Three Poems by Pauletta Hansel

Returned, Addressee Unknown 

Friend, am I writing to you or am I writing to us, the girls we were, never two parts of a whole, but bound, somehow, by proximity and whatever else, unnamed? You were a redbud tree, lightning-struck, still standing. Blossoms sparking from the split: would they leaf and branch and grow? I made a nest inside the wound and flew away, flew away before it closed, me in it. Oh, how you’d hate these words. I was always just a little or a lot too precious for you. You were the rutted gravel road up the holler to the house; I was the car’s scraped chassis. And I loved you. You loved me. Admit it. Those late night vodka phone calls all those years ago; you’d wake me up, just because you knew I’d always answer. Why did they stop? Who abandoned who, that’s what I want to know. And now? You are a dry stone wall along the edge of scrubby woods that used to be a plowed field. And I am somewhere else, remembering. 


What I’m saying is we’ve been stitched to this place a long time, and this place has always been complicated. Frayed seams are mended, ripped again. The stories I tell you now, embroidered patches, other lives to mine. So here I sit, trying to piece a poem from my maternal line, a row of names, like the begats: Ebesine carried Elizabeth carried Eveline carried Sarah carried Etta carried Larnie carried me. Because we all know that most of what gets written is his story. Even their names uncarved, as on the stone that does not mark my father’s mother’s grave beneath rough grass and bramble at the cemetery’s edge. Pauline. But right there on the internet is my first New World grandmother, Margaret Dauson, or Dawson, Jamestown, 1621. It doesn’t get more American than that, with the plundering and the massacres, the first Africans enslaved. At 24 or 25, she left England as “a good and faithfull servant,” a mail order bride before there was mail, to be wed for a price of 150 pounds of tobacco leaves. Her journey not made chained in the belly of the great white wooden Warwick, like those others erased, my DNA traces: Cameroon, Congo, the southern Bantu. I have no claim to those I carry. Margaret outlived three husbands, and left to my many-great-grandfather two households with all moveables and unmoveables, including one yearling and heifer, one Negro woman, and all their increase, to be his and his heirs forever. Nine generations later, Leslie County, Kentucky, Nancy Lewis in her Civil War widow appeal was down to one cow, two hogs, borrowed a mule to plow. At least nobody owned anyone anymore.  My mother, when she died, owned the family graveyard though she had lost the deed, and made us promise not to plant her there. What I’m saying? I come from survivors, from what’s sewn too deep in the seams to be picked out clean.

Complicit (A Brief History)
Stories, like languages, 
depend upon patterns
for the forming of words 
and for connecting them 
in ways that can be understood.
Some words are made
by a process known as 
a part of a longer word
plied away. 
“Complicit,” for example,
with its roots, like those of “complicated,” 
embedded in the Latin com/plicare,
                                    together / folded,
came straggling in 
around the time my family 
staked what little claim we could
here in these Appalachian mountains
where already the weight
of millions of years of life and death 
had folded one into the other
down and down into the seams.
Bituminous coal 
appears smooth when first you see it
but look closer and you’ll find 
many layers in a past 
to which we can only be


Pauletta Hansels eight poetry collections include Friend (Dos Madres Press, 2020), Coal Town Photograph (Dos Madres Press, 2019), and Palindrome (Dos Madres Press, 2017), winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award for Appalachian poetry. Her writing has been featured in Oxford American, Rattle, Still: The Journal, and Verse Daily, among others. These poems are from her forthcoming book Heartbreak Tree (Madville Publishing, 2022), a poetic exploration of the intersection of gender and place in Appalachia. Pauletta was Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate (2016-2018) and is past managing editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (2010-2020).