Susan O’Dell Underwood

Winner, 2021 Joe Bolton Poetry Award

Twyckenham Notes
Issue Fourteen
Winter 2021-22

God As Cockroach

Everything crawled those poor grad school years—
sweat down our backs at the laundromat,
vines breaking through fissures in our windows.
Lizards and fire ants and time.
Washer/dryer- and central A/C-rich now—
even blind now—I’d recognize that crisp sheening
buzz-saw burr of Palmetto bug, coptering
hugely toward our heads.

We thought everybody lived that way.
Where there was one, they were legion, leaving murky
drips of piss and dregs of spoor, brown specks
in drawers and cabinets, along window and door frames.
A haunting, ghost thing that shudders,
husk-helmeted eternal triumphant survivors.

No evolution humiliates like poverty:
This was us.

One midnight, we hunted down a gnawing mouse,
to find on the lip-end of a milk carton in the trash
an amber-black roach, raspy head
like a minuscule oil rig, rapturing in the sour.
The pitiful past, the reckoned real will come calling,
those years we ducked and covered and couldn’t afford
kindness. Roaches woke me up at night,
scampering for safety when I turned on the light.

In that brutal rental kitchen,
twenty or more skittered into the sink
and hunkered against my hulk shadowing the bare bulb.
Stumbling through sleep at the age I should have been
heating baby formula, I stood the long minutes
it took over the single burner to boil the kettle of water.
I poured the sink full, steaming acid-hot up into my face.
Next time my vision cleared, the brittle bodies
seized boiled and drowned, gathered like a winged
sepia bloom out of the eye of the drain.

God as Mary the Elephant, Hanged in Erwin, Tennessee, for Murdering Red Eldridge, September 1916

He prodded, legend has it, with a hook
behind her ear, and jolted the abscessed tooth
in the chaliced trembling of her jaw.

She stomped his head into the street.

The circling crowds cawed clamoring
for her sacrifice, took pot-shots at her bible-leather flesh,
and when their gunshots only taunted
bloody divots from her skin,
they mulled electrocution, or how they might
crush her between train engines.
Too cruel. They finally hoisted her by the neck
with a chain from the crane
they rigged up on a railroad derrick car.

She fell when it broke
and broke her hip, and children scattered
like minnows from a dropped rock
in a brittle pond. She fell and kept falling
after they chained her dangling, strangled by her own tons.

The old story has so many versions
as a remedy: that this was nothing new;
that worse things have happened, will happen;
that two forgotten men had it coming the same day,
lynched on either side of her suffering.

Her toes must have tugged her feet as high
as they could crawl the edge of sky,
trying to escape, begging why,
without a way to speak her own
or anyone else’s forgiveness.

God as Tourists’ Aurora Borealis

Each night the night-time wiseacre sky
will not budge—
dark after dark
refusal like a stubborn grimace,
lips cupped around the teeth.

Each night until our last lost morning north,
two a.m., three at the latest,
we make ourselves wake up
and take the wind into our veins,
hunker in our hoods, tilt back our skulls
until our neck bones ache.

The sun’s green humor might
still slip into a narrow chance.

We press our faces toward the vast celestial
we wish would sigh itself terrestrial.
We want to know the purpling viridescent curtain
yearns toward us just a tad.

But we cannot read the clouded sky
above the glacial silt flats.
Down there the helpless have been
warned away from the brackish gelid sog.
They were tempted anyway and mired
down, shivering
transfixed, hip-deep from the struggle.
Lips whispering toward the sky, sipping
the last air, incrementally swept over.
They drowned with the incoming tide.

In our last waiting,
how like the drowned we are.

God as the Last Word at the End of the World

Isn’t this dinosaur weather?
The cicadas are ratchet-jawing, a serenade ugly in its devotion
to beauty. They are finding one another. They are singing
hymns to their brief infinity, monotone on and on
into the universe, the sound of praising the universe.

The night stars in their silent tai-chi, the moon-tone
of rocks in the rivers, barely knocking against one another,
softened by algae, dovetailed by stair-step bird cries.
Prepare a way in, the tiniest vestibule of ear plush
with tuning, a velvet against leaf blowers and jake brakes.

It’s muggy every second of every day now,
and dank in the wee hours. It wasn’t like this always.
It wasn’t ever, though, like any certain thing
always, habit ever the horizon of more change.

Why does a poet need to make even a single mark?
There won’t be anyone to read such little lives.
From there ahead to where I am now, in the little squeak
of living I’m allowed, I can feel what I felt
before I had language at all. Still I must say:
Tonight the air heavy upon me is also heavy
with the timbre of mimosa blossoms, pink smell
I loved all around my great grandparents’ farm.

Twirling petals I wanted and still want
to commend into forever being.
Their brevity, such fragile sweetness, broke my young heart.
I knew. Didn’t we all know,
warned long ago? Still all we could do
was yammer and yawn and stamp our feet
and praise and whistle and murmur our throes of great will.
Still, we were cadence. We were music.
Our throats singing
infinitesimal droplets carrying fire.

SUSAN O’DELL UNDERWOOD directs the creative writing program at Carson-Newman University in East Tennessee, where she also teaches courses in Appalachian and Native American literature. Besides two chapbooks, she has one full collection of poetry, THE BOOK OF AWE (Iris, 2018). Her novel Genesis Road will be published in June 2022 with Madville. Her work appears and is forthcoming in a variety of journals and anthologies including Ecotone, Crab Orchard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Still: The Journal. She’s married to artist David Underwood.

Cover image by Lee Miller.
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