Winner, 2021 Joe Bolton Poetry Award
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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