Three Poems by George Ella Lyon

Summer 1963

was the summer we flew

Uncle Jim’s Renault

by flapping its black doors

like wings before it caught

fire on Needmore Road

was the first summer

of our grandmother’s 

widowhood which is why

I was visiting these cousins

having come up to Dayton

from the mountains

with Granny B. on the bus

was the summer we stood

in front of Uncle Jim 

as he sat in his recliner

in the family room

and sang, “We gather 

together to ask thee a favor”

in three-part harmony

begging movie money

and the Renault

the first summer Granny B.

had been alone and grown

since she had eloped with Papa Dave

by train from Memphis in 1915

‘Yes,’ her son Uncle Jim said, 

‘but first you have to wash the boat’

which we did, braiding

our voices around “Got along

without you before I met you.

Gotta get along without you now”

was the July after the April

Martin Luther King landed

in the Birmingham jail

after the May police turned dogs

and firehoses on marching students

the July after the June 

Medgar Evers was murdered

1963 was the summer 

of all I did not know

of my cousins’ stories:

the oldest who had just returned

from giving birth and giving up

the baby, the middle who was

hiding gin in her Get Set bottle,

the youngest with her arms

sliced and burned, as if

the rage in the streets

had come for her

it was the summer we four

on a slow afternoon

rearranged the furniture

in a Harrod Heights model home

then went for cheeseburgers

at the Hasty Tasty

where the red and silver and white

jukebox spun out “Fools Rush In”

and “Blowin’ in the Wind”

and “Easier Said than Done”

all of which we sang 

on the way home 

to Hemingway Road

named, my youngest cousin

liked to say, for Ernest

who did himself in

was the summer of all

they didn’t know about me—

wrist-slashing, poison-drinking

the past October just after

the Cuban Missile Crisis

and the summer of all

I didn’t know about myself

that five-year-old trapped

in a bunkhouse by a neighbor

bigger than her brother, bigger

than any boy she’d ever seen

pushing      shaming       splitting

             what happened 

from what would be believed.


Mina & Ruby

About Mina’s beauty there is no way to say
those dark eyes so deep in their seeing
those sturdy legs ready for her journey
there is no way to say how in her I see my grandmother
at twenty months their dark hair the same
their perfect faces I see my grandmother Ruby
before she was two          before her father died
of an aneurism        reaching for a peach
and her mother was left with two boys and a girl
the oldest, only five years        being on this wobbly earth
and what could my great    grandmother do but become
another woman one who ran a boarding house
and had little time for her toddling girl
a woman whose hands were full of work
and grief a woman always on her feet
so that her daughter had no lap to come to so that
when my mother was born after two boys
Ruby’s heart was flooded with fear that the blade
of her mother’s fate would cleave her life too
Maybe that was why she saw her little girl  as helpmeet
quick-weaned and put to service
for the four children who would come after
for hoeing and milking canning and scrubbing
washing and hauling heavy clothes to the line
the same dark eyes as her mother
the same deep gaze I see in my granddaughter
who looks on a world that looks back at her

in ease
        and holds out its arms.


I Knew You

when you hunted
thundering plains
and sought God

I knew your handprint
on the cave wall
your breath through the bone flute

I was the one
received you
from the mystery
of your mother
and laid you out
when your spirit was called

I am the cloud
and the cliff-rock
I am the shoot
of your baby’s first cry
that grew through your heart
like a tree

I am the night
you took up your burden
and the morning
you laid it down

meadow song
graveyard wail
I am the end
before the beginning
the manger nail
that turned up
at the cross

I am the stone
placed on your tongue
and the angel
who rolled it

Listen to George Ella Lyon on The Poet and The Poem from Library of Congress, February, 15, 2022.
George Ella Lyon pictured with her friend Gurney Norman. Photo by Ann Olson

Former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon writes in multiple genres for readers of all ages. Her recent collections include Back to the Light, Many-Storied House (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2013 and 2021) and Voices of Justice: Poems About People Working for a Better World (Holt Books for Young Readers, 2020).  Lyon’s work has been supported by many awards, including an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Appalachian Book of the Year award, and New York Public Library’s Best Book for Teens. Her poem “Where I’m From” has gone around the world as a writing model.