Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Juvenilia IV: Let Her Speak

In Bring Me A Unicorn, the first of five volumes of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's letters and diaries, the author spoke about the embarrassment of rereading, let alone publishing, writings from her teen and college years. In explaining why she chose to do so, Anna noted that she "had a certain respect for the early efforts of this struggling adolescent, who now seems so many lives removed from the self of today. I can laugh at her and am often embarrassed by her, but I do not want to betray her. Let her speak for herself."

I feel the same way about this last poem from my early years. As I typed it out for this post, I saw lines and phrases I wanted so much to rewrite. I corrected a few spelling errors, but otherwise chose to let the poem stand on its own awkward legs.

This was written after going with my parents to a family funeral down in the Kentucky hills. Over 35 years later, my cousin Atheen still mentions this piece and how he "never was in a poem in [his] life except for that one." Atheen wasn't much for poetry by his own admission, but he reckoned he liked this one.


Kentucky Funeral

Atheen, my cousin,
    his face unlined yet worn for all his thirty-five years in the hills,
stood in the door of his cabin - shack - home
and waved us goodbye
    before returning to the mourners inside.

These past two days he had made
    twenty or more trips up the side of the Nelson hill,
digging the grave out for great Uncle Bill in the cold March air,
    using blasting caps when the thin soil gave out
    and only bedrock was left.
As family trickled in from all parts of the country,
    the men folk all made the trek up
    and pitched in to help bury their dead.

After the funeral, sparse and commercial,
    and the twisted drive from Greenup to our land,
contingents of neighborhood men waited upside the hill -
spaced at neat intervals to relay the coffin up the slick mud path.
    Me and Burl raced up after
    being two of the first people to the top
following the valley pallbearers, coveralled and hunting clothed.
Waiting for the rest to join us
(the minister and fat little funeral director
puffing and picking their ways up more slowly),
I examined my ancestors' final plots, Iven and Minnie,
    my Nelson great grandparents.
They say this little hilltop graveyard was one of two,
    my more ancient forbearers being one hill over.
    Burl pointed out towards another rise
where we'd someday make a similar climb to lower my
other clan great grandmother, wrinkled and bent,
into the selfsame wooden vault and hear,
    as they were now doing with Bill,
the mud and rocks thud back down upon her.

Atheen joined us briefly,
    grinning like a small boy,
and held up some old terrapin that had braved the cold and rush of humans,
only to be captured by this Kentucky hills man.


see you there! said...

I had quite a clear mental picture going when I read this. I think that ability to make one "see" is a measure of success in poetry.


Anonymous said...

I love the closing image of the turtle...and only saw one phrase that I would fiddle with. I'd be curious to know which lines you were tempted to change.

April said...

@Terri: I'd rework the 3rd section: the description of the pallbearers (both how they were dressed and where they came from--they were people who lived up & down the holler, not exactly a "neighborhood," but clearly a community) and the lines about my great grandmother towards the end of the same section. Probably tweak the lines about looking at the family plots: massage them, not wholesale rewrite them.

The pallbearers made such an impression on me that...Oh heck, I may just have come up with one of this month's poems!