Grandmother and the Dressmakers
A bolt of heavy, cobalt gabardine
shot with silver and scarlet threads
lay across the cutting table.
It was July. The overhead fan threw slow shadows
upon the patterned tin ceiling.
The neckline of Grandma’s cotton housedress had grown dark with sweat.
The street outside, Mulberry, was empty – it was that hot.
Grandma, however, made lists and did not move from them.
A few minutes, that’s all.
I did not chafe too much at these familiar words
heard in grocery, at the neighbor’s fence, though always
my hand was tugging at her sleeve.
I was bored, yes, but content enough, able
to wait for the promises: lemonade, ice cream, cookies.
It was to be an elbow’s length longer than the yardstick.
There was tracing paper, thimbles, tweezers, bodkins, and pinking shears
with their intriguing teeth.
I took it all in, bothering and circling the women with questions, anxious
to know as much here as I did in the barnyard with Father.
It was not poetry. Not yet. But it was life as I knew it and I was keen
to know it more, to keep gathering as I did berries and stamps and pebbles
to see what rarities might show up, sparkle and speak:
muscled cloth, scissor slash, and how precision
might be wedded to beauty,
to be the kind of gatherer who would not starve
even when my clothes grew thin
and words become the coinage of my salvation.
The shrill ringing of the locusts
only helps bring lower that heavy sky.
The sun is seeping even into the shadows.
And the creek is shallow, and the snakes edgy, and the lizards
quick and magical.
Believe me, in these hollows the heat can boil men’s nerves to murder.
The thunder clouds lift their intricate crowns to the thin ceiling
of an afternoon progressing in slow-motion.
Everyone has taken to whispering.
Alma whisper-chants nursery rhymes: one-two, buckle my shoe…
three-four, get indoors… —find a fan, a friend, a story
to tell the minutes down, how Jack brings snow from the crystal mountain.
And Pretty Polly will come, too, and drown again as the crickets start.
Who tells these tales matters little, nor that they are told true,
just tell them well and cool will be
the breaths taken in the long hours before bed.
And murder will again lust itself out along
the banks of the Ohio or the Troublesome
and just maybe a night breeze can be conjured
before the stories run out altogether.
Later, hold your flashlight steady
and thread your path with these stories,
good enough compass for any home you choose.
(Hindman Settlement School, 2010)
It must have been last night the moon threw down this stone, or the earth
let it float loose, up, and returned it to light.
A stone as silent as a new-dug grave.
A stone with a history longer than even the endless cycling
of the little stream here behind me racing a nameless forest to the sea.
Imagine how long the things of this earth must sometimes wait to be heard.
And yet this stone squats upon this green turf in its snug
and impermeable white skin,
as patient as a fox in the lap of the Buddha,
while the thin noon of March slowly lifts over our tawdry certainties.
Nearby cardinals are warming up their spring song,
tossing it between the branches of a slender hemlock.
They are the apples of winter.
They are bright-feathered engines of blood and wonder.
They are here to speak,
to re-member the sentience of all things.
All I have to do is translate. I don’t have to worry
about getting it right. Eternity is for that, and this day
I only plan to look over its gates, part the lower branches,
squint, listen to what whispers, cradle this stone in the palm of my hand
and speak with it as if it were resilient metaphor
willing to accept my give and take,
as capable of every term in life’s taxonomy as I am.
I am tossing it back and forth between my left and my right hand.
And now, right now, I am tossing it to you, and will wait
for you to toss it back with your own understanding
that this moment has been,
as we might some day be ourselves,
silent, small, and perfect
as a stone, patient,
as I am
for what comes next.
Marc Harshman is poet laureate of West Virginia. His second full-length poetry collection, Believe What You Can, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press, 2016. His first collection is Green-Silver and Silent, published by Bottom Dog, 2012. He is author of four poetry chapbooks and over a dozen children’s books, including The Storm, A Smithsonian Notable Book. Marc’s work has appeared in Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, Appalachian Heritage, The Progressive, and Emerson Review as well as numerous anthologies.