Southern Legitimacy Statement: Having grown up in a little mill town hanging balanced between old family farms and local factories, I feel eligible for membership in the Dead mule school,. My family held on to its German American roots and I was well steeped in proper Lutheran behavior. We were all at risk of marrying cousins, and my grandmother had to interfere with her sons’ courtships a couple of times because the family was “awful bad to marry each other.”
Now the farms are downsized, the town’s old “shirt mill” is empty, Its old “sawmill” roof shining light into ephemeral businesses. They drowned the old cotton mill to build a lake, so we’re sort of a lake town now. Everybody wants to live lakefront or lake view or in the vicinity of The Lake. My lucky Morrison relatives are gone except for an old skeletal barn in downtown Mooresville. They linger only in the name of a development bearing he inevitable “Plantation” tag which haunts the landscapes of Southern Real Estate. Still we’re at the heart of NASCAR, our roads once carried moonshine from the mountains to Charlotte, thus giving the developers another tool for claiming our place desirable.
I have a love-hate relationship with my home—I’m kin to all the oldsters, connect with my cousins, live on a quiet street, at least until the developers discover new terrain, take walks in the local state park, and sometimes make fig preserves. People speak and pat one another’s dogs.
[ain’t that just a perfect legitimacy statement? *editor’s note]
Three Poems for October
These deep purples always take me
to my mother. She’d brought them with her
to this shabby shack of a house
with no history to hold it up like the deep
walled cabin that had held her life together,
rich with old logs to hold the planks,
added later mostly for show.
The irises blazed prosperity
and leisure, time for beauty,
beside the firebush and fig.
Some rhizomes bloomed around back
perhaps because of careless toss,
that purple splashing all around.
She’d tried to save a few reminders.
All buried in the ground—
father, husband, mother too.
No wonder our Easter eggs
held the deepest royal glow
always glossed with Crisco,
flaunting that purple sheen she’d never dare
to wear, in her widow’s mournful black.
About the Old Jesus Print Propped up
behind the Chest in my Bedroom
[ after Josef Untersberger (Giovanni)
Christ the Shepherd]
Every time I think I’ll carry it
to the thrift store, I see
my grandmother shake her head,
my father stare at that gentle Jesus
looking for some sign of hope
while Jesus holds the lamb,
lets the sheep nibble at his knees.
It hung over the fireplace in that old
family house inundated with death and sorrow,
above the beds of the dying, the beloved.
It’s a small thing, this holding of lambs,
this propping up of faith in death’s despair.
Why can’t I give it over, this bargain
some needful soul might yet find
in a dusty aisle loaded with life’s sorrows?
I knew the claws,
Red-tipped and sharp.
how they dug
into my child skull.
How I feared those Saturdays
when my sister— who loved fiercely,
stitched beauteous garments
with treadle machine,
sang in glee club and choir,
trilled lovers into bondage,
chanted corpses into ground,
draped us in our Easter best—
into instrument of pain.
But a prickly scrub of scalp
would not change straw to gold.
She flinched at every mole,
every off-note, every crooked stitch.
She was fated, born to beauty.
Our flaws swept like floaters
across those clear blue eyes.
She was Hebe with no Zeus,
Helen with no Paris,
Arachne, weaving patterns
toward some vision beyond
the grit of this red-clay.