Welcome back, everyone. I hope you’ve been enjoying a relaxing and reflective Labor Day weekend.
Our September poet, Roberta George, shares some details of a laborious childhood in “War Stories,” the last of the poems below.
Born in Brisbee, Arizona, Roberta George lived in California, Arizona and Texas. Almost every summer of her life, however, she spent with her German grandmother on a 20-acre farm in the South. She has seven children and lives with her third-generation Lebanese husband in Valdosta, Georgia, where she cooks Lebanese food for her family, for her husband’s poker group, and her “Death by Chocolate” cake for funerals and weddings. This should be enough work for anyone, but she is active in both supporting the arts and creating her own. She served as Executive Director of the Lowndes/Valdosta Arts Commission for twelve years, is founder and publisher of Snake Nation Press, and gets up every morning at three a.m. to write. She’s won prizes in the Greater Augusta Art Festival for poetry and fiction and for a short-story in the Nimrod Literary Awards. Her novel, Baptizing the Cat, and a number of her poems have been published in Southern Poetry Review and The New Guard.
It’s a pleasure to introduce this hard-working, high-achieving woman to our readers on Labor Day, 2013, with these three poems.
Ten Thousand Kisses
Ten-thousand kisses deep …
Who takes note of the shadow stubble
on the drumlin hills above the shore?
Those small scrub oaks growing
so close together, their prickly
gray-white trunks no bigger
than fingers? From a distance
they seem more bushes than trees.
Who takes note until the asphalt
covers them over, until the towers rise?
Who takes note of the beach sand? Is
it white or ecru or brown? And what of
the striated cliffs, where the long
sea grasses and sea oats grow?
Or the brackish peat underneath?
Will it burn? Why does it bleed black
into the green-blue of the water?
Who takes note till the storm carves away
the sand, the cliffs, the peat?
Who takes note of early mornings in bed,
arms and legs entangled, whispers
speaking things no one can remember.
And what of the kisses you place
on her chest, on her small white breasts?
Like so many spores, leaving
a snail’s silver trail down to her navel.
Who takes note till she tells you that kisses
are flat seeds, send out roots, remain,
hold the soul in place?
How can I not be lost? A big ball moon,
its underbelly on fire, leads me along
a dark highway, and the music from the
car radio is so Irish I don’t understand
a word, except for the beginning:
“If I were king of ancient Erin.”
The wise old voice, full and lilting,
sings every woman’s song: “Let my face
be held in my man’s rough hands
as if he’s never seen me before.”
These are the words, though I can’t translate
a phrase of its soft, high complaint.
Along with the singer, in syllables only,
I keen my own supplications and lower
the car window to look out at the lonely stars.
The cold air rushes by. The roadside pines,
phantom gray, patiently endure the night,
the burnished moon lights the way.
The two-lane blacktop is County 180, twisting,
heading west and south, so I know eventually
Interstate 75 will appear, a straight
passage back to where I came from. Till then
I’ll be lost, drawn by a long tether of light
to this hot-air balloon of a moon.
“How many here have lost someone to war?”
the lecturer asks.
The hands rise around me, so many.
“Not me,” I think. “Not me.”
Not a soul, not a sou,
the French money, my grandmother said
her father brought home from the first war.
Sous and francs, in packets,”
she’d say, avarice gleaming
in her startling blue eyes. The money bound
in gold filigreed strips, like cigar bands,
but somehow never spent. “We starved,”
she always added, “after that war.”
So I was always forced to walk down
to the second pasture in the dark, to the
second root cellar, to retrieve
what was needed, a jar of tomatoes,
eight large potatoes in a string bag.
The second root cellar, mind you,
and this was north Florida.
No one thought she was crazy, but me
in the dark, the long trek, at least half a mile,
legion to my six-year-old legs,
the night sounds crying around me.
“You have a torch,” she’d say.
“We had nothing – nothing – made uilts
from old clothes, used corn husks for batting.”
The spit flew from her toothless gums.
That she waited on the side porch
with a flashlight until I returned
was small consolation.
My grandfather or father or uncles would go
in my place if they were present. But we two were
often alone, preparing big meals for the next day
for the field hands who would crop the tobacco.
The croppers, stringers and handers it took to gather
and bring in the huge tarry leaves, tied
in bunches on long wooden sticks.
Handers, no older than I, earned three dollars a day.
I wanted to hand, wanted that money, but had to
remain in the kitchen with that old crone and
her war stories, that she carried inside like gravel
rattling, waiting to be released on top of my head.
And everyone in Sewannee County knew,
knew proof positive that she was a witch,
a witch who swore Hitler saved Germany.
Someone called the FBI, to investigate an
old Nazi woman, who screamed in the post office
that Hitler had his good points. And they came,
men in fedoras, eager to put someone in prison,
only to find an antique hag with six sons
in service to America, that two of the boys
sent their checks home to her.
“We are all wictims,” she’d say, “one way
or the other,” then pull on her white flannel gown,
rub her chest with Vicks Vapor Rub, and read
true romances by the kerosene lamp,
its smoky globe casting shadows across
the bed we shared every summer of my
entire growing-up life.
Our feature was ready before we learned about the death of Seamus Heaney, but this column cannot let it go unmentioned. One of our readers, himself a poet, has this to share.
Seamus Heaney. 1939- 2013: A Sonnet
Only memory can hold you now
That blood in fated stroke has shut the word-house
Down, poem-furrows left untilled, as plough
And flesh’s bone-house stilled can never rouse
The winged word, the thought on fire, or dream’s
Midwifery, poet’s ally hidden
Residual, the casual deeper than it seems.
Ireland north or south could not define
Your territories, the mind your wingspread,
World your only province. Who can confine
The eagle with lure of sky gone to its head,
To dig with quill and ink your sole intent
Your father’s spade, your pen, one instrument?
August 30, 2013
Poetry lovers everywhere are still mourning the sudden, shocking death of Seamus Heaney. Here, with deep appreciation of, not only the poetry but the man, is another tribute — this one from the September 3 Harvard Gazette.
Click Here to Read: Heaney’s death caught ‘the heart off guard’: Noted Irish poet had long and deep ties to Harvard By Corydon Ireland in the Harvard Gazette on August 30, 2013.
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