting animals. Once, a small black bear
paced in circles in one of the cages.
My father took me there again to choose
a kitten, my own dead beneath the wheels
of his car. And once, my bicycle crunched
up the gravel drive past the kennels
to the back of the building, where two men
in dark uniforms waited beside a truck,
a dog-sized metal box resting in the bed.
Rubber tubing ran from the closed box
to the exhaust. The engine whined softly
as the driver leaned against the fender,
smoking a Camel. Howls of laughter from
both men—a joke about something. Crushing
his smoke with his boot heel, one turned and barked
"Go home. This ain't no place for a girl." Later,
when the pound had been left to the lost
and abandoned, I returned to search
the twilight ditches for that certain dog—
impossible in the piles upon piles
of furred bodies—those that were still, and those
others darting darkly among them.
Back when everything was black and white
and even crayons had a voice
of politics and race,
art class should have been our favorite,
spoiled only by a teacher we students loathed:
her built-up shoe and leg brace emblems
of survival, her crutch a weapon
in her private war against expression
by children who wished to defy her demand:
“Make the heads the size of a grapefruit!”
Resulting in hydrocephalic figures
crowded together on rough sheets
of cheap art paper,
their bodies floating below
those cranial balloons
like kite tails made from arms and legs
and skeletal torsos.
Households of folks
with similar inflated features,
schoolyards of distended skulls at play,
toting along their appendages
like afterthoughts or unwanted offspring,
all colored from the same 48-crayon Crayola box,
all colored the same color: Flesh.
Even by the polite colored children
and the Garza’s, whose eyes were bright
Black, whose warm skin was close to Indian Red;
the only Indians we knew
were in TV westerns on Saturday night
and Saturday morning Andy’s Gang jungle flicks,
portrayed in light and dark
tones of gray by actors in pancake makeup;
even African tribesmen
carrying their fearsome spears
and shields were played by white men.
The Swede children—Anderson, Ericson,
Johnson, and Swanson—chose Periwinkle
or Cornflower for their eyes;
the German’s, David and Anne,
Prussian Blue or simple Brown.
The teacher frowned, her horn
rims’ glass glaring at children
who dared to choose Burnt Sienna
or Sepia to color the faces and arms and hands
of their bulging-mugged families.
When we were finished
small fingers smelled of paraffin
and the waxy colors were replaced
side-by-side back inside their boxes.
All around the chalk-dusted classroom
rectangles floated, taped against blackboards
and crowded with over-sized noggins,
their superfluous, atrophied bodies,
and even a school kid could see
that things were terribly out of proportion.
Summer. It seemed always
summer—hot wind driving
east from the prairies, heavy
with rain that refused to fall
to earth until it struck out
like a black snake poked one time
too many with a sharp stick,
the warning reverberations
ignored. Then slanting sheets
dropped and needles of rain
punctured the cinder dust,
stirring up that dark scent
of thirsty earth and water.
Mother lugged a washtub
to the corner of the house
beneath the gushing eaves,
to gather sweet rainwater
for the garden and the wash
while I splashed knee-deep in ditches.
But mostly it was hot. Sticky
tar boiled up black and tacky
between the lumps of limestone
gravel cast across the road,
tar that reeked of crude and burned
the feet of little barefoot girls
who dared to cross the heat
to feed the flock of neighbor’s
lambs and rub their oily heads.
Sometimes a rock would shine
like gold and hold the shadow
of a bone or fin, some tiny life
etched against the face of stone.
Then August came again.
I’d meant to ask how fishes
pressed their feathered tails to mud
a hundred million years ago
and turned to tar, then stone.
Then mother pulled brown paper
sacks over my bare feet and snapped
tan rubber bands around my
bony shins to hold the bags
in place. I tramped once more
across the gummy road to find
the meadow empty. Returned
to mother humming at the stove
as she had done each night
of my young life—the floor was mopped,
the garden picked, fresh rye
bread on the board. This I ate,
refused the liver, and never
did I ask about the lambs.
The cemetery quiet, no visitors today
save for the somber pigeon holding vigil
on the drive. Some spirit of the dead, earthbound
flight of a lost soul? A bird of common gray
and royal purple, banded on both legs—
one in white for courage, the other black
for counted losses. How many
miles from where she started, stunned
and fallen from homing into this tiny square
of ancient gravestones set far from town
in fields of drought-dried corn? But now,
the pigeon has lifted to my car window,
half-closed. Her eyes peer at the bird
mirrored in the glass; her fear a mantle
she sheds due to her great loneliness.
Even birds desire: that yearning for home
no matter where they land. Even birds,
unknowing of what they know, seek a familiar
roost—if it be a cote or prison. And I,
unwilling to leave her here where
the chestnut is a murder of crows,
where the stippled sky echoes hawk’s cry,
where the ground is snake and feral cat,
and every corn row a coyote’s trail—
even I, who craved some solitary freedom
on a course that has led me so far afield,
fold her muted wings against her body,
speak softly, and look into her orange eyes,
slip her, scrabbling, then quiet, into an emptied box.
Even I, knowing she may never find her way
back from where she came, knowing safety
is a place sometimes that is nowhere close
to home, drive out down this cobbled,
narrow lane lined with strong-armed maples
holding back the fields and the open sky.
First Published in New Southerner
Drive down any road here
strewn with peeled-off rubber
halves of lots of pairs of
shoes, broken boards, hubcaps,
road kill in diverse states
of decay. Useful things,
too—for he slows the truck,
stops beside the pavement,
dodging oncoming cars
to cross the road. Retrieves
the prize from that weedy
muck of ditch—a bucket,
handy for carrying
sweet mash or barley to
horses, water to quench
their mighty thirsts. Buckets
from construction trucks, those
pails that held plaster and
joint compound, nails or paint,
and shortening vats from bakeries—
washed and dried—are of use
on a farm. If you find one,
hold on to that bucket
man—who better to know
the value of some lost,
some used and empty thing?
Published in A Stirring in the Dark, Old Seventy Creek Press
and Little Fires, Finishing Line Press
In my office at the university, another day
of grading student papers and catching up
with emails, when I hear the dreadful beat
of a funeral drum: three thunderous raps
like the last heartbeats of some dying giant.
From somewhere, the sound of taps
begins playing and I remember the last time
I heard it—that bright, cold day
in April, in Illinois, as we lay Philip
next to Robert, two plots down from Kent,
each gravestone bearing the name
of a different war. I remember what day it is.
I remember my brothers, the three of them
lying close now in cold sleep as they did
as children on winter nights in a chill house,
back when their address was the same.
As it is now: Second Avenue, Knoxville
Cemetery, as if the dead need an FPO.
Outside my office window I see the flag
and the crowd, many dressed in black.
Their heads are bowed. I press my face
against the glass and weep. Sobbing
the bagpipe begins to play “Amazing Grace,”
emptying itself again and again and again.
Finalist, 2007 Rita Dove Poetry Award
Winner: 2007 Oliver Browning Poetry Award, Poesia
Winner: 2006 Passager Poet of the Year Award
Winner: 2005 Betty Gabehart Poetry Award
Finalist: 2006 Rita Dove Poetry Award
Honorable Mention: 2006 Margaret Reid Traditional Forms
All content copyright Christina Lovin 2019. No parts may be reproduced or used without
permission from the author.