Five Poems by Jessica Hammack


My grandma taught me how to hold a pistol. 

How to plant a bulb. She grew zucchini, sweet

corn; she harvested them in a handmade woven basket.

She wore Tweety Bird pajamas. She kept the birds 

from her tomatoes with a dead crow nailed

to a tall post. Her tomatoes won awards.

Always a fresh crow. She liked her men on cable, 

where they were usually murdering. She delighted 

in describing torture, the man who peeled the skin

like carrots, then dressed the corpse in robes, 

the kind his mother wore. She told us that a monster 

watched the cellar, then sent us there to fetch potatoes. 

Her water came out yellow; her yard was full of snakes. 

She thought we were so wasteful: all those crabapples 

gone wormy in the yard. She taught us how to pull 

the onion from the earth and eat, dirt and all.


Crowning Miss Sterling Faucet, 1963

It was a pony show for the boys with brass shakes, 

metal fume fever, a case of the Mondays, the boys

with two choices: polypropylene or Red Kap,  

the factory or the mine. For them, an assembly line

of girls, their bouffants lacquered, cheeks buffed, 

marching first in starched church clothes 

and kitten heels, then in pumps, underwires: a parade 

of the city’s natural resources, stripped and refined.

The owner of Sterling Faucet countered picket lines

and wildcat strikes with scabs, but also with girls,

who had even less power than the boys making minimum,

and who stood there at smiling attention like beautiful, 

melancholy soldiers. At the end, the winner sat straight

on her cardboard throne, her sash fastened to her chest 

like a safety belt, a crown of carnations riveted

to her temples, steeling herself for the promotion

she had worked so hard for. Then the owner of Sterling

drowned her in roses, a forest of thorns underneath. 

“Crowning Miss Sterling Faucet, Morgantown, W.Va.”
West Virginia History OnView, West Virginia and Regional History Center, West Virginia University Libraries. 1963. 


Pastoral: Tucker County, West Virginia

The highway winds like sutures
through the mountains, 
holding in what wants to run away. 

After monotone reports 
of mine shifts and hunting accidents, 
the radio predicts rain. Last week,

a hiker died in Shavers Fork;
a sixteen-year-old,
a fifty-mile-radius.

The landscape is a layercake
of escape routes:
highway, trailer, river, train.
The leaves release themselves from branches.
I huck my raft downriver.
The river hucks me back.


Cold Case

He’d gone into the mountains with his gun.

We knew because they found his truck, brake

cocked, three miles from the interstate, 

its chipped paint burnt and blistered in the sun.

For days we prayed for only broken bones.

That he was lost. Hungry. Still awake.

While cops ransacked the woods, we baked.

Our kitchen staled with muffins, cakes, and scones.

Then dogs unearthed his body from the mud,

his shotgun sticky, blood-caked, warm. And that 

was that. We put his picture up and numbed

ourselves with knockoff Fireball, a neighbor’s hash-

brown casserole. We asked Shelby to shut

up about investigating. It was an accident.


Garbage Day

Monongalia County, West Virginia

They open the dam, and the trash just sort of flows,
is what I explained 
to the horrified four-top

as I cleared course two of their prix fixe 
(salmon tartare, Beaujolais)
as Mountain Dew bottle 

after Mountain Dew bottle,
crowned by six-pack yokes and spume,
bobbed beneath their Cole Haans

down the Monongahela River. 
I didn’t take this job to be an ambassador 
for Monongalia County, a county 

who couldn’t be bothered 
to learn how to spell its own name. 
I didn’t ask to be the face

of this row of faux rustic tavernas.
I didn’t ask to be born,
or to be a waitress, or to be so good

at diplomatically explaining failure 
that my co-workers started wondering
how I did it, how I just ate shit, repeatedly,

with a helpful smile like–
our sous chef is wasted and your meal is aflame, 
here’s a cocktail, on me; can I get you anything else?

fully at ease 
with the fucked-up-ness of the world.
Learn from your mistakes 

is what my mother told me,
though when I, myself, made a mistake
I was always punished, 

as if each mistake I made 
were the result of some previous mistake
I never learned from, 

and I could never quite put my finger 
on the First Mistake, 
and I started to suspect that perhaps I, myself, 

was the first mistake, 
though there were so many other mistakes
in the world it was difficult to be sure.

Some days I believed 
we were all trying our best, 
but mostly I didn’t believe that at all.

Mostly I thought the CEO of the mine
knew exactly what he was doing.
Mostly I thought we hid our badness

behind good intentions, 
or maybe our best was terrible.
After work it was Trash Night at Vice,

and drinks were $5, electric blue,
and served in goblets shaped like garbage cans, 
and brought around by a troupe 

of roving drag queens, 
who were so beautiful, and mean, 
and who, when you said something stupid, 

which you always did, 
and always would, 
because you, too, were trash, 

but so was everybody, 
would suck their teeth
and whisper in your ear

aw, & they say God don’t make mistakes.

Jessica Hammack
was born and raised in Morgantown, West Virginia. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poet Lore, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the University of Florida and worked as Assistant Director of the Jimenez-Porter Writers' House at the University of Maryland. She is now a reference librarian at a small college in Maryland.