Kathy Knuckles Barbour is a Kentucky native. She teaches American literature and creative writing at Hanover College in southern Indiana. Her family was instrumental in establishing the Red Bird Mission Settlement in Bell County, Kentucky.  Her work has appeared in Raritan, Atlanta Review, Southeast Review, and Heartland Review.



Past Hazard, Near Viper

The path leading up to the plot is twisted
and growing more dangerous daily,
but not for the reasons you’d suppose.
It has always been difficult to travel,
gullied by spill-off and too steeply pitched
to arrive at the top any way other
than breathless.

Surely no worse in 1915, their struggle
to climb with the slight encumbrance of a boy
fever wasted, in hand hewn pine, similar to our own
cortege of two bent to the hill, cradling the light
remains—well, some part—of that old man,
his brother, in a cardboard urn (but no less
beloved for that).

The same small explosions
of pebbles would have skittered from their feet, then,
practically unheard . . . one minimal difference,
the momentary sheen of drops fallen redundant
on shoes already shined for the occasion
(unlike our Nikes, pliant, soft,
products of a more informal age,

where nothing shows, least of all tears). 
And yet another difference gnaws—
a major incursion at the edge of our only way up: the pit
clawed out, yawning underfoot like a hungry cat
indifferent, should it trip you, to the breaking
of bones, or any other loss humans are prey to,
so long as its appetite is fed.

Erosion, of course, is natural,
only to be expected over time,
but what is not is the blast, the gouge, the leveling
dredge that carries our very earth away. 
Not content with extracting their living
from the mountain-top,
King Coal is after our graves.




Mona Lisas
               —for Eliza Combs Knuckles
                 and Effie Martin Knuckles

Later, they hoed weeds from wax beans
and chopped copperheads in half, the same
quick strokes and feigned indifference
of snipping off thread, just the way God did.
And anyone passing would have seen no distinction
between stroke and strike for morning glories twisted
with flame-orange trumpets.  But inside the crude
split-rail frame, each stricken kind, in its way,

understood (if not the reason for), that the second’s
hesitation meant killing time—the only difference,
how deep they cut and how hard they pressed
their false teeth together, during.  After,

they folded their faces into furrows
and stomped the fangs, watching the bodies cool
and curl separate questions, then turned their own
back to earth they loved without explanation

(wondering at the power coiled within the wellspring
that struck down milk-breathed infants and
sucked out poison from wounds, both), then spat
on their hands and began unraveling

sweet potato vines from black-seeded simpson.
On into evening they worked their rows, up, back,
while the sun drooped, a savage corsage against
dusky cleavage, and sometimes something silver arose

from the tick of metal on dirt and rock, a spark,
a memory to ease the ache . . . new love, a kiss,
the ribbony love knot pressed between red-edged
pages, then blood and blue cords, the aftermath

of birth, buried deep in earth— “for luck,”
the midwives said (but more likely sprung
from the old fierce need to keep
off wolves, dogs, anything clawed

by hunger). But oh, how those first wild seeds took
and took and took —the salty bone, the pert
white tit, then one flirt of tooth after another.
They learned to smile with their mouths shut,                                                      
bent over their work, carving out
corn husk dolls that too soon dried
in spare time. Before they’d had their fill
of youth—dark nights reveling in jimson

and rue, when moon broke like an egg
in a black snake’s grip, spilling white
through upraised knees—they grew
old.  Surprised at how fast the fresh

mounds heaped, they sat on mountain porches,
sagging skirts spread to catch the leavings:
a lapful of strings tangled with light
yellow ends, cut sharp as new teeth,

maybe smiling.