Pauletta Hansel is the author of two collections of poetry, Divining, published in 2002, and First Person (Dos Madres Press, 2007). Her third, The Lives We Live in Houses, will be released by Wind Publications in Fall 2011. Her poems are in publications including Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel; Appalachian Journal; Motif 2: Come What May, An Anthology of Writings about Chance, and Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, and are forthcoming in ABZ Journal and Southern Women’s Review. Born in southeastern Kentucky, Pauletta has lived in Cincinnati, Ohio since 1979. She graduated from Queens University’s MFA program in January 2011.
I have never forgotten the little boy named Elvis
who took the seat nearest the teacher
on his first day of school, sometime in January,
after the pointy stars and Christmas trees
came down, before cut doily Valentines
and profiles of Presidential jowls. It was his birthday
and his mother knew six years means school;
she wrapped her hair into its bun and put on
her best dress and came to town so Elvis,
with his hair slicked into place and last year’s
trouser hem let down, could join us,
me and all the Susies, Davids and Toms who’d
long since seen Spot run across the printed page.
All day the teacher’s frown descended;
she who’d threatened me with words
like principal and paddle when in September
I had read the year’s allotment to the end.
Even her bosom grimaced when she learned
Elvis’s first day by her desk
was his first at any.
Next day his seat was empty
once again; our teacher shook her head,
spoke far too sweetly of those country folk
who name their children Elvis and Loretta,
bring them to school too early, or too late.
I hold nothing else of my first year, not
the teacher’s name or what I played at recess;
even my tears at being scolded for too much
love of reading are my mother’s memory, not my own.
But Elvis I remember, and his mother’s sin
of being country as the people
from whom I’d also come.
Our bones are cold
inside the moist caves
of our flesh. We stand blinking
on our door stoops,
sniffing the air like beasts
we still remember how to be.
Around the edge of stubborn snow
rises a whiff of last year’s garden,
stalk and leaf and fruit
nipped black, then frozen,
rotting back into the earth.
Above, smudged branches
thicken at their tips,
brush restlessly against a tepid sky.
Green is pressing up
through bulb and mud and leaf mulch
like breath that rises through our bodies
Not a landscape, I told my husband, but a garden
to surround this house we newly own.
In this I am my mother’s daughter.
Now the edges of our yard are never still—
always the butterflies and bees among my mother’s
lilies transplanted from the edges of the home she lost.
We bought this house the year we lost
my father. There was no garden
then; the day we signed, my mother
and I planted bulbs dug from her own
yard into ours. No matter how much more I plant I still
remember the first breaking of the soil—not the daughter’s
but a passing from a mother to her daughter,
beauty from the life she’d lost.
That year my mother’s flowers went to seed, and still
she mourns my father first, then the garden
that she left behind. On her own
and far from what she knew my mother
cannot live the life she loved. I know my mother
sometimes feels she has become the daughter
to the daughter; together our own
equilibrium is lost,
except here in the garden
where her wisdom still
grows up from earth. She says our town is never still;
nights she cannot sleep, my mother
hears the sirens, traffic, trains. Cut flowers from the garden
wilt in city water. This daughter
knows how much she’s lost,
I mourn my own
place cradled in the crook of my own
parents’ love. I once was one who had a home I still
could go to and be tended—that’s lost
too for me in ways my mother
and I never speak of in this city where the daughter
tends those things uprooted from her mother’s garden.