Four Poems by Susan O'Dell Underwood

Ghazal of the Farmers' Daughter

The start of all I knew was land where we were Everybody—
children, dogs, uncles, cousins, mules, aunts—a name for every body.

Between the river and the sinks-of-the-branch, hay wagons 
like rafts across the fields at dusk carried home everybody.

Supper sang. And after, there was still more work to be done,
with buckets and bridles. Soft dark wavered with the satellites of bodies.

At the barn, my brother thought the calf at the cow’s udder
nipped her fingers. He mistook the earnest yoke between two bodies.

The old ones tall above us laughed, and Papa showed him: teats,
bending down to shoulder into the mama cow’s warm body.

The ones who fed us gathered eggs, kept gardens, stayed with green
and blood, the vital raising up and butchering of bodies.

I stood at the fencerow myself, to water angus cattle at their trough.
As they drank distracted, I would touch the warm hide of their bodies.

Their noses slung snot. Manure-mucked asses twitched against flies.
I loved their black, pure eyes, their heavy, lumbering bodies.

But I never thought about which one we ate, roast salt and sirloin pink.
Not love but sacrifice back then went blind to the gifts of the body.

I took for granted those fields of grasses, marrow to marrow,
muscle and heart, bones that made my bones to carry this body.

The Farmers' Daughter Takes Account

If a few of them could come back
Lazarus-like and sit around a kitchen table,
I wouldn’t want to know what it was like, where 
they’d been. What good is news 
of any sort of heaven going to do me? 
I’d want to ask what they missed 
while they’ve been gone. 

It would be just before the sun comes up,
with the smell of coffee from creamy mugs they touch
lightly but seem hesitant to lift.
The light is coming. Sleep isn’t gone.
Steam more real than they’ve been for decades,
some for a century or more. 
Most I’ve never met. Even the ones I knew 
and loved I hardly recognize, young again,
younger now than they were when I was born.

The oldest women sit, ready for milking. 
Two or three of them
stand in housecoats, lean against the counter, 
as if they’re wondering how many men 
they’ll need to make gravy and biscuits for.
The men push back  
their cane-bottom chairs. They’re patient, 
waiting for my questions, or else they fret, 
as if they’re at the funeral home 
and dread going in to look at the body. 

Their fingers are still callused, but laced and lax, 
arms resting before work.
They pose as if they’re set to pray, elbows
on their lanky, spread-apart legs.
They look at their feet, pondering
how strange a creature I came to be.
How I could ever 
make up for the world they lost.


More people left the land than live there now.
Are you one of us, whose hands 
never dig down into dirt,
who never stretches out your body 
in the listing grass, just to see more sky?

Between the ground and stars 
we took up such narrow room
in a narrow time,
but now in houses banked close
(as if we’re afraid of leaving room enough for fences)
we’ve grown into exaggerated portions, 
giants no one could believe walked before
with such small steps, without a trace
across the pasture to the barn.

In that grey cathedral,
in its slanted, dusty light,
we stood cousin to cousin
in bodies disappeared somewhere like husks,
weightless as those motes around us,
barely casting shadows on the scattered straw.

Cross Stitch

I broke a thread across their names, no children
of my own. Maybe they looked ahead and saw that loop
that led only back to myself—a knotted dead-end.
Why teach a space-age girl to use a thimble, thread a bobbin?
They knew I’d never need a quilt frame or embroidery hoop.
Their self-fulfilled prophecy, I can barely mend
a rip or sew a button on. I make a crooked hemline.
Here I am, the clumsy dropped stitch, left-handed dupe,
unteachable. I was too contrary to spend
my lifetime handing down their seamless lifeline,
a warp in the pattern of kin.

Susan O’Dell Underwood has published two chapbooks and a full-length collection, The Book of Awe (Iris, 2018). Her poems and writing in other genres appear in a variety of journals and anthologies, most recently Ecotone, Whale Road Review, Tar River Poetry, and A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia (UGA, 2019).

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